Pleasure Mining by Elizabeth Robins
Published in Fortnightly Review (Vol. LXXI New Series), March 1, 1902 (474-486).
Pagination marked to conform to this printing and should be cited by original page.
Hypertext markup and editing: Joanne E. Gates
Anyone who has seen something of quartz gold-mining will feel at once the picturesque significance of the term borrowed from the Spanish, to indicate that other more immediately arresting and satisfying sort of gold-seeking that goes by the name of Placer-Mining.
To those who know something of the huge difficulty and gigantic expense involved in shaft-sinking, erection of stamp mills and adoption of "processes," it will seem small wonder if the flowery mind of the early Californian (or of his fathers before ever they left old Spain) had christened this particular source of delight, this surface-mining in old water-courses, a pleasure, or placer.
However, as in the case of other beckoning joys, its promise is kept only to folk of two kinds--the flagrantly lucky, from whom nothing can be deduced, nothing learned, and those industrious ones who find that this sort of delight, like another, involves for most men, much sweat of the brow and a deal of hard digging.
At the same time, and in spite of the march of Civilisation, the improvement of processes, and the reign of Trust and Syndicate, there lingers still about placer-mining a savour of the old pleasure that gave to it a name falling on the ear like swift water tinkling over pebbles and like the chinking of new gold.
In the first place, this kind of money-making is independent of the bugbear Capital. Rich men undertake it, but they are no surer of success than the veriest beggar who has a stout pair of arms. And let no one say that there is not for all time something of the very essence of delight in dealing, at first hand, with elements so beautiful as virgin gold and running water.
For water is your placer miner's chief ally and co-worker. Indeed, man is the new hand, joining in the game at a late hour in the geologic day; but water is old at it and accomplished beyond the telling. Water began long ages ago this process of selecting, testing, sorting, "holding-up," highwayman-fashion, the rich rocks travelling by, turning out their pockets, soundly beating the close-fisted ones, forcing their fingers open one by one, till they let fall every nugget and every grain of treasure, and went their way poverty-struck and broken--they that had started on their journey with pockets full of gold.
And all this treasure, the water, so long as it lived in that channel, never ceased from rolling about, washing clean of each lingering particle of quartz, beating with hammers of flint and granite on anvils
of obsidian and syenite, welding into odd shapes, hall-marking with strange stamps, and hoarding away as any miser might, in the off side of little runnels, or laid out neatly along river bars, or tucked securely inside the elbow of a winding stream, just out of reach of the stronger current--reckless spendthrift that would scatter the hoard broadcast again.
The men who, idling along a river course, found bright particles and nuggets in the sands, arrived very sensibly at the notion of taking a leaf out of the book of the river god, and bringing the old story up-to-date.
We know how the Greek version ran. The men of Lydia loitering along the stream that hurried down from Mount Tmolus; the barbarians, too, dwelling at the foot of the Caucasus, seeing that the mountain torrents brought down gold among their sands, bethought them of a device for holding fast by more than the unaided rivers could. These early placer-miners were, I must believe, shepherds first. No soldier, townsman or mere trader had both the leisure and the patient habit of observing, born of long, eventless hours in the open, that give the shepherd close acquaintance with the ways of nature. Such men had time to spy out Pactolus' secret; to see how it was that some of the precious metal was cunningly held back from the calling water, saved from the current that, uncircumvented, would carry the gold to the sea. Presently it occurred to someone how he might supplement the hoarding devices of the river, and the first placer-miner laid a sheepskin down in the pebbly bed, and when he came to take it out, behold, it was a Golden Fleece! Or did proud man have his first lesson in mining from a dead sheep?--some straggler from the flock lost in crossing the ford, swept away and tumbled about by the torrent, stranded at last, held fast by envious briars, until his woolly coat was richly gilded. In any case, by what-ever steps, once on the right track, the early placer-miners did not stand still. They found they could make Pactolus give up yet more of his gold if they pierced troughs with holes, lined them with sheepskins, shovelled in the gold-bearing sands, and sent the river water running through that first "sluice-box" under the sun.
As a money-saving apparatus, this device left much for economy to desire; but the gold that in that fashion was fleeced out of Pactolus enriched generations of Lydian kings, filled with splendid treasure the temple of Delphi and kept the name of Croesus living on men's lips for over two thousand years. Such hold did the device and its success take upon the imagination of those early victims of the gold craze, that as even Strabo saw and said, these far away placer-miners gave to mythology its term for priceless treasure, fit gift for a Colchian king, fit object for Jason's quest, satisfying symbol of the aim of much adventuring.
While Herodotus has some rare tales to tell about gold-seeking, he says frankly "how it is produced I have no knowledge." It is amusing enough to find him quite clear, however, that the far-off northern regions are richest in gold. With no notion of how universal and how child-like the conviction is, the grave old historian tells you that it "seems as if the extreme regions of the earth were blessed by nature with the most excellent productions:--age-old illusion, that has sent so many travellers forth, and more than any wind of heaven carried Greek Argo to the Colchian port, and before that day, and down to this of ours, has launched a thousand ships and blown men up and down the world.
