Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Sunday, July 17, 2011
Any experienced gold prospector will tell you that the most important tool among all your gold mining equipment is the humble gold pan. Whether you are testing a creek, digging a crevice, or cleaning up concentrates, there is no better companion.
But, like candy, it’s hard to stop after just one pan. I like to bring a stack of four or five pans with me when I go out, just in case. I’ll bring a bigger pan for rough work, and some smaller pans to finish concentrates. The truth is that there are a lot of different pans out there, and they all have their strengths and weaknesses. In this article, we’ll look at a wide variety of pans, and give you the information you need to smartly build a nice collection of your own.
First, every gold panner needs a metal pan. The pan in Figure 1 has been with me for 30 years, and it’s still in good shape. I mostly use it as a safety pan, because it’s not so prone to floating away, but I’ve used it for a variety of camp duties as well. It has put in time serving as a giant ashtray and also to light charcoal. Metal pans can act as a large trowel to scoop dirt, clear holes, and dig ditches, although you’ll probably have to bend it back into shape afterwards. An old timer once told me he once used his pan to boil water and fry eggs when he found himself without his usual pots and pans.
Figure 1. "Old Reliable" 11-inch metal pan.
The truth is, I don’t use the metal pan very often to just plain pan. It makes a beautiful noise when it has ball-bearings, fishing weights, or other metal sliding across the bottom, and I’m sure if I got into some good gold nuggets they’d sound nice, too. But the lack of riffles is a non-starter for me. Some newer metal pans have riffles, although they’re more like bumps. Even with that, metal pans are heavy. The bottom line: the build-up of rust and dents just can’t compete with high-tech, purposefully engineered riffles, so let’s move on.
Next, let’s talk about the big boys – the 16-inch battleships that can handle a heaping shovelful of dirt at a time. I’ve got two to show you, with big differences between them.
First is a very standard black model, with a short, 7-inch bottom. It sports three decent riffles, each with a moderate “bite” to work down black sands. However, I would prefer more riffles, and the bottom has always felt too small to me. It’s a good pan for working unscreened material, because large rocks roll right out. It’s best feature is it’s size, because it holds so much material. If you’re on a good crevice and you just want to collect as much as you can before returning to your panning spot, this is a good transport vehicle, although a bucket would work just as well.
Figure 2. Big 16-inch black pan with small bottom.I’ve always liked my big 16-inch blue pan. It’s lightweight for it’s size, and the bottom is nearly 9 inches across. That allows for a nice fanning action as you spread the final concentrates. The blue color is excellent for revealing gold and garnets, which is a big advantage over black pans that can have issues when playing with a lot of black sand. This particular pan has some real engineering going on with the riffles, which start out very aggressive, sporting a clever, sunken trap area. The second riffle also has serious bite, but the third and fourth riffles are not nearly as intense. They do have a sharp angle, so gold will trap against them while black sand is washing over the edge. All in all, the riffles are excellent. It’s hard to pan with one hand, but when you get the material going, you can feel those riffles biting, which gives you the confidence to get aggressive and really work it.
Figure 3. Big 16-inch blue pan.
The trap area also makes using a snuffer bottle easier.
Figure 4. Close-up of riffles and trap area.
The GPAA Classic
The 14-inch green GPAA pan included in your membership packet is one of my favorites – I have five of them, at last count. It’s the standard Garrett gravity trap style, and it’s been around for a long, long time. The 14-inch size is easier to use with one hand, but it still holds plenty of material. There are four riffles, each with a sharp, aggressive bite, allowing for respectable work with heavy black sands. I frequently stop using the riffles when I get down to a couple tablespoons of material, and rotate over to the smooth side. Or, I’ll transfer the whole load to a finishing pan and start a new batch.
The bottom is wide, at almost eight inches, which gives you a good view of your material when you look for that flash in the pan.
You’ll see some interesting variations on this simple design. The number of riffles can go up to six, which I always appreciate in areas with heavy black sands.
Figure 5. Classic 14-inch green GPAA pan.
In an effort to help with black sands, inventors have gone to great lengths to devise better riffles and traps. The pan in Figure 6 is very effective with heavy black sands, as the riffle system contains three small “pre-riffles” that are set at very aggressive angles. They’re followed by four standard riffles, and the last riffle is actually rounded, under the theory that anything interesting should have been trapped down below.
Figure 6. Variation on the classic gravity trap pan.
I found that the over-sized trap is a nuisance, however, especially with a snuffer bottle. Too much material collected in there when I didn’t want it to, and I never really got comfortable with the small micro-sluice leading out of the trap.
Here’s another “gimmick” pan. It’s made out of a different plastic that feels brittle and prone to breaking. The arrow trap isn’t bad – it does work – but with only two riffles, it’s hard to get good work done.
Figure 7. 12-inch black pan with "arrow" trap.
12-inch Pans – Not Just For Kids
I find that when I pan for great lengths of time, I eventually start switching to smaller pans just to save my arm. The 12-inch pan comes in handy when you’re getting worn out, but it’s also great for kids, grandparents, and moms, because it’s easier to handle. There are usually only three riffles, and the bottom is around six inches in diameter. That’s enough to pan concentrates in a tub, or to work material in a creek. You can’t process as much volume as you would with a bigger pan, but you might be able to work longer, and not fall asleep five minutes after dinner.
Figure 8. Standard 12-inch black pan with three riffles.
My new favorite 12-inch pan is a blue, six-riffle design from Keene with an almost eight-inch bottom. The riffles are sharp and trap gold easily, giving you confidence that you can work fast. Then, when you get material down far enough, there are 20 micro-riffles that really let you work through black sands. Large gold pieces show up immediately here, and it’s a nice feature. I just picked up this pan at the 2011 Gold Prospectors Show at Salem, Oregon, and I’m completely hooked.
Figure 9. 12-inch blue pan from Keene has two sets of riffles.
Figure 10. Micro-riffles on the left, and regular riffles on the right.
When you’ve got material that is screened, sorted, and concentrated, you don’t need the big pans any more – you need a smaller pan for maximum control. I used to use a small, green 10-inch pan with four riffles and a three-inch bottom for finishing work. It had a nice feel, and I was comfortable with it. For example, by using a panning tub and a safety pan, I’d processed a lot of concentrates at home. Periodically, I’d test the safety pan to see how I was doing, and I rarely found anything more than black sand in there.
