Gold Country

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“This Citty is one of the wonders of the world,” he wrote, recapitulating the history of every gold-rush town. “Last October a year ago saw this place in its natural state … and now there is more than 15 thousand inhabitance.… Americans Spanards English French Dutch Polanders Rucciands & in short all civilized nations of the world are represented here. Such a noteworthy crowd as may be seen in the streets of Nevada is enough to astonish any beholder.”

The town is still something to see. Unlike most gold-country cities, which line a single thoroughfare, Nevada City’s streets star out from the old town center and climb the surrounding hills. It was still largely a tent city when Bailey was there, but looking up the steep streets at night, you can get the sense of what he saw when he wrote, ”… when night comes a thousand campfires can be seen from almost any place, presenting to the beholder quite a beautiful prospect.”

I had hoped to stay in the National Hotel, whose stained, somber, and rather splendid lobby suggested the nascent opulence of the era. But the hotel had lost my reservation; the manager was able to find me a room a few miles south in Grass Valley, and I went away comforting myself with the thought that Uncle Milton hadn’t been able to sleep in the National either.

Every gold-rush town is a monument to one of the greatest migrations in human history.

As it turned out, the hotel at Grass Valley, the 1862 Holbrooke, was marvelous, and the town itself, though not quite so spiffed up as Nevada City, had a feel of the working West that had been gentled away in the other community. The hard work of mining is clearly evidenced in Grass Valley, too, in the Empire—richest of the California gold mines. The Empire’s shafts ran eleven thousand feet deep and zigzagged back and forth for more than three hundred miles beneath the town before the operation finally shut down in the 1950s. Today it is a state park, but the old equipment has been left scattered around it, strident with bright red rust, and you can peer down into the main shaft for a hundred and fifty feet and sense dimly what it was like to drop into that blackness six days a week.

This was hard-rock mining: goldbearing quartz blasted out of the deep tunnels, brought to the surface, and pulverized beneath the 1,750-pound hammers of the stamp mills. Milton Bailey wouldn’t have known much about it. He was out of the prospecting business by the time the Empire opened in 1854. “The majority of the miners make but little more than board,” he wrote, “and many would bid a lasting a dieue to California if they only had the means to take them home.”

Not all that many, as it turned out. Early in 1852 Milton Bailey was writing from “Skull Bone Ranch” that he was “nearly done sowing barley.” He had bought a farm. Like the men and women in Mokelumne Hill cemetery, like so many of the people who came for the quick, intoxicating, life-changing fortune, Milton Bailey missed the gold but found the treasure.

—Richard F. Snow TO PLAN A TRIP