As to those Indians of Herodotus, who paid Darius a greater gold tribute than any other Satrapy, and who brought across the desert, along with bags of gold-bearing sand, tales of the terrible danger attending the gathering thereof, and of how the ants, who burrowed and threw up the precious sand in heaps, were as big as dogs and mightily ferocious--they, after all, were only doing what the Klondyker and the Nome miner did before the cat--the dog--the ant was out of the bag: exaggerating the danger and the difficulty, that they might keep a good thing to themselves.
The earliest modern version of the golden story is, I suppose, the less romantic one called Panning. The prospector takes a shovelful of sand out of the right place in a channel, and puts it in the handiest available vessel (whether shallow, round bread-pan, or even the camp frying-pan freed of grease), and he brims it with water and "washes the dirt clean," as they say. Then, with the pan in both hands, the miner gently agitates it with a circular motion, that little by little, at each turn of the wrist, expels a portion of the muddy water and some of the lighter particles. Continuing this action, he finds that the specific gravity of whatever metal had been in that shovelful of sand, ensures his being left, at the end of this simple process, with all the heavies stuff, magnetic iron, pyrites, gold, collected together in the bottom of the pan. As gold is the heaviest of all these, that again would be separable from the base metals by a continuation of the same process.
Or, if the gold is very fine, "scale" or "flake" or "flour," the final separation is facilitated by a few drops of quicksilver in the pan, which amalgamates with gold--with silver too--and turns a cold shoulder to everything else. It is easy enough afterwards to drive off the "quick" by heat, and leave the miner with a little cake of precious metal at the bottom of his retort. Failing a retort, the miner simply takes the "quick" that has been impregnated with gold, and squeezes it through a bit of thick drill, or blanket or buckskin, the last being the best and in general use in northern camps. When the liquid metal has been pressed out in a thousand globules
(and carefully saved for "next time"), there will be inside the buckskin a squeezed-up mass like soft silver. This emptied out on a shovel, and held over the campfire, will soon "sort" itself--the remaining "quick" being expelled by the heat and going off in vapour--the gold steadfastly remaining.
But though a man in this fashion may get anything from one or two "colours" (gold specks) to fifty dollars a day, panning is looked upon chiefly as a means of prospecting. If the prospect is proved by this simple means to warrant a more thorough investigation, the placer-miner, taking, as we said, a leaf out of the book of the river, sets himself to revise and abridge the work done ages before he saw the light. Where he can best secure a good head of water, he roughly knocks together a line of sluice boxes. Each box averages one foot by twelve. On rude trestles they are set end to end, in a continuous line, inclined a little to give the water sufficient power to carry away sand and little stones and not too much of the gold. The box is simply a river-channel in miniature. By way of the sluice-gate at the head of the first box, the water pours merrily down the new course, not across fleeces now, but over "riffles"--slatted or cross-latticed wooden frames--fitting neatly along the bottom, and easily removable when they have served their purpose. Usually at the lower end of the sluice is one box fitted with an amalgam plate--a sheet of copper covered with quicksilver. The miner stands near the head of the sluice, and, as he shovels in the gold-shotted sand, he finds the water has lost no whit of its ancient cunning. Within the narrow confines of the new channel the tiny stream starts away on its ancient occupation with a jaunty up-to-date air; carrying through with concentration and despatch that leisurely old business of sending to the right-about all pauper stones and beggarly sand, while it caresses and keeps back the gold; cunningly hiding away the lighter particles between the slats of the riffles, just as it did in the old days in gully and by river bar; and making exactly the same joyful demonstrations of dancing eddies round the early arrested nuggets; wherein we see why the upper courses of gold-bearing streams are likely to be more "nuggetty," though not always richer on the whole, than the lower reaches, and why it is well to have an amalgam plate at the bottom of the sluice.
I was on terms of comparative intimacy with placer-mining when I was in my teens, having first watched that fashion of gold getting in the Rocky Mountains, not far from the source of the Rio Grande del Norte, whose water washes a deal of gold on its way down to Mexico. But this mode of mining is one of the things that exercise a persistent charm on the spirit of the wayfarer, as I discovered when I saw in such a different world, the same unchanged process going on, not far from the Arctic Circle. When a big fellow leaned on
his long-handled shovel, and told me how much hard cash was in each spadeful of the thawed-out "muck" that he had been throwing into the sluice box, and how the frozen ground that he was standing on was worth so many thousand dollars to the yard (not the cubic yard, but in just those few inches before bed rock was struck), I realised afresh the odd exciting charm there might be in such a manner of money-making.
How different this from the oppressed feeling with which one went over the famous Treadwell Quartz mine on Douglas Island, yielding so much more gold in the long run than even a very good placer claim. It was indisputable that the whitey-grey stone, those endless gangs of whitey-grey men were getting out of the mountain at such pains and cost, was worth four dollars and some cents a ton. A chastened respect, perhaps, but no warmth of pleasure visits one in the midst of the deafening thunder of the biggest stamp-mill in the world; the whirr of an acre of machinery; the violent trembling of vast buildings in which one loses oneself, until out of a kind of industrial nightmare one is roused by some deadlier shock that seems to rock the anchored island and set it groaning.
