The Luck of the Early California Gold Miners

Most of my historical posts this year have been about the Oregon Trail, because I’m working on another novel about an emigrant wagon train to Oregon. But this post is about the Gold Rush, the subject of my last novel, Now I’m Found.

Gold prospector, 1850, photograph from Wikimedia Commons

In April 2016, I wrote a post entitled “How Much Gold Was Enough in the California Gold Rush Years?” in which I wrote about what it took for the early prospectors to be successful in California.  Most of the early miners did not gain fortunes by picking nuggets off the ground, but a few did. And others made money by slowly panning flakes from streams or by digging ore out of the ground. Many of the most successful men (and women) were merchants and others who made their money off the prospectors, rather than those who mined the gold themselves.

My recent visit to the Black Hills Mining Museum in Lead, South Dakota, showed me how lucky the few early Gold Rush prospectors who earned their fortunes from panning for gold were. The town of Lead (pronounced LEED) is in the gold mining region of the Black Hills. Gold was discovered there in 1876, and the Homestake Mining Company ran a mining operation there for over a century until it closed its operations in 2002.

The early Dakota prospectors engaged in placer mining, using pans and rockers and sluices, like the California Gold Rush prospectors. However, larger mining companies soon moved into the Black Hills, and the industry became mechanized.

The Black Hills Mining Museum has a few displays of the early mining techniques, but focuses primarily on the underground machinery of large-scale gold and silver mines. The tour guide at the museum did an excellent job of explaining how mining was done through the 20th Century. The Homestake Mining Company operated its mine for 125 years, then closed when the price of gold could no longer cover the increasing cost of extracting the ore from the earth.

That yellow metal bin holds one ton of rock. On average, it took four of those bins for the Homestake Mining Company to obtain 1 ounce of gold.

One statistic impressed me the most: Throughout the Homestake Mining Company’s 125-year operating history, on average it took four tons of ore to produce one ounce of gold. That’s 8,000 pounds of rock to yield one ounce of gold.

My earlier post on “How Much Gold Was Enough in the California Gold Rush Years?” was written in terms of dollars. So after my visit to the Black Hills Mining Museum, I translated the dollars of those early miners’ success into ounces. The price of gold in 1850 was $20.67 per ounce. In the early Gold Rush years, $10,000 was a decent fortune. Therefore, at 1850 prices it took a little less than 500 ounces of gold to have $10,000.

Five hundred ounces doesn’t sound like a lot. That’s less than 32 pounds. There are many stories of miners toting around 100-pound bags of gold dust.

But at the average yield of the Homestake Mining Company (8000 pounds of ore to find one ounce of gold), that’s 4 million pounds of ore (or 2000 tons)!

And some of the early California miners made more than $50,000, equivalent to 2500 ounces of gold . . . or 20 million pounds of ore at the Homestake rate of production.

It’s a good thing that in the early Gold Rush years in California, some lucky prospectors could simply pick nearly pure gold nuggets off the ground or out of the streams. They didn’t have to move anywhere near 4 million pounds of ore to find their fortunes. They were in the right place at the right time, and California—and the United States—changed as a result.

What odd facts of history impress you?

Reflections on Mount Rushmore

My husband and I recently returned from a trip to South Dakota. I’d never been to the state before, and I wanted to see attractions such as Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, and the scenic roads and towns in the Black Hills.

My daughter scoffed when I told her we were going to Mount Rushmore. “I spent twenty minutes there,” she said. “That’s all you’ll need.”

But it took my husband and me two days to see it. Well, portions of two days. And we enjoyed every minute of the three or four hours total it took us to view the exhibits and memorial.

The first day we went, it was so overcast we could not see anything from the main observation deck. Not even George Washington’s prominent nose.

I overheard one tourist shout to someone else in her group, “Take my picture. You don’t get a view like this every day!” You certainly don’t—I’m told most days you can see something, but that day all we saw were clouds.

