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All about Gold
Submitted By: XNGH Jason Thorn Date: March 21, 2010, 07:58:06 AM Views: 3169

Originally published in the Hewgag Monitor by Tom Barry in February, 1993




Perhaps our readers have, at some point, considered just what could have been the lure that attracted hundreds of thousands of men and women to California in the early days. This portion of our Short History will try to explain just what it was that drove the engines of exodus which brought such large numbers of immigrants to this part of the vast globe of earth.

Experts disagree on the time scale, but early man came to California from 20,000 to 100,000 years ago, as people from Asia crossed the land bridge between Alaska and Russia. The American Indians and the early people of Central and South America most likely got here by this path. By 1540, only 50 years after Columbus had “discovered” the New World, Spanish explorers and conquerors had subjugated over 11 million of those people of Central and South America. The Spanish sought land, wealth and power. They took untold quantities of gold and silver treasure to Europe. They brought Spanish “civilization” to their new lands, including what is now California. But even by 1841, when the first wagon trains began crossing the Sierra Nevada from the east, California had only about 6000 non-Indian residents. The Californios, as they were known, enjoyed a bucolic lifestyle in a fine climate. They raised cattle for the skins and tallow and farmed with Indian workers. The only metal mined in any quantity in California before the Gold Rush was mercury, or quicksilver.

All this was to change in the period immediately after January, 1848, when James Marshall, overseeing construction of a sawmill for John Sutter, discovered gold nuggets in the tailrace of the mill on the American River. GOLD! This was the magic word; the word which would transform California from a minor region of Mexico into one of the most famous regions in the world, with a population of 100,000 in 1850, and 250,000 by 1853.

What is the allure of gold? It is one of the naturally occurring elements, certainly not the most abundant or the rarest, but it possesses qualities that have caused man to seek it over the whole span of civilization. Gold occurs mostly in conjunction with other minerals, rarely as large pieces. It is formed deep in the earth as volcanic forces melt and refine minerals, then deposit them at the surface as igneous rock. Commonly found in quartz, gold rarely forms compounds with other minerals, unable to be seen by the eye, and was often found as nuggets or flakes. This quality made gold easily gathered by men who, about 9000 B.C., began using it for ornamentation purposes.

What makes gold so valuable that men have conquered, killed, enslaved, bilked and beaten others for its possession? Its qualities have made it the most sought-after metal in history.

Gold is somewhat rare. In fact, in all of history, only about 100,000 tons of gold have been mined. This seems to be an astonishingly small amount. Multiplying 100,000 tons by 24,000 (the number of Troy ounces in a ton) gives only 2.4 billion ounces (Troy, which is 12 ounces to the pound). Unmined reserves today are estimated at about 1 billion ounces, mostly in South Africa. Billions of TONS of gold are present in seawater, though the concentration is less than 6 parts of gold to 1,000,000,000,000 parts of water, making it unfeasible to obtain.

Gold is very durable, practically indestructible, it cannot be dissolved by most acids except aqua regia, a 3:1 mixture of hydrochloric and nitric acid. Perhaps some of the gold jewelry you have contains gold mined by the ancient Sumerians, Egyptians, Incas or Aztecs.

Gold is malleable, which means it can be beaten into very thin sheets (approaching 1 atom in thickness) and stretched into very thin wire. It is not particularly strong, and it is very soft, so it is often alloyed with other metals to add strength and durability. 24 karat gold is pure gold. 14 karat yellow gold contains 14 parts gold and 10 parts of silver, copper and a little zinc. White gold is an alloy of gold, nickel, copper and zinc.

Since gold does not oxidize, it remains shiny for centuries, even when buried. Gold melts at 1063 C., and can be cast into large objects. The coffin of King Tut was several hundred pounds of gold, and many other large gold objects were found in his grave. The largest solid piece of gold is a Japanese bathtub shaped like a bird, which weighs over a ton! Gold coins were common in ancient days, though today they are mostly collector’s items or museum pieces.

Gold is the most sought-after of the “noble” metals. This article is being retyped in late September, 2007, and the present value of gold is $725.15 per Troy ounce. Silver is at $12.98 per Troy ounce. Platinum is $1304.00 per Troy ounce, and Copper is $3.48 per pound (or about $.29 a Troy ounce in comparison). Aluminum is priced at $1.10 per pound (about $.09 per Troy ounce). Mercury sells for $600.00 per 76 pound flask ($.66 per Troy ounce), and scrap steel for $265.00 a ton (a little over a penny per Troy ounce). Gold today is about 56 times as valuable as silver and 72 and a half thousand times as valuable as steel! In the days of the gold rush and up till WWI, gold was about 16 times as valuable as silver.