Figure 11. Small green finishing pan with very limited bottom.
Again, after attending the recent gold show in my area, I’ve come home with a new favorite. It’s another blue Keene pan, only smaller. It has five regular riffles and 15 micro-riffles, and the bottom is almost six inches across. I brought home a bucket of concentrates from the Little North Fork of the Santiam River right after the Salem show, and I was really pleased testing this pan. It felt very comfortable, and I was able to work the whole bucket easily.
Figure 12. Small ten-inch finishing pan from Keene.
Figure 14. 14-inch square pan.
I never really grew to love either of my square pans. I don’t know if they’re just too non-traditional or if I just didn’t like the feel. There isn’t any swirling with these square pans – you just work the riffles continually, pulling back to re-stratify and then back at it.
Since I don’t work with mercury, I haven’t had the urge to get a nice copper pan, but I’m weakening. I have a small, four-inch copper pan that is nice for display purposes, and it’s getting a pretty cool patina to it after six years. I’ll probably add a bigger copper pan to my collection at some point, just to have one. I think they’re beautiful, but I can’t imagine they’re much good in a panning tub.
So, if the question is, “How do I choose the right gold pan?” then what’s the answer? Well, it depends on how you answer these questions:
· What’s your budget?
· Have you bought a new pan lately?
· Do you have a full assortment of pans?
· Do you like to experiment?
Whatever your next pan is, I’m sure it will be the right one. And remember – the problem isn’t too much black sand – the problem is not enough gold.
Garret Romaine writes from Portland, Oregon. He’s always looking for more friends on Facebook.
The summer field season is in full swing, and many readers have contacted me recently with last-minute questions on places they plan to visit. Back when email was the main way to communicate electronically, I could usually keep up if I typed fast and kept the comments lean. Today, so many GPAA members are technologically savvy that I’m thankful there are so many forums and online communities. In this column for the Lapidary issue, we’ll take a look at some of the activity out there for gold prospectors and rock hounds alike.
Long-time readers know I’ve been enthusiastic about Facebook for some time now. I’ve been ‘friending’ people like crazy this year, and the system keeps suggesting that I add people who share 40-50 mutual friends, so it just keeps building.
I’ve been hanging out lately with the Facebook group called “Treasure Hunting Wiki.” These aren’t just electronic friends – I’ve met several of these guys at the 2010 Jade Rendezvous in Darrington, Washington. Members Ezekiel Hughes and Kristoffer Jay are tenacious jade hunters and frequently share their finds from the creeks and rivers in Washington’s jade belt. Just seeing what they’ve slabbed lately is enough to get your juices flowing.
Figure 1. Home page for GPAA's Facebook presence.
There’s a good mix of beginners, veterans, merchants, and organizations that have formed a solid rock and gem network on Facebook. The benefit is that when Karasarlidis Minerals from Greece posts new pictures to his profile of a gorgeous, deep purple sodalite, you get to see it, comment on it, “like” it, and even share it so it shows up on your page.
Figure 2. Sample update from Karasarlidis Minerals shows how users share information and photos easily.
This is a long link that’s going to be tough for you to type in, but here goes:
Far easier would be to just type in the word “Treasure” in the Facebook search box near the top of the page. You can scan through a dozen different links within Facebook, including metal detecting clubs, rock hounds groups, and individual jewelry makers. Some forums specialize in a single quest, like jade, while others are open to any kind of loot.
Figure 3. Treasure Hunting Wiki's Facebook page.
With over 500 million active users, you can see the possibilities on Facebook are endless. No matter how small your niche, you’ll find like-minded individuals who share your passion. Use that Search box to find fossil hunters, amber collectors, meteorite men, and more.
First off, if you haven’t hooked up with the Gold Prospectors Association of America on Facebook, do that right away. Find it by typing ‘gold’ in the Search box. You can enter gold mining, gold panning, gold prospecting, gold in California, etc. Experiment and you’ll find what you want.
Figure 4. Use the Search box to locate groups you might be interested in joining.
After checking on all the updates from GPAA, you can look for local groups in your area or somewhere you hope to visit. For example, I’ve been chatting with Billy Reed, a member who is interested in exploring some of the more obscure gold districts around Mt. St. Helens in Washington, with a base camp on the GPAA claim on Copper Creek. We’ve been able to share maps easily, but you still can’t add attachments to messages, so we relied on regular email to exchange big PDFs. We think we’ve got the location of the lode mines nailed down, so now it’s just a matter of waiting for the &^%$ snow to melt.
Facebook’s “Prospecting USA” page has seen good activity lately. They have 75 members, but show good growth. It’s an open group, so anyone can join.
Northwest Rockhounds and Random Rocks of Beauty
This page was more active in the past, and may get archived if not converted to a new format. Still, the members are very knowledgeable and it’s worth getting a conversation going there if you have a question about rockhounding in that region.
Idaho Prospecting Supply
One of the many vendors using Facebook actively, this shop is building a solid online presence. In fact, this is a good example of how to do it – use lots of pictures, post actively, and start conversations. I’m planning to pick up one of Cody’s hand-cranked trommels this summer.
Idaho Gold and Gem Outfitters
Good deals, lots of activity, and friendly. Another strong vendor.
I like this page because they mention my book, “Rockhounding Idaho,” all the time. Great discussions of what to find, where, and the accompanying pictures are amazing. I should drop in more often.
Let’s leave Facebook and turn now to some other websites and links I’ve been meaning to publish.
Ghost Towns of Washington
I wish every state had the bounty of ghost towns and mining camps that we have in the west. This is one of the best resources I’ve seen lately for ghost town exploration, but it’s focused on the state of Washington. That limits the appeal for many of you, but it’s a nice site and very informative.
Hunting for Gold
Good new site that just came up earlier this year. The site boasts over 1,000 members, has witnessed 25,000 posts, and has a thriving presence.
Here’s a nice site to download a good add-on for Google Earth. Once you add this tool, you’ll see little pickaxe and gold pan icons pop up throughout the mining areas. You’ll have GPS coordinates for locales that you guessed at previously. The app is a great idea, but it could use the help of dedicated and knowledgeable prospectors who’ve been out in the field and can dress up the details with pictures, first-hand reports, etc.
Here’s what Google Earth looks like for the Index area of Washington after loading Mine Cache:
Figure 5. Mine Cache adds GPA coordinates and icons into Google Earth, such as on this area near Index, Washington.
I recently stumbled onto this site while searching for gold panning guides for Oregon, California, and Washington authored by Tom Bohmker. I met Tom at the GPAA Gold Show in Salem in March, 2011, and was impressed with his knowledge and enthusiasm. He’s written several guides that have excellent background stories and personal, onsite knowledge that makes them invaluable.
The rest of the Mining Books site contains just what the name implies, plus maps. The site is deep and wide, with all facets of mining and prospecting covered. Want to know more about the chemistry of cyanide mining? Need details on the geology of Creede, one of Colorado’s richest silver camps? It’s all here, plus more. The site is organized well and easy to use, which also helps.
Figure 6. MiningBooks.com has new publications and reprints for mining districts throughout the US.
Western Mining History
I’ve saved the best for last, so I hope you made it this far. This is a deep, elegant website with good writing, nice pictures, and lots of energy. It covers the entire western U.S., so I’d guess the vast majority of GPAA members will find something in here to help them with their research and generally raise their Prospecting IQ. The site is now linked to Facebook, and I expect they’ll start to see traffic increase quickly.
Don’t miss the Database of Mines! The database describes almost 30,000 mines, and has the coordinates and elevations. More pictures would be great, as would production information, geology, etc., but this is a nice start. The mines are divided by state and county for easy reference, or you can pick them off an interactive map.
Author Tom Bohmker is no stranger to regular readers of Gold Prospectors Association of America (GPAA) magazine. We published a nice review of his book The Elusive Pocket Gold of SW Oregon, and also recommended his expanded 2005 effort entitled Gold Panner's Guide to the Black Hills of South Dakota(originally published in 1978).
Since then, he has kept up his prolific ways. In 2009 he was the contributing editor for the Gold Panner's Guide to Washington State. In 2010, Bohmker put out Gold Panner's Guide to the Oregon Cascades. As a fellow field-guide author, I eagerly seek out new publications that deal with gold prospecting in my home region of the Pacific Northwest, and I’m glad I caught up with him. I finally connected all the dots after stumbling onto the http://www.Miningbooks.com web page and ordering a book, and then hooking up at the 2011 GPAA Gold Show in Salem, Oregon.
Tom and I discussed his latest books in between gold show attendees coming up with questions. People were eyeing his extensive gold collection, and playing “stump the geologist” with a wide variety of “meteor-wrongs” and leaverite samples. Every once in a while someone would produce a hunk of quartz with shiny streaks and rusty staining or a heavy, glistening sample of fascinating ore, and Tom’s day was further enriched. He easily switched between asking and answering questions, and he seemed equally happy to do either one.
Figure 1. Part of author Tom Bohmker's gold specimen collection he's collected over the years, as seen at the 2011 Salem Gold Show.
“This is a lot of fun for me,” he said from his chair, smiling. “You never know what’s coming next. Folks collect the most amazing specimens.” An accomplished mining expert, his booth was a lively spot that stood out even in that day’s exuberant atmosphere. I got the feeling immediately that Tom would be a favorite in mining camps, talking for hours over a roaring campfire about his experiences across the west.
Bohmker explained how his newest books on Oregon and Washington continue his theme of trying to be as helpful as humanly possible to the newcomers and weekend warriors. As Bohmker explained in his book about the Klamath Mountains, he’s been asked countless times some basic questions:
1. Is it possible to still go out and find some gold?
2. Where is a spot I can do some fun panning with my friends and family?
3. Are there certain types of rocks that carry the gold?
4. I just bought a new detector, so where is a good place to look for pocket gold?
5. How can I have my own claim?
His response: “Selected spots…showed potential for more extensive mining efforts. Even though some of these areas have been extensively mined since the 1849 gold rush, and were some of the areas where suction dredging was first extensively used in the 1950’s and 60’s, our conclusion was that there is still lots of “easy” gold that can be found by 'flat-lander greenhorn tourist want-to-be gold miners,' much more so by serious miners today.”
Because I had seen Tom in action at his booth, I figured he came by his geological “chops” naturally. So I asked him via email about his education and background. In junior high and again in high school, he said that he took all the earth science courses he could sign up for, and then went on to college. “I have an associate degree in aerospace technology, and a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mechanic’s license,” he told me. My guess is that he took at least one class on rocket science, in other words. He’s not a certified engineer (his fees would go way up if he were) but he picked up extensive coursework in geology from the College of San Mateo in California. His formal education shows in his precise use of geologically correct terms, which, being a natural teacher, he takes great pride in.
Still, Bohmker’s knowledge about western mining isn’t just based on book learnin’ and taking tests. His family background is the real foundation; both his grandfather and his father were avid prospectors. “My Dad's work selling for John Deere took me to mining areas all over the west,” he explained. “A trip with him always had some stops at active operations with his friends and customers. I was able to learn at the feet of some very talented old miners and prospectors.”
During high school and college, Bohmker and his family took all available weekends and vacations to prospect for gold, silver, and other ores. From San Francisco, they methodically fanned out, covering parts of the Mother Lode country, the Clear Lake quicksilver district, then Humboldt and Esmeralda counties in Nevada, and also the Pinto Basin and Mojave Desert areas of southern California. The expeditions roamed far into the hills, and he developed an eye for abandoned mines, old workings, tailings piles, and other signs of industry. He learned to identify what the miners were after and appreciate their ambitions.
Here’s a partial list of Bohmker’s “mining vita”:
1968 - explored and tested for cinnabar at the "No Sweat Mine"
1969 - mining technician at the Hyatt Mine in ID (lode gold)
1970 - Guadalupe Mining Company, San Jose, CA (lode gold)
1972 - Eagle Creek Mine, Birch Creek AK (placer gold)
1974-82 - leased suction dredge claims near Cave Junction, OR
1976-80 - sluiced in South Dakota
1980-81 - dredged on Illinois River, OR
1982 - dredged Klamath River, CA
1984 - dredged Middle Fork John Day, OR and Black Hills, SD
That’s only a partial list, he explained, referring to himself as a “tramp miner” after college. He’s served as a millwright, technician, foreman, surveyor, resident geologist, and more. “In 1985, I reopened the Way Up Mine for underground gold near Libby, Montana, and completed a large bulk sampling program for the owner. In the 1990's, my teenaged sons and I started leasing the Gran Turk Mine, an underground pocket mine near Columbia, California. This finally ended operation in 2008, when the 90-year old owner traded the property away.”
Even when he wasn’t mining, Bohmker was prospecting new ground or sampling fresh territory. “Whenever I traveled, I tried to do some prospecting along the way. For example, on the way to my brother’s wedding in Missouri, I took a dredge with me and dredged a day or two near Salmon, Idaho, and also near Ogden Utah. My wife claims she never realized how interested I was in mining before marriage. After we got married, we toured a variety of ghost towns from Oregon to southern California, then returned through Nevada. She can give a long, wild story about visiting a whole bunch of mining camps and smiling politely at my old miner friends as I showed off my cute new bride. That was not exactly her dream of a "Harlequin Romance Honeymoon."
A couple years ago, Tom faced some medical issues that put him in the hospital, weakened with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a serious disorder where the immune system starts attacking the nervous system. While recovering, he daydreamed about his favorite dredging experiences, and kept coming back to a stint on the Illinois River in southern Oregon.
He eventually wrote the daydreaming episode up in a short story he calls “Snake Oil,” excerpted and lightly edited below:
“We were slowly uncovering bedrock on the Illinois River in southern Oregon …Finally a thin, flat boulder some 3 feet across was found “cemented” with hard pack gravels to the bedrock. I dredged around it and we hoisted the big boulders out of the hole. It took the whole morning to uncover an area 5 by 7 feet or so on the bedrock . We cleaned up about 3 DWT of flakes and pickers from this activity, found mostly in the reddish yellow pack that was within a couple feet of bedrock. We still had the cemented flat rock to move and dredge underneath. With the water clear, I hammered the cemented gravel around the edge and I could see dozens of little flakes of gold 1 to 3 mm in size swirl into the nozzle. I tried driving a gad bar (similar to a carpenter cat’s paw nail-puller) under the flat boulder to shake it loose…it seemed to be held tight with super glue. Again I circled the perimeter hammering the thin layer of cementing gravel. ...
For some 10 minutes I hammered and hammered; finally a little cloud of gray material rose around the boulder signaling it had finally loosened up. I was able to lever it off its perch and the hole became immersed in a cloud of gray. It took a long minute or two for the water to clear and I was anxiously hoping to see some gold. As soon as the dredge started to suck away the thin layer of sand and gravel I could see hundreds of flakes of gold like stars shining on a mountain night. Most of the flakes were large enough to stay on #20 mesh screen or 2 to 3 mm in size and there were hundreds of them. I recall thinking “If this keeps up we’ll get rich.” Of course the “hot spot” was over in just 5 minutes. We cleaned up the sluice again and were thrilled with over 9 DWT (nearly ½ oz. troy).
Still, he lingered in the hospital for several months, until a “golden cure” arrived when his friends brought in the perfect antidote to his doldrums – a full sample jar, crammed with placer gold. “Every day for months the doctor had come in and poked and held my feet hoping to see some nerve reaction or movement. Basically nothing in the feet had changed…they seemed to be immobile. However my mining friend Tom Quintal and his assistant “Professors of Universal Healing” wanted to try to revive my limp lower body. Although Tom was not wearing a dark cape and stove pipe hat, he did ceremoniously wave his bottle of newly mined Briggs Creek Gold under my nose. Wow, did it look good! With difficulty I was able to hold the bottle and examine the heavy flakes and small nuggets and hear them rattle in the bottle. I seemed to feel a wave of energy flow from the hands, into my abdomen then towards the feet. Gold Fever again was evident in my weak and wasted body. I was really excited and felt much better.”
Figure 3. Author Tom Bohmker inspecting a lode sample brought in at the gold show.
Bohmker was nearly half-done with a large work tentatively titled Gold Panner's Guide to California's Klamath Mts. before he had to slow down. He told me that he does have another work in progress: “Along with Eddie Humbird (a real good dredger and pocket hunter in John Day) we may come out with Gold Panner's Guide to Eastern Oregon soon.” It would be a quick, short work, but he still has many mining stories he hopes to get written down.
I asked Tom one of those Robert Service-type questions – was he happier working a single area continuously, or did he have the wanderlust that kept him searching? “In the past, I enjoyed just working a decent spot,” he admitted. “I spent eight years on one set of claims, including whole summers on a single, 150-foot section that was deep and rich, with plenty of good dredging spots. These were economic mining times, when the scale weight at end of the day or week was very important. However, at times I have done weeks on surveys of panning under every bridge...In 15 minutes, if I did not have good color I moved on. That was lots of fun! For example, I tried to pan every major gold stream in the Black Hills...Gold weight was not important. It was the adventure of finding color here and there.”Field Testing the Book
I ‘test-drove’ the Oregon book immediately after leaving the show, dragging a couple helpers out to the Little North Fork of the Santiam River. We followed his directions precisely, and even though the water was still high in late March, we came home with extensive black sand and some decent colors. More importantly, we scouted out camping spots, bedrock, natural riffles, and giant cracks replenished each spring, and just where he said they were. Filing that one away for later in the summer, I immediately began planning a second trip to a spot in the Washington book, just northwest of Mt. St. Helens.
I’d been rockhounding up McCoy Creek several years earlier, searching for perfect little pyrite cubes in a wet clay in the banks of the creek. The bushwhack down was a chore, but I put the spot in my book on Washington locales. Later on, GPAA added a claim to their guide, and I was anxious to check it out on a modest, one-day trip. We waited for decent weather, and when the chance finally came, we followed his map all the way in. I knew the water would be far too high to do any decent sampling, so I concentrated on the lode mines he marked.
Figure 4. GPAA claim known as "Mother's Nightmare" is at the end of the arrow for Yellowjacket Creek, and is fed by the lode mines on Camp Creek.
Mining cabin and pyrite-laden drilling cores mark the lode mines that feed McCoy Creek.
Sure enough, I was able to locate the road in and track down the abandoned drilling cores behind the main building. I walked in further and located the caved-in mine entrance, and found further examples of extensive pyrite, chalcopyrite, bornite, and perhaps arsenopyrite. Needless to say, I went home happy. So based on meeting Tom, testing two pages from his books, and reading the republished information he provides for areas he hasn’t visited, I heartily recommend both books covered here.
Tom will be the first to admit he took more science than English in school. His publisher would do well to employ an editor, and some graphics help on the maps is also in order. But the charm of this book easily overcomes the complaints of an old writing teacher or a former geography student. Tom’s writing shines through when he relates stories about the camps, about lone prospectors who persevered or resilient men who overcame countless obstacles. His energy and enthusiasm burst from the pages, and if you’re lucky enough to be exploring a region Tom knows well, get your order in. It would be best if you could personally take Tom along, but having his book is a darned good substitute.
Garret Romaine is the author of Gem Trails of Oregon, Gem Trails of Washington, and Rockhounding Idaho. He has contributed as a columnist to GPAA Magazine for 15 years. You can find him on Facebook or email him at email@example.com.
By Garret Romaine
On a thoroughly misguided hike outside of Elk City, Idaho in 1997, trying to trace Nugget Creek to its confluence with Newsome Creek, my team ran into massive piles of timber across the trail and became, well, confused. We spent the better part of a night concerned that we were lost in the wilderness, but as the sun came up, we stumbled into signs of civilization. Walls of rocks were stacked neatly into cubicles and apartments, and it was quickly evident that we were walking through a very old Chinese gold mining camp. In another ten minutes we were in a clear-cut, and we easily followed the skid road to pavement, and then camp. Crisis averted.
Most modern prospectors are aware of the impact Chinese miners had in the last part of the 19th century. I’ve seen “China Diggins” on topo maps probably a half-dozen times, and in my field excursions, I’ve seen stacked rocks in neat piles. I’ve learned not to count on panning much more than black sand anywhere there were Chinese miners for extended periods of time, because they were patient and thorough. They had to be – they couldn’t legally own claims, so all they got were leftovers, and they faced discrimination wherever they had success.
All that serves as an introduction to a new book by R. Gregory Nokes, a former reporter for the Portland Oregonian. Nokes stumbled onto a detective story straight out of the wild west that should bring a bit of sadness to every gold prospector. His book, “Massacred For Gold,” is the story of a large company of Chinese miners who labored in the depths of Hells Canyon, where the Snake River cuts like a knife between Oregon and Washington. About 34 miners, divided into three teams, worked several coves and gravel bars along the Snake about 35 miles from the town of Imnaha, Oregon. Unfortunately, these canyons also housed a ruthless gang of horse thieves and cattle rustlers, and when the cowboys saw the Chinese miners, the temptation to rob and murder the foreigners was too much to resist.
“[the] crew uncovered a rich deposit of nuggets and heavy gold flakes along the river bank. Tucker speculated that, centuries earlier, the river had cut through a vein of gold-bearing quartz somewhere upstream and that the gold had lodged in the crevices of the bedrock where the miners found it. He didn’t say how he knew all this. But, if he was right, the Chinese scored a major strike, yielding more than the typical find of tiny particles, called flour gold. It would explain why the Chinese mined in the cove for the next eight months. However much they did find, it cost them their lives.” (p. 16)
Accounts of the actual massacre are sketchy, conflicting, and painful:
From a local newspaper account written 40 years later: “They left one to hold the horses and another as a lookout above the camp to warn of anyone coming down the river. Another was sent below the camp to warn of anyone approaching from below. Then the other three took a position on the hillside above the camp and with high-powered rifles began the slaughter of thirty-one innocent and defenseless Chinese whose only weapon of defense was 22-caliber rifle. The rifles barked and one by one the Chinamen were shot down like sheep killing dogs. They killed all but one until their ammunition ran out and when he started to flee in a boat, they had to run after him and finish him off with rocks.” (p. 40)
The bottom line was that several young white men used rifles to gun down the Chinese miners, one by one. There were signs of torture, too, as bodies began to pile up on downstream sand bars, or float past the town of Lewiston, Idaho, 65 miles away. But there was little outrage; massacres of Chinese laborers were somewhat common in the west.
Nokes does an excellent job of pulling together a story about western gold rushes, Chinese customs, and community values. Here’s his description of the town of Lewiston, Idaho, as it grew around the gold rushes nearby:
“Prior to the discovery of gold nearby, there was no such place as Lewiston. But when gold was found along the Clearwater River in 1860 and 1861 – near what is now Pierce, Idaho – it ignited an overnight gold rush, creating the need for a centrally located town to supply the thousands of miners pouring into the region….By mid-decade, however, the boom had run its course. Caucasian miners had scooped up most of the easily mined gold from claims along the Clearwater and its tributaries, then departed in droves for new and more promising gold strikes in southern Idaho…When the Chinese first arrived, the white miners viewed them as unwanted intruders. Even the possibility of Chinese competition alarmed Caucasians. To keep the gold for themselves, the miners organized whites-only mining districts. Typical was an edict from the Oro Fino mining district on April 14, 1861, which affirmed “the complete exclusion of the Chinese and Asiatic races and the South Pacific Ocean Islanders from the mines.” Similar bans were enacted by miners in nearby Warren, Nez Perce, and Salmon River mining districts.” (p. 30-31)
Without spoiling the ending, it’s common knowledge that the murder of a Chinese laborer was rarely punished. At the time, as Nokes documents, there were several similar attacks, including a riot in Wyoming and the rumored detonation of an entire mine by an owner who couldn’t afford to meet payroll for 130 Chinese miners. The most that could happen to a drunken cowboy for shooting a hapless Chinamen outside the local saloon was a $20 fine for discharging a firearm in public. One problem back then was an economic environment that turned quickly negative when the railroad construction boom petered out:
“Within a decade, however, circumstances changed dramatically. Tens of thousands of workers, both Chinese and Caucasian, were laid off during the financial panic of 1873 and the long recession that followed. What had been a labor shortage turned into a glut, and workers were thrown into a fierce and sometimes violent competition for scarce jobs. Whites were enraged that some employers preferred to hire Chinese, caring more about low wages and work habits than skin color.” (p. 35)
So, what could entice a band of foreign-born miners to travel so far from home, in a hostile land, to work so hard? Nokes explains the history of China at the time, and shows how economic conditions and the promise of rich finds was as powerful for poor Chinese laborers as it is today. Stories of fabulous wealth in California had trickled back to China since 1849, and over the course of four decades, there were enough success stories in America to continue pulling Chinese workers across the Pacific.
“The Chinese knew from their earlier experiences in California that after impatient Caucasians had mined the most accessible gold, they would be only too happy to sell their claims to the Chinese, or simply abandon them. That is indeed what happened. Once Chinese could move into the mining camps and work the old claims, they soon outnumbered Caucasians in mining towns throughout the region.” (p.31)
Rugged topography of the area near Hells Canyon features basalt flows and imposing cliffs.
By tirelessly tracking down court documents, interviewing surviving family members, locating cemetery and census records, and squinting at microfiche records from the time, Nokes pieced together not only the history of Chinese miners in the west, but also manages to explain, but not condone, how a community could harbor such murderers in its midst. He correlates the treatment of Chief Joseph’s band of Nez Perce Indians with the treatment of the Chinese, and deftly inserts himself into the story to keep it moving along. The result is an excellent book, with a kind of headlong momentum toward closure that always appears tantalizingly close, but like justice itself, never quite arrives.
I appreciated the numerous references to gold mining, buried treasure, and the history of the west. It isn’t clear to historians if the entire gold cache gleaned by the Chinese was ever completely recovered. There are all kinds of false leads, rumors, and legends surrounding what the Chinese recovered, but there are no definitive totals. Did the Chinese store all their gold in a single sack, or did each miner have his own stash? Did the robbers get a chance to split up their loot, or did the gang’s leader hide the ill-gotten gains by himself and dig it up later? Even Harland Horner’s history of Wallowa County, taken from a 1925 article of the Chieftain, which Nokes recounts, isn’t definitive:
“…Although several thousand dollars in gold dust were found by the murderers, much of the treasure was never unearthed. Each apparently had a cache of his own, and thirty hiding places are difficult to find. Twenty years after the tragedy a sheep herder found a small rusty baking powder can which had been washed out of a sand bank by the action of water. Curiosity impelled him to pick it up and he was started to find it contained gold dust. The battered can yielded more than six hundred dollars worth of dust. The little hoard had cost a life.” (p.18)
But I also appreciated the telling of a sad story, the necessary righting of a long-time wrong, and how, at long last, a public monument may come to be erected at the lonely site of the massacre. Nokes brings to life not only the misfits who committed the dirty deed, but also explores the motivations behind a luckless band of foreign miners, toiling so hard, so far from home. He exposes the community members who helped bury the truth and hide official records, and turned a murder-mystery into a detective story with ease.
It’s hard not to be angered by the entire story, and it would have been easy for Nokes to fall heavily on the side of moral outrage and advance straight to lecturing. But he repeatedly falls back on his training as an objective journalist to stay balanced. This is about as close as he comes to condemnation:
“The Chinese contribution to the development of the American West was substantial. But their efforts won them scant praise and little recognition – they didn’t fit neatly into the popular narrative of the conquest of the West by courageous white pioneers and gun-toting cowboys.” (p. 34)
In the end, it’s a tale that needed telling, and Nokes was the right man for the job.
By Garret Romaine
Ever since the show’s debut late in 2010, I’ve done my best to carve out some TV time on Friday nights for GOLD RUSH: ALASKA on the Discovery Channel. The 10-part series follows six guys from Sandy, Oregon who cast caution to the wind and head off to Alaska to set up a full-sized, big-time gold placer operation.
It’s got to be the dream of just about every GPAA member to do what these guys did. They’ve got a really inspired setup – the oldest guy, white-haired Jack Hoffman, has run a small mine before, with his son and crew boss Todd Hoffman. The Hoffmans are bankrolling the operation, and they’ve added a solid mechanic, a safety lead, equipment operators, and assorted labor to go with a pair of big excavators, a dump truck, a front-end loader, and a full wash plant with a shaker, trommel, and jig. This isn’t me with a spiral pan out crevicing for a weekend – this is the real deal.
Figure 1. Todd Hoffman, left, supervising his father operating one of the big excavators.
Figure 2. Todd Hoffman, left, and Jack Hoffman, right, had worked a gold mine near Fairbanks in the early 1980s.
I was hooked before the first episode ended, and I’ve followed them on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/goldrushalaska) and on the Discovery Channel at http://dsc.discovery.com/tv/gold-rush-alaska/. I even checked out the scuttlebutt at the Discovery Channel forums at http://community.discovery.com/eve/forums/a/cfrm/f/76419268601.
The team set up at Porcupine, Alaska, an abandoned town in the southern panhandle region. Anxious to learn everything I could, I checked US Geological Survey Professional Paper 610:
“The Porcupine district is ….along Porcupine Creek, a tributary of the Klehini River. Productive gravels were discovered in 1898 along Porcupine Creek and its tributaries (Wright, 1904, p. 12) The era of greatest activity was from 1900 to 1906, when about $100,000 in gold per year was produced. Between 1915 and 1917, hydraulic equipment was installed which accounted for a brief rejuvenation of the district (Eakin, 1918b, p. 99) …Total production for the district through 1959 is 53,250 ounces, all from placers.”
I found Porcupine at www.geocommunicator.gov, and pinpointed the town’s GPS coordinates: 59.420095, -136.238997. Next, I turned to www.mindat.org and got more information about Porcupine Creek (http://www.mindat.org/loc-199458.html):
Figure 3. Porcupine is the red dot on the highway west of Klukwan
“Production: The estimated total production from the Porcupine Mining Area from 1898 to 1985, including Christmas (SK062), Nugget (SK048), Porcupine (SK041), Cahoon (SK044), and McKinley (SK046) Creeks, is 79,650 troy ounces of gold. From 1898 to 1906, there were small manual operations producing as much as 9,000 troy ounces per year that were destroyed by flooding in 1906. From 1907 to 1915, mining by the Porcupine Gold Company was conducted using a flume constructed one mile below the junction with McKinley Creek. Production averaged 3,000 troy ounces of gold per year, until the flume was destroyed by a flood in 1915. From 1916 to 1918, the old flume was repaired and a new flume was built. Over 6,000 troy ounces of gold was produced during this period. The flumes were destroyed in the flood of September, 1918. Porcupine Gold Mines, which later became Alaska Sunshine Gold Mining Company, took over in 1926. In 1928, they completed a flume that originated on Porcupine Creek 0.5 miles above the junction with McKinley Creek and bridged McKinley Creek. Mining commenced in 1929 but closed at the end of the season due to poor returns. After much additional exploration, mining began again in 1935. Work continued into 1936 when the bridge over McKinley Creek was destroyed by a rock slide. As of 1986, there had been only minor, sporadic production since World War II. During times of high gold prices in the 1970's and early 1980's, some mechanized mining was conducted (Hoekzema and others, 1986).”
Figure 4. Topo map from GeoCommunicator showing the site of Porcupine, where the Hoffmans set up their mine.
Just before the final episodes ran, I tracked Todd down through his Facebook page and set up a phone interview. The Q&A transcript follows:
MTI: First off, congratulations on a great show. It’s been so compelling to watch.
TH: Thanks. We really appreciate everybody that’s watching it. We just made it into the top 25 cable shows, right below SpongeBob….(laughs)
MTI: There probably isn’t a single GPAA member who wouldn’t have traded places with you guys up there in Alaska. Tell us about the origins of this idea to start a gold mine in Alaska - was it something your dad Jack always talked about?
TH: My dad came to me when I was 15, in 1983, 1984. That was the last gold rush, gold tipped the scales at about $800 an ounce, coming out of the Carter years. So my dad came home and said we ought go gold mining. I said, that sounds awesome, but can you still do that? We made up our own plant, home-made. It had a potato digger belt – you don’t see that very often. It was kind of a neat way to wash dirt and move out the rocks. We built that, got a Case loader, got a D8 cat with a ripper, replaced the undercarriage on the Cat and put it on a train and sent it to Alaska. We mined in the 80’s for two seasons out of Fairbanks. I always knew it was something we could do. So, when gold started taking off, you know, and I’m watching what’s going on in the world, I’m thinking to myself, ‘It’s time.’ But geez, I can barely do this, maybe I can turn it into a show and get some of my fuel paid. That’s pretty much it – that’s the whole premise of what we did.
MTI: So you had done this before. You weren’t a complete novice.
TH: We didn’t do it real successfully before. We had mined, and we had gotten enough to basically break even. But some of our friends did really well. I’ve seen it happen. I knew it was possible. I’d seen things a lot of guys never get to see. And I never forgot it. Some of the best times of my life were up there. There were several mines on our creek. I actually think GPAA now owns the claim. I think it’s one of your group. And I actually know where the gold is on the claim. (Laughs) I can’t remember the name. It’s up out of Circle Hot Springs.
MTI: How did you pick Porcupine Creek? Was it someplace, or someone, you knew from your past?
TH: I went up on a fact-finding mission, and I looked at all kinds of mines. I knew that getting back into the business, plus coming up there with all the cheap equipment that I had, it was going to take me a long time to get everything running. It wouldn’t if I had a half million dollars to plunk down on a high-end system. But I didn’t –I’ m bringing a bunch of home-made stuff. So I knew we were going to have issues and stuff like that. So I had to pick an area that had a longer mining season than just the average 60-75 days. And Southeast Alaska has a season that goes almost 4 months. We started in snow and ended in snow. Plus I found this mine that I believe was pretty lucrative. It had this great history, all the way up the creek. That’s why we plunked down there. Plus, you know Schnabel there across the creek, was pretty open to having us and was really gracious with us. We actually became pretty close with him and his family, and his grandson Parker.
MTI: Tell us about the inspiration behind your wash plant – was it even an option to buy machinery already in Alaska, or did it just pencil out to make more sense by barging it all up there?
TH: Really, you don’t want to buy too much stuff already up north, because it’s pretty hammered on. It’s always better to buy down here, in the Portland-Seattle area., and then have it shipped up by barge, because you can still find a decent piece of equipment for cheap and have it shipped up there. But you get up there, it adds 20-30%, and the equipment is really beat up. They hammer stuff pretty hard up there.
MTI: Attacking that claim with a big wash plant meant it was going to take a long time to get going. Did anyone have a dredge or high-banker operating in the background? Even a sluice box would have been worth setting up just to prospect the bucket loads you were bringing up. Or were you convinced that the only way to succeed was to go big, so you didn’t even consider smaller gear?
TH: Everything was in the bigger equipment. The majority of miners are like your folks, with the high bankers and stuff like that. I believe that gold will keep climbing, and staying in that recreational capacity is going to be pretty crucial in the next few years. I really do. Because you have a minimal investment, you can move around, you can do it on your own, you don’t have the headaches of a commercial setup. But we just stuck with what we had.
MTI: Designating a safety officer was sheer genius – most of our members have watched a placer gold camp quickly pile up broken parts, used hoses, spare gold pans, and more . Your camp stayed fairly neat, and I saw spray paint on the ground, grates blocking the trammel, and safety vests everywhere. Whose idea was that to designate a leader for safety issues?
TH: Actually Thurber and Greg had safety backgrounds. Thurber is a safety officer at his construction company. He was a natural fit. Plus, you just have to have a designated safety officer. You also have to have a basic safety plan. So we did. When my daughter had her seizure, we were able to take care of her. The production crew also had a safety plan. They had repeaters, and we were able to communicate with the hospital. We took our tailings and used them to make our roads better. When we got there, it was just a mess. So we moved stuff around, all our roads were graveled, and it was pretty nice. We tried to keep it pretty decent. That’s just how we do stuff. We do the best we can.
MTI: Getting a mine going while the cameras are rolling must have been a challenge, especially since mining and “bad hair days” go together really well. Did you just adjust after awhile?