Still, we enjoyed the history of the place. We learned who conceived the monument, why these four presidents were chosen, how the sculptor Gutzon Borglum prepared his models and supervised the construction, how the workers did the blasting and jackhammering and finishing touches to create the presidential visages, and how the monument is preserved today.

The fog and mist persisted that day, through our leisurely exploration of the visitor’s center and even through lunch. So we decided we’d come back later in the week. After all, our parking pass was good for the rest of the year, and we were early in our trip to South Dakota.

The next morning was cool but sunny, so we returned to Mount Rushmore. As we drove back to the memorial, however, clouds rolled in and we couldn’t see the tops of the hills around us. “If we can’t see anything, we’ll move on to Custer State Park,” I said. I was hopeful we’d be able to see the memorial, but the morning grew more and more dismal.

We approached the parking area. “There!” I shouted, pointing at the four presidents’ faces. Though there was gray sky behind the memorial, the sculpture was clearly visible. My husband pulled into the line of cars waiting to park.

Approaching the observation deck, while the sky was still gray

Since we’d already seen the museum, we went straight to the observation deck, where we oohed and aahed and took pictures with all the other tourists.

View from the Presidents’ Trail, now the sky is blue

Then we walked the Presidential Trail under the memorial to the Sculptor’s Studio. Lots of stairs, but also lots of opportunities for pictures. As we walked, the sky cleared even more. The day remained cool, but we could see the memorial from many vantage points, blue sky behind it, as I’m sure Borglum envisioned.

Me at the Sculptor’s Studio, with Mount Rushmore in the background

I was impressed by the artistry of the sculpture and the monumental (pun intended) nature of the project. These four presidents were worthy of commemoration—George Washington as the father of our nation, Thomas Jefferson as a prime drafter of our core documents and architect of the Louisiana Purchase, Theodore Roosevelt as protector of the nation’s wilderness, and Abraham Lincoln as the leader who held the nation together through its darkest hours.

Borglum’s model, at the Sculptor’s Studio

Nevertheless, as I pondered the history of our nation and the difficulties of creating the memorial on Mount Rushmore, I wondered whether carving up a mountainside was the appropriate way to recognize these individuals. Why destroy a lovely granite cliff that nature etched over eons? Is human handiwork—even as majestic a project as these four figures—worthy of displacing what it took earth and wind and water millennia to form?

I don’t know the answer.

At some point, earth and wind and water will eat away this masterpiece of human artistic chutzpah. The National Park Service fills the cracks that develop today. But eventually they will lose the battle. It may take several more millennia, but over time our memorial to these four men will come to mean no more than the Great Pyramids of Egypt or Machu Picchu or the heads on Easter Island mean today. The significance of the memorial will fade with time.

Until then, however, tourists will ooh and aah and take their pictures with these four great men.

Weather permitting.

What National Park treasures do you like best?

P.S. Later we saw Mount Rushmore from a distance. The perspective changes—the memorial seems impressive, but no more so than the granite cliffs and forest.

Mount Rushmore, from Needles Highway

Blue-Tarped Roofs After Hurricane Katrina

As the news reports have shown pictures of the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma over the last few weeks, I’ve thought about my experience with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. I wasn’t in New Orleans during that hurricane nor for over a year after it occurred, but what I did see taught me how long it takes for a community to recover from a natural disaster of that scope.

My daughter attended Tulane Law School from 2007 until 2010. She and I first visited New Orleans to check out the school in April 2007—over a year and a half after Katrina destroyed much of the city. We returned in June of that year to find her an apartment, and in August 2007 we moved her to New Orleans. We visited her a couple of times during her three years there, and our last visit was for her graduation in May 2010—by then it had been almost five years since Katrina.

Blue Tarp City, by Gail Williams, taken on December 20, 2005, available on Flickr

On my first visit in April 2007, my daughter and I drove all around the city, trying to get a feel for the community. In every neighborhood we passed through, there were dumpsters in the driveways and blue tarps on the roofs.

“But this neighborhood’s fine,” my daughter said as we drove near the Tulane campus. “Check out the cars.”

Sure enough, there were late-model cars parked on the streets, indicating that the nearby houses would be repaired, even if they were in bad shape at that time.