"What was that?" Oh, the stubborn old mountain was being coerced, being "done for" by a dose of Giant Powder. And even when you came out again from the busy clangorous mills, you remembered that far below, in sunless places, ghoulish creatures were cracking up the bones of the majestic earth; and you met them coming above ground, haggard, blinking, bearing the broken fragments, putting one childishly in mind of the ogre's immemorial mode of life, how he "ground the bones to make him bread."
When one looks at the "hands" in such a place as Treadwell, when one comes to know something of the way such miners live, one has no wonder left to expend on a Klondyke Rush, nor even common pity for the awful average of quartz mine accidents, that, nearer home, will put an end to the long working day. The final crashing and quick doom of an explosion is the least awful thing the miner has found in the mine.
Remembering how even amid the rigours of the far north there may be always freedom, and very often pleasure, for the man whose business is getting gold out of the ground--one feels it an inadequate result that out of all the tons of Treadwell ore, out of all this life and death, out of all this stress and strain and steam, a company of vague people far away, who are not miners at all, should get some percentage of that four dollars a ton.
One has heard much, and one knows something, of the hardship of mining in the Klondyke. But the wild rush thither--when one has been there oneself--seems less wonderful than that in the quartz mines the round world over, there should be left a single able-bodied
hireling. Not that if you go placer-mining in the Arctic, you shall be denied all close acquaintanceship with the "bright face of danger." But even the man who is worst off there, is safer really than he is in places nearer home, where, year in and year out, the steady average of violent death among the workmen is a man a week--and this despite the fact that as one in authority in such a mine assured me, "the average of accident is marvellously low considering,--so low in point of fact, that only enemies or rivals ever talk about it."
Whether it be in Colorado, or along the Frazer River in British Columbia, in Alaska between parallels 64 and 66, or in the Klondyke, memory does not shrink from the pictures placer-mining conjures up--not even from those of eighteen months ago exhibited on the shores of the Behring Sea. And this is true, despite the fact that there, on the beach north of Cape Nome, men, for the first time in the world's story having got gold out of sea sand, could not prevent the rumour from spinning madly about the globe, gathering, as it sped, size and wonder and attractiveness. All in vain they followed it with the modern version of the tales told by Darius' Twentieth Satrapy. Of no avail to say, as did those gold-laden Indians of old, that the country whence they brought their treasure was a barren desert, and the treasure so guarded they had barely escaped with their lives.
As all the world knows, men of various trades, professions and every degree of prosperity and of poverty, rushed northward in tens of thousands--no terrible, beneficent White Pass between them and this new Klondyke, to shut out the weaklings and let pass only the well "outfitted" and the fit.
So it was, that among the few who were already, or had in them the making of miners, there came to Nome an army of the derelict, to work over the "tailings" left by the first discoverers, who by now had skimmed off the cream and gone their way rejoicing. Nevertheless at Nome, where 30,000 people between the frozen tundra and the sea were trying to get rich in a place that even yet, in its denuded state, could have generously repaid the work of a few hundreds--even there the men who were really miners, and who mined, played none of the striking parts in the summer-long tragedy I saw acted out upon the beach. The cheechakos (greenhorns) of all professions or none, who came with little save a touching faith that they would be able to make a pile out of the even greater necessity of others--or those who came with tons of costly machinery, and a fixed determination to drive the small miner off the beach and "sweep the coast," such men and the mere town speculator, went home with gruesome tales enough.
But the regular miner was able to get a living even out of the
well-worked tailings; and it may be remembered that to live in Nome is as costly as to live in New York at the Waldorf, or at Claridge's in London.
The world knew through no less an authority than the President of the Philadelphia Geographical Society, Professor Angelo Heilprin, that out of the Nome sands "in barely more than two months" had been taken over a million dollars, by the crude means of "rocking."
This method I had never seen in operation till I landed at Nome, but it is only "another way," as the cook-books say, of preparing that dish fit to set before a Lydian King. Instead of catching the gold in a fleece, they catch it in a bit of woolly blanket, upon this wise:
A common deal box or packing case (mounted on rude rockers) has been divided horizontally into two sections by a plate pierced through with quarter-inch holes. The lower section is covered for two feet of its outer end with an amalgam plate. Above this, and between it and the pierced bottom of the receiving "hopper," are secured diagonally two blanket or felt "aprons." When the sand is shovelled into the hopper, water is played upon it, and the box "rocked" back and forth. The heavier gold sinks down through the holes of the plate, and is caught in one or other of the aprons. When these golden fleeces are washed out, the yellow metal is left gathered at the bottom of the pail, and the miner learns to tell at a glance about how much of a Croesus he is. The amalgam plate is not cleaned so often, but the process is practically the same as if the miner had been panning, and had used a little "quick" to save the more impalpable or refractory particles.
There is often much reticence about the results obtained. I found this particularly the case in the Klondyke, where the extortionate tax levied by men too far from the scene of action to legