THE PLACER MINERS
The placer miners who worked the gravel bars on the Columbia, the Fraser and Thompson, in the Cariboo, Wild Horse and Big Bend were participating on one of the last occupations open to a healthy single man without resources. A placer miner needed only a supply of provisions, a gold pan, shovel and axe. He would learn of the discovery of gold bearing creeks or rivers from newspapers or from saloon cronies. He would set off alone or with a a partner with perhaps a burro or a mule to carry his tent and provisions, or often with just a pack on his back. He expected, once he arrived at the diggings, to find enough gold to purchase his needs at whatever store he would find there.
The placer miner was not an immigrant; he intended to make his pile, and then to go home, buy a farm, a business, a hotel or saloon, and live a settled life. Most placer miners in British Columbia went back south to San Francisco, or Portland, Walla Walla, or Colville for the winter, then headed back to the diggings in the spring. Some few would stay on the grounds all winter, building crude log cabins and taking advantage of the low water season in the rivers to test bars submerged in the summer. The supplies brought in by the last pack train in the fall would have to last the little community of miners until the first pack train of the following spring. In the more remote camps, as Wild Horse and Big Bend, this could lead to near starvation conditions in March and April.
Only the Chinese placer miners planted gardens; the Americans and British with the pride of men with gold in their purses, made a point of buying their necessities. They would shoot game if it were available; they would buy salmon from the local Indians; they might purchase vegetables from the Chinese camp if one were near, but they thought of themselves as gold miners, not gardeners, and the gold they washed from the gravels was to spend, not to hoard.
A placer camp was an unstable community. No matter what the gavels were yielding, every miner had a vision of a fabulous creek, somewhere back in the everlasting mountains where the gold nuggets lay on the stream bottom thick as pumpkin seeds, and a man could scoop up a thousand dollars a day. All it took, in a placer camp, was a rumour of a rich location somewhere “over yonder” and the whole body of men would down shovels and stampede to the supposed bonanza. Nine times out of ten they would be back in two weeks, starving and ragged, with nothing to show for it. But let another rumour start, and they would instantly be off again.
Should the new creek show promise, the miners would stake their claims, hurry back to the old camp, dismantle everything movable: doors, windows, furniture and wheelbarrow them to the new camp. Claims in the old camp would be sold to the Chinese who were not allowed to work virgin ground, and the place would be abandoned.
The relatively easy availability of large amounts of gold led to a kind of “Hurrah Camp” excitability among the miners. Fantastic and unlawful acts would be committed by excited men who normally have been peaceable and sober minded. Reinhart provides some examples.
“I was standing on the sidewalk (at The Dalles), outside a saloon, a man rode up on a fine mule. Dismounting, he untied a long rope from his saddle, fastened one end to the mule, took the other and disappeared into the saloon. I noticed that he jerked the rope at intervals. Presently from within came a man who cut the rope, tied it to a post, got on the mule with its silver mounted saddle and bridle and rode away. The rope was till jerked occasionally, while the man at the other end continued, presumably to eat and drink and be merry. At last he came out, sized up the situation at a glance and demanded of me if I had seen anyone cut the rope and ride the mule away. I told him what I had seen and the sheriff was soon in hot pursuit.”
“I crossed the street to a saddle shop where a man was putting on a fine roan a new and elegantly stamped saddle. After cinching it securely, he said to Mr. Gordon, the proprietor, ‘I will try the saddle to see if I like it. Gordon replied, ‘Certainly.’ The man mounted and rode towards a rock bluff which he started to descend at a good pace. One of the bystanders remarked, ‘That man does not intend to come back. Look out for your saddle. Search was made for the sheriff, but he was busily engaged hunting the mule and no officer could be found to go after the saddle thief.
“Another time I noticed a man riding up on a beautiful sorrel horse. Old Bill Howard, proprietor of the Mt. Hood Saloon (the one I had looked in at), said to the crowd, ‘That man rides a stolen horse. Watch me get him.’ As the rider was passing, Howard, in a voice like a trumpet, sang out, ‘That is my horse. Get off double quick and drop the reins or the daylight goes through you!’ The man jumped and lit running, nor did he stop or look back till he was out of sight.”
