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Gold Country

June 2024
5min read

In the graveyard just outside Mokelumne Hill, California, the tombstones bear the usual spare summary of the lives of the people beneath them; then, after the name and the dates and the fragment of Scripture, there appears something unique to this part of the country. “A native of Virginia,” one epitaph ends; “from Fairfield Vermont,” says another; “native of Germany”; “Born in Butler County Kentucky”; and “né à St. Erme, Department de L’Ain (France) Décédé à Chili-Gulch.”

They were not settlers. They never planned to stay. Home was Butler County or St. Erme. Yet here they are, and thousands more nearby—men and women who were just stopping by until their luck changed and instead built the American West.

The thing that brought them lies with them in the loose soil. Mokelumne Hill is about halfway down the three-hundred-mile drift of gold called the Mother Lode. Along it from north to south are scattered towns with names like Nevada City and Chinese Camp, El Dorado and Placerville, the survivors of the five hundred hasty communities that burned their feverish lives away during the gold rush of 1849, monuments to one of the greatest migrations in human history.

Among the half-million people who hurried out to California to make their fortunes was a Missouri boy named Milton Bailey. He was my great-greatgreat-uncle, and early last November I took copies of his letters home and went West to see where he’d gone on the greatest adventure of his life.

Milton Bailey’s personal epic began at a sawmill on the American River in the wilderness of northern California. The mill belonged to John Augustus Sutler, the genial German-Swiss wouldbe empire builder who had for a decade presided over a benign barony from his fort some fifty miles to the west near the Sacramento River. Sutler was not there the day the world changed. James Marshall, the carpenter who had built his mill, was overseeing it on January 24, 1848, when he spotted a yellow glint in the millrace.

The storm that was about to break over Sutter swept his fort and fortune away, but the fort has been carefully restored. Sutter may have been something of a charlatan, but he was no fool, and it is hard to imagine that he didn’t stand in his compound and sense the gathering of an invasion that his stubby bronze cannon would be powerless to check.

There were two ways to get to California from the East: a wretched sea journey or a wretched land journey. Milton Bailey came by land. From Fort Laramie he wrote on June 1, 1850, as all of them were writing: “I feel sertain that I can make a fortune if I get through safe and have my health after I arrive.” He barely did. September 1, Sacramento: “I have been sick for 8 weeks. I was taken, 300 miles from this place, and had to ride here on mule back, which so exhausted me that [I am] reduced … to 120 in weight with my coat and boots on.”

The Sacramento into which Milton Bailey dragged himself was the main supply base for all the far-flung goldrush communities. That riverfront city, block after block of it, has been restored by the state. There are scores of refurbished buildings, and it takes a lot of gelato stands to keep them active; but the very size of Old Sacramento—coupled with wonderfully precise simulations of 1860s sign painting—gave me the clearest sense I’ve ever had of what it must have been like to walk the streets of a prosperous mid-nineteenth-century city.

Milton Bailey recovered himself and headed for the gold fields. So did I. Route 49 runs the length of the Mother Lode, and you can drive it in a day, but you’d be foolish to. It has its dolors of strips and fast-food clusters, but then it will go corkscrewing down into magnificent gorges cut between the hard-shouldered hills or take you through a town like Amador City (population 202), where, although the Imperial Hotel has been given over to antiques shops, the community is close enough to its pioneer beginnings to contain a street named Pig Turd Alley.

California is a wretched country,” wrote Bailey in a bleak mood. “There is more liquors drank & more gambling going here than any other place in the world according to the number of inhabitants.… Murder is a every day occurance and the murderer allawas escapes.” In the next sentence he instantly cheers himself (“I saw Matthew and Mort Maddy a few days ago and they have made nothing as yet”), but the fact is it was a dangerous life. Mokelumne Hill had a murder a week for four months.

Many miners in the very first season got rich just from gathering up the placer gold—easily accessible metal in rock crevices and stream beds—but by the time Milton Bailey and his numberless colleagues arrived, economic reality had settled in. “No man can live for less than three dollars a day,” Bailey wrote in April 1851, “and the three dollars per day go on whether he is at work or play. The ways of the miner are truly hard. … In the states working like we do would be considered almost death, but here,” he adds surprisingly, “it hurts few if any. I never before enjoyed such health as 1 have of late….” He didn’t know it, but Bailey was becoming a Californian.

All the towns in the gold-rush country are similar, with their false-front buildings and wooden balconies, but the passing of years has marked each differently. Chinese Camp is everybody’s conception of a ghost town, while Auburn bustles up its hillside from the well-kept shops of the old town to spill out for miles along Route 49 in a litter of gas stations and supermarkets. I was most interested to see Nevada City, toward the north end of the Mother Lode, because that’s where Milton Bailey sought his fortune.

“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

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