TH: Yeah, you just kind of get used to it. Almost like they’re not there. But you have to know who you are. I’m just kind of an overweight kid with a dream. So it doesn’t bother me a whole lot. When you get upset and you swear, that’s something I’m not proud of, and something I’m working on, ‘cuz you don’t want that. We know families are watching our show, and we keep that at a minimum. Of course, with television, you know they want maximum drama, but to be honest with you, we’re just trying to get our job done the best we can. It is weird having a camera on you the whole time, but after awhile you get used to it.
MTI: One of my favorite episodes was when everybody, including women and teenagers, started panning concentrates. It seemed like a lot of community spirit, everyone is in this together. Was that pretty satisfying for you, too?
TH: I was a little nervous, because when you had kids panning, you know…but my dad had showed them how to pan, and to be honest, I think I was in the wrong. Because, I was a kid, and I was panning, and that meant a lot to me, to be panning out some concentrates, that I’d be trusted to do something like that. In the end, aren’t we trying to pass on something great to our kids and our families? There’s nothing more pure than panning gold out of the ground that you’ve just dug up.
MTI: Wave tables aren’t all that complicated – I’ve seen them work. Did you ever figure out what you were doing wrong with that equipment, or was it just that there wasn’t enough gold in those early buckets of concentrates?
TH: You know, I personally don’t like them…I’ve seen better ways of doing that. But you know what? What do I know ? I’ve known guys who swear by them. But a lot of those guys have them mounted really solid in their basement. And they’ve got the material sized out really well – they’ve got the mesh sized out just right. I’m no professional – I’ve seen the extruder table that’s made by MSI Mining [http://msi-mining.com –ed] – the guy that designed that, I know him, and he is a meticulous builder, and so that extruder table is a pretty neat system. But you know, I’m like everyone else, I’m still learning. After you pull your concentrate out of your sluice box, I like to work them through a small hand jig first, to get it down to a finer concentrate. I used to actually build them when I was younger, when I was 15, 16. I sold them to the miners up in Alaska. I didn’t sell a lot of them – I think I made six of them, but they all worked really well. One of them was still going 10-15 years later, someone was still using it. That was really cool, seeing it still going.
MTI: Most of our members can only dream of digging a hole visible by earth satellite, but you guys had two excavators, pumps, and all the other equipment necessary to reach deep bedrock. In the last show I saw, there were some giant-sized boulders coming up out of the ground. Describe your efforts as you got closer and closer to the bottom of the hole.
TH: (sighs) There are other areas that are a lot easier to mine. You’re better off in an area that’s maybe 10, 15, 20 feet deep. The thing is with this one, according to what we’ve all figured out, there’s a waterfall there. And we don’t know how deep that bedrock is there. But we know there’s gold on the top, and over the years it’s sifted down to this glory hole. The problem is, like you’ve seen with Schnabel, that hole could be 100 feet deep – we don’t’ know. It’s a risk. We gauged it at 40 feet deep, so you’re really taking a risk on something like that. I wouldn’t suggest doing that. I would suggest finding a mine that has coarse gold that is not very deep – 10-15 feet to bedrock, where you can work the bedrock and follow the pay streak right up the hillside. So that’s my advice.
MTI: I pulled some of the early mining reports for Porcupine Creek, and at one point, they built a 20-foot wide flume and just put the creek in the flume, to get it out of the way basically. Did you look at those old reports?
TH: Oh, yeah. The history on that creek was incredible. The amount of gold they pulled out of there was just astronomical. And they moved the creek, a one- or two-mile flume. It was going above their head, and they’re down in the creek bed mining, dry. The problem is that the valley there has so much snow, and it can back up, and create these flash floods down through there. And it blew out this million-dollar flume they built. If you look at the old pictures it was incredible, the amount of manpower they put into that flume. We’re living on the town site. There were almost a thousand people, 500-1000 people, living at Porcupine, right there on the property. So, it has a lot of incredible history.
MTI: One thing about mining is that when you’re starting out, you learn a lot every day. A whole season is like a university degree. Plus, once you get a good case of gold fever, it’s hard to shake. Has it been announced yet if you’re going back for another summer?
TH: I am putting all my stuff together to go back. I don’t know if Discovery Channel is going to tag along again. A couple things I want to say for your members, though. A lot of the larger mines, and people up there, they don’t really want more people coming up and doing what we’re doing. They would rather that a lot of the recreational guys stay down in the lower 48. But don’t let that be a discouragement to you. Alaska is part of the US, and you have every right to put a group of guys together and do what we did. Now, having said that, it isn’t easy, and you have to do a lot of paperwork and go through the proper channels. You have to have some wherewithal to make it work. That’s what we’re trying to do is help some different groups prepare and figure out how to make that happen. That’s going to be a service I will provide in the future to help those guys go after it. Don’t get discouraged when you hear professional miners say mean things about us. Don’t worry about us. It didn’t discourage me – I don’t give a rip. The mining associations aren’t really for the little guys – they’re for the big guys. You’re not going to get a lot of help from them. GPAA has been very aggressive – you guys have done a great job working for your base. So keep up the good work.
MTI: Have you been a GPAA member in the past?
TH: You know what, I think my Dad was. For many years, I just kind of forgot about gold mining. I always looked back with fond memories, but you grow up and get married and have kids – I don’t even know where the time went. I haven’t had a lot of time to go out and do stuff like that. So, it’s kind of re-sparked the dream for my father and myself, and all these guys. Now there’s a lot of people out there watching us make mistakes, but also do some good things. They’re learning about sluice boxes, they’re learning about gold pans. There are a lot of equipment companies, like White’s Metal Detectors [http://whiteselectronics.com – ed] , that are selling a lot more stuff now. And hopefully you guys get new members, because there’s safety in numbers. I don’t care if you’re big or small, the more people involved in it, that’s how we’re going to protect the freedom to do it.
Eakin, H.M., 1919, The Porcupine gold placer district, Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 699, 29 p.
Koschmann, A.H., and Bergendahl, M.H., 1968, Principal gold producing districts of the United States: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 610, 283 p.
Wright, C.W., 1904, The Porcupine placer district, Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 236, 35 p.