Gold’s price in the days of the 49ers was about $16 an ounce. Since paper money was not trusted, and coins were difficult to obtain, a common form of gold then was gold dust, or small flakes, kept in small leather sacks. A miner would buy his necessities by the “pinch” of dust. The more prosperous merchants were those with the fattest fingers, as they were able to pinch the largest amount of dust from the miner’s poke. Tales are told of the large amounts of gold recovered by panning the dirt from beneath the rude plank floors of early (pre-paper money and coin) days of the gold rush. Another source of free gold was the mud caked on the shoes of the miners (or merchants), which would collect gold dust from the floors, and could be panned.

Early tales of large nuggets, or “slugs” of gold being picked up from stream beds may have been partially true, as gold from exposed veins would break off and tumble itself into nuggets in streams. This supply of easily found gold was soon exhausted (by the ‘48ers, those who beat the rush of the ‘49ers), and the miners began looking up into the hills for the source of the gold found in the streams. Others diverted water from streams and dug into the stream beds to recover gold from the black sand deposited in the natural riffles and holes, or downstream from large rocks. Meanwhile, the miners up the hill were looking for the gravel beds of old stream beds, from which they rightly assumed the lower deposits of gold had come. All this entailed a lot of climbing, digging, hauling and panning.

When the easily-found gravel had been exhausted of its gold, the miners went to further extremes to wrest the gold from the gravel. In April of 1853, Edward E. Matteson, a miner in Nevada City, developed a method of directing a stream of water, under very high pressure, onto banks of gravel. The gold was recovered by passing the mud and gravel though sluices and riffles, where it collected in the low places. Thus was born the hydraulic mining industry. The destruction to downstream rivers caused by the effluent of the process resulted in the “Sawyer Decision” banning most hydraulic mining in 1884.

Another form of mining developed at about this time called paddock dredging, in which large amounts of gravel are dredged from a pond, then processed by the same methods used in hydraulic mining. The effluent is contained in the pond, and the exhausted tailings are deposited behind the dredge, which, in effect, carries its pond with it as it moves over the ground. Miles of dredger tailings in the Yuba River west of Grass Valley, and in the American River areas east of Sacramento, attest to its popularity. A dredger worked in the Rancho Cordova area east of Sacramento (along Sunrise Blvd., south of Highway 50) until the late 1950s, when it became uneconomical to operate. It was dismantled and sent to South America, where it was placed in operation once again.

After the Sawyer Decision (which decreed that hydraulic mining was damaging downstream fields and clogging river beds with silt) in 1884, the hard rock mines, which required much more capital to develop, then became the most common source of gold. As much as 100,000 ounces of ore must be processed to obtain 1 ounce of gold with hard rock mining methods. The ore was blasted from the underground veins, and brought to the surface where it was crushed to very fine sand in stamp mills. The sand was then sluiced to obtain the loose particles of gold. Chemical refining was also developed, in which the fine particles of gold were mixed with mercury, where an amalgamation would form. The mercury-gold mixture would be refined by various methods, including the boiling off of the mercury. About 70% of the gold was recovered by this point. To gain further gold, the crushed ore was dissolved in dilute solutions of sodium cyanide or calcium cyanide, then metallic zinc as added, which caused the gold to precipitate. Smelting, or melting, then would recover the metallic gold. In later years, when electricity became available, the cyanide solution could be further processed by electrolysis.

About one-third of the gold produced today comes from the reprocessing of the waste products from previous mining efforts.

Gold is used today in many ways because of its unique properties. Gold is one of the best conductors of electricity, and because of its resistance to corrosion, it is used in the electrical connections of computers and other devices which must have long-term use with absolute reliability. Gold, when dissolved in glass (a process which costs about 5¢ a square foot), blocks the passage of much of the heat (infrared rays) from the sun, yet allows the passage of a reasonable amount of visible light.
By far, the most common use for gold today is the establishment and maintenance of currency and currency reserves. While not much gold is in actual circulation, gold is kept by many countries and individuals as a secure and stable way to maintain the value of their wealth (or money supply).

For many years, the United States government forbade the ownership of gold bullion and coins by private citizens, and established the “official” price of gold at $16 an ounce, then later at $35 an ounce. All gold bullion and coins were to be turned in to the government, which would “buy” it at the established rate. This was an effort to keep the price from being affected by speculators, thereby ensuring the stability of the nation’s money, which was, in 1963, backed by over $13 billion worth of gold kept in the Fort Knox, Tennessee depository. Since the U.S. has gone off the gold and silver “standard,” and has allowed the price of these commodities to be established by the supply and demand, the price of gold has fluctuated in a fairly wide, but ever higher range to its present day value. Gold will never be worth nothing, as money might. Some countries still maintain very large reserves of gold as backing for their currency, but the U.S. relies on the “full faith and credit” principle for maintaining the integrity of its money supply.

Next time, we will cover some of the methods and processes used in hard-rock mining, and a closer look at some of the mines around the Nevada City area, including the Empire Mine, which is open all year for visitors.

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