In other neighborhoods, where the cars were older, there were more homes still boarded up, fewer dumpsters showing active rehabilitation, and more blue roofs that hadn’t been touched since the hurricane. Those neighborhoods still showed the storm’s destruction.

Blue Tarp Roofs Across the Street, by Bart Everson, taken on December 5, 2005, available on Flickr

With each visit to New Orleans, I saw fewer blue tarps and more repaired homes. The more affluent neighborhoods returned faster, the poorer neighborhoods continued to have many abandoned and boarded-up houses. But slowly the community fought its way toward normalcy.

What I saw in New Orleans taught me that Texas, Puerto Rico, Florida, and the other areas hit by storms this year have a long battle ahead. The immensity of the reconstruction must be overwhelming to residents at this stage.

But what I saw also tells me that Houston and the many other cities and towns devastated this year will come back.

The same drive to rebuild has been true after other hurricanes, after tornadoes and floods in the Midwest, and after mudslides on the West Coast. The restored communities won’t look exactly the same, and not all the same people will return. But the human resolve to reconstruct their lives will prevail. Again and again, if need be.

What experience have you had with natural disasters?

National Senior Citizens Day Eclipsed

August 21 is National Senior Citizens Day. It’s a day set aside to support and honor senior citizens and to recognize their achievements and contributions to our communities. President Ronald Reagan began the day with a proclamation in 1988.

The definition of “senior citizen” varies from one group to another. AARP membership begins at age 50, but other organizations don’t recognize senior status until age 65 or even 70. The IRS doesn’t require oldsters to take minimum distributions from IRAs and 401(k) plans until age 70 and a half.

But supposedly the National Senior Citizens Day definition is age 60. Therefore, I qualify as senior.

Unfortunately, the National Park Service definition is age 62—that’s the age to get a cheap lifetime pass to the national parks. The price goes up on August 28 of this year from $10 to $80. ($80 is still a good deal, but not as good as $10.) My husband has his lifetime pass—in fact, he has two, because he forgot it one time, and it was cheaper to get another lifetime pass than to pay for a one-day admission to that site for two people. I’m a few months short of age 62, so I’ll have to hope he doesn’t forget his pass again. And that we always travel to national parks together.

I also qualify for $1 senior drinks at McDonald’s (which kick in at age 55), but I usually forget to ask. And I must not look sixty—only one McDonald’s order taker has ever volunteered to give me a reduced-price soda.

Suggestions on how to recognize Senior Citizens Day include several ways to spend quality time with seniors, such as

  • Starting conversations with seniors you encounter
  • Enjoying books, movies or games with senior loved ones
  • Undertaking a family history project with grandparents
  • Skype-ing with tech-savvy seniors
  • Visiting those you don’t see often

But don’t bother trying to connect with me this year. This year, all thoughts of celebrating Senior Citizen Day are eclipsed by . . . a solar eclipse.

On August 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse is cutting a 70-mile-wide swath across the United States from Oregon to South Carolina. And the partial eclipse will be visible for a much wider stretch on either side.

Our home in the Kansas City Northland is in the zone of the total eclipse, though we only get about a minute of totality, instead of the 2 minutes and 40 seconds that the central path of the eclipse will receive.

Rather than sitting on our deck, however, some friends, my husband, and I have plans to head a little farther north to increase the time we’ll be under the total eclipse. Projections are that millions of people will be heading for places where the total eclipse will be visible for two minutes or more. We’re heading for a county park where the totality will last just over two minutes. But I won’t tell you which park, in case you try to head there, too.

As someone who hates crowds and heavy traffic, I’m wondering whether leaving our house will be worth it. Is a two-minute period of totality so much better than one minute? Is it worth the inconvenience of overwhelmed roads and port-a-potties to ooh and aah for an additional 60 seconds?

But then, such thoughts make me sound like a curmudgeonly old-timer. Like a senior citizen. Surely, I’m not there yet.

I’ll let readers know later whether it was worth it.