As most of the placer miners were townsmen or farmers, amateurs, their knowledge of geology was but rudimentary. In California the gold bars increased in richness as one went upstream toward the mountain slopes where the gold had originally come from. In B.C. they expected the same situation to hold, and were frequently wrong. The richest bar on the Fraser, was Hill’s Bar, near the downstream end of the gold district. On the Columbia and Kootenay Rivers, the best grounds turned out to be on the tributary creeks. The neophyte placer miner learned to identify gold and distinguish it from flakes of mica which sparkled when wet, but became dull when dry. Fools Gold, iron pyrites, were distinguished by a brassy color and tiny striations on the always cubical crystals. Silver was almost never found as the native metal in streams, and was not searched for. In the Tulameen District, on Granite Creek, platinum nuggets were found, but thought to be an unknown form of silver and usually thrown away. Deposits of sparkling black galena were often found in the Kootenays, but passed by; placer miners had no use for heavy and relatively cheap lead.
If a miner was successful and came out of the goldfields with a sack of nuggets and grains of gold, he would take them to a bank or a store where they were weighed and paid for at the going rate for the gold of the area. As all placer gold contained more or less silver, sometimes copper, the rate he was paid in the 1850s and 1860s depended on its purity. Pure gold was worth $18 per ounce, gold alloyed with silver, as that from Cherry Creek which was half silver, might bring as little as $10. The determination of purity was by the method of Pythagoras who found in the Fifth century BC, that the ratio of the weight of the gold to the amount of water it displaced, could be used to assess its purity. The separation of gold from silver or other contaminants was done at the Mint, by metallurgical experts.
When, by shovelling and panning, a good deposit of placer gold had been located, the placer miner built or bought himself a “rocker.” This was wooden frame work containing screens to reject the gravel and short, cleated sluices to catch the heavy gold. While one placer
miner shovelled gravel into the top, the other poured in water from a dipper while rocking the device on curved supports to agitate the mixture of sand, gravel and the occasional nugget. Two men could process several yards of dirt this way in a day, a considerable advance on panning.
Small scale placer mining has always attracted number of jobless men during periods of depression. The first of these was in the 1890s with the demonization of silver in the U.S.
Thousands of displaced men were attracted to placer mining as a makeshift livelihood. The great rush of Americans to the Klondike had much to do with the stagnant economy in the U.S. at that time. The great depression of the Thirties as well, sent thousands into the woods of the Sierra in California in search of gold overlooked by the miners of 1848 – 1850. And in B.C. placering was resumed in a small way on the Fraser, the Thompson and the Columbia. Fifty cents a day was an average take, and a single man could live on that.
If a larger deposit were located, a number of men, from three to six or more, would work together to construct a long tom. This was a sluice of rough boards on sloping ground, perhaps 20 to 100 feet long. A constant stream of water was diverted into its upper end and men alongside shovelled in rocks, boulders and gold bearing gravel. The water current in a long tom tumbled the rocks and gravel a considerable distance and rejected them at the lower end. Cleats nailed to the bottom board caught to gold as the material passed through. Many yards of dirt could be processed daily in a long tom.
In some cases, as on the Kettle River bars, the gold was very fine, a flour gold which was very difficult to save. In these cases copper plates covered with a thin film of mercury were placed in the sluices where the fine sand and cold would pass across them. The fine gold would amalgamate with the mercury and be saved. By heating the amalgamation plate red hot, the mercury would be driven off as a dangerously poisonous vapour and the gold recovered.
When stream banks and elevated stream terraces were found above the level of the creeks, hydraulic mining was the next development of the placer miners. A long ditch, often several miles long, would be dug to bring water from upstream. A large diameter riveted sheet iron pile would bring this water down to the face of the gold bearing bank, and a nozzle, called a monitor, would direct the stream at the bank, washing it down into a long tom. Once the ditch was in place, often dug by hired Chinese labour, one or two men could operate the monitor and roll large boulders to one side, while the running water did the work. It was, until the development of gold dredges, the most efficient method of recovering placer gold, but hugely destructive to the land.
In some cases it was discovered that ancient stream channels lay buried beneath tens or hundreds of feet of barren overburden. In these cases tunnels were dug along the bedrock to intersect these ancient channels and the gold bearing gravels removed by wheelbarrow, or in more elaborate installations, by powered scrapers pulled by underground winches powered by compressed air.
The gold dredges of the 1900s were floating barges, assembled on the spot, which dug with a dipper bucket or more commonly with an endless chain of buckets and passed the material through a perforated, revolving trommel with the gold being caught in riffles underneath and the waste elevated for disposal at the end of a long, endless belt on a movable boom. These dredges worked the deep gravels of river and creek bottoms, constructing a pond which they continually moved up stream with them. These enormously efficient gold dredges worked in the 20th Century in the Cariboo, in the Monashees, and in the East Kootenay with varying success. They were, after 1905, the chief method of gold recovery in the Klondike.
A few small hobby operations of placer mining still continue in southern B.C. today.
In the north, on Pine Creek east of Atlin, and in the Yukon, placer miners with bulldozers and powered trommels operate commercially.