Do you have plans to see the eclipse? Post your post-eclipse comments here.

Random Photos: Going Home Again . . . A Vacation Remembered

My husband and I didn’t take too many summer vacations at my parents’ home when our kids were growing up. We saved our visits for every third Christmas. In addition, my parents visited us once or twice a year in Kansas City, and we sent our kids out to Washington State without us as soon as the airlines would let them fly by themselves.

But I recently pulled out a random envelope of snapshots my father had taken of one summer vacation we did take in Washington State at my parents’ house.

Kids swimming, one with water wings, and the other with attitude

I can’t recall exactly which summer it was. The pictures were taken at the large house my parents had in the Meadow Springs development of Richland, Washington. They owned this home between the summer of 1986 and about 1991. I know this wasn’t our first visit there—we’d visited them at this house over Christmas 1986. My daughter looks to be about three or four in the pictures, with my son about six or seven, so I’m guessing it was the summer of 1988 or 1989, but it could have been 1990.

Nanny Winnie supervising my daughter

The house had a swimming pool, which our kids loved. My daughter couldn’t swim yet, so had to wear water wings. My son could swim, and most likely lorded his wing-less state over his little sister. My mother’s mother, Nanny Winnie, visited that week also, and she loved to swim. She was always happy to supervise afternoons at the pool.

Mitzi doesn’t know whether to bark at my son or the pool skimmer

My parents had a Schnauzer named Mitzi. Mitzi wanted to be a part of the pool parties, particularly when the pool skimmer was operating. The dog could swim, but she couldn’t get herself out of the pool. Later, my younger brother taught Mitzi to paddle to the stairs so she could climb out, but at the time of our visit, she had not yet learned this escape route. One time during our visit that week, I had to dive in after her and pull her to safety. She didn’t seem too grateful, and scrabbled and scratched to get out of my helpful arms.

Husband and son canoeing on the Wenatchee River

On the weekend we were there, when my father wasn’t working, my husband, son, father and I went canoeing on the Wenatchee River. We drove through the lovely mountain town of Leavenworth, Washington, rented canoes from an outfitter, and put in on the river somewhere near Lake Wenatchee. Then we floated downstream through the alpine Wenatchee National Forest for a couple of hours. We stopped for lunch on a gravel bar, then took out where the outfitter had designated and awaited our pick up.

Lunch on the gravel bar

We had two canoes—my husband and son paddled one, and my father and I had the other. This was the first canoe trip I’d been on where I wasn’t in the same boat as my husband. I was used to relying on his skills to get us through any whitewater, but we decided our son needed a strong paddler more than I did. Our son was young enough that his paddling was more for show than power. (As was mine, though I at least had an intellectual understanding of what I should be doing.)

Me with wet shoes, and son

My father was definitely not as competent at paddling as my husband. Still, he and I didn’t have much difficulty until we reached the take-out point. There, even with both Dad and me paddling as hard as we could, we almost didn’t reach shore. I finally had to step out of the boat to pull us out of the current just as we passed the gravel river access road where we were supposed to meet our ride. Dad may have gotten wet also—there is photographic evidence of my wet shoes, but he was taking the pictures, so there’s nothing to verify his actions.

I was happy to find these pictures and to remember that summer vacation back in my birthplace—Washington State, and Richland in particular. In recent years, I’ve only been to Richland for my parents’ funerals in 2014 and 2015. There’s no one left to bury in Richland, and I sometimes wonder if I will ever go home again.

What do you remember of visits to your hometown?

Seeking My Roots in Copenhagen

Ten years ago, in the summer of 2007, my daughter and I went to Copenhagen to visit my niece who was studying there. I can trace one branch of my ancestry back to Denmark, so the prospect of visiting that nation appealed to me. I wondered if I would feel a connection there, as I did when I visited Ireland a few years earlier.

My niece and her roommate were busy most of the time, so my daughter and I toured Copenhagen on our own. We took a boat tour of the city. I loved the brightly colored buildings that lined the canals. They reminded me of the row house doors in Dublin.

From the boat tour

We saw The Little Mermaid statue, which was beautiful albeit underwhelming (I’d been warned it was quite small). I remembered reading Hans Christian Andersen’s famous story as a child. I’d never liked Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, which seemed dark and horrific to me. I preferred the Grimms Brothers—as if those were a whole lot merrier.

The Little Mermaid

We climbed a church steeple for a panoramic view of the city. Gorgeous, though we then faced a long walk back to the apartment on tired legs. The view reminded me of Florence, Italy.

Copenhagen from the steeple

We went to museums, where all the signs were in English and German as well as Danish. I learned Danish history, including the very early Viking Danes who were the first Europeans to reach North America (unless the Irish Saint Brendan beat them by a few centuries).

And on one cloudy day, my niece took us to tour Kronberg Castle, supposedly the model for Shakespeare’s Elsinore in Hamlet. I’ve always had a thing for castles—probably because I grew up in a decidedly unromantic town built in the 1940s, which contained nothing remotely resembling a castle.

Kronberg Castle

We ate well. The Scandinavian penchant for fish at breakfast did not appeal to me, but everything else tasted great.

It was a wonderful trip. I loved Copenhagen and felt very comfortable there. What I saw brought to mind many memories, though none of them ancestral. I guess my Danish genes are too diluted (it was my great-great-grandfather who immigrated from Denmark to the United States). My other ancestors were mostly English, Irish, and Scotch, with a little German thrown in.

Still, I’m glad I went to Copenhagen, and I would happily go back. I may not have found my roots, but I enjoyed the trip.

Where are your roots, and when have you sought them out?

Random Photo: St. Louis, 1989, Our First Family Vacation

In the summer of 1989, when our daughter was four and our son seven, we took our first “real” family vacation. By that I mean, it was just my husband, me and the two kids, and we went somewhere other than to visit grandparents.

We’d taken our son on a couple of trips before daughter came along, or left her with grandparents when she was a baby. And our son had been places with his cousins and not us. But this was our daughter’s first “big girl” vacation. She was still in preschool and was required at school to “nap” in the afternoons, though she didn’t usually sleep during the rest period anymore.

For our first trip, we chose St. Louis, about a four-hour drive across Missouri from Kansas City. I think we stopped in Marshall, Missouri, first to visit my in-laws. It wasn’t a big vacation, just a long weekend, long enough to test whether our kids were ready for full-fledged adventures.

Husband and kids in front of the Gateway Arch, 1989

We did a lot over those few days in St. Louis. We went up in the Gateway Arch and visited the Museum of Western Expansion located at the Arch. We ate at the McDonald’s by the Arch, which was built on a replica of a steamboat (I understand that McDonald’s is no more, which is too bad because our kids loved it.). We went to the St. Louis Zoo, where our son made friends with a baby tamarind monkey. We went to Union Station and the Science Center. We probably did more, but those are the things I remember.

We were on the move from breakfast until dinner. We did all this over two or three days, spending our nights at some high-rise hotel, which I think was near Union Station.

After our first full day of activities, we went to an Italian restaurant for dinner. We had toured the entire zoo in the heat that afternoon. At the zoo, knowing that it was large and we would have to walk a lot, we rented a stroller for our daughter. But our son spent more time in the stroller than she did. She was a trouper, determined to prove she was not a baby anymore. She walked and walked and walked some more.

For dinner that night, she wanted spaghetti, so we ordered her a child-sized portion. The dinner came, and she started eating.

But soon her eyes drooped. Her eyelids fell shut, then opened, then fell again. Her head nodded.

My husband caught her just before she did a face-plant into her spaghetti. We moved her plate and laid her head on the table. She slept as the rest of us finished our meal. She slept as my husband carried her to the car and buckled her into her car seat. She slept as we drove to the hotel, as he carried her up to our room, and as I undressed her.

She slept for thirteen hours, from dinner straight through until breakfast time the next morning.

And then she was ready for another day.

She proved herself old enough for “big girl” vacations. And she’s never looked back.

What amusing anecdotes do you have from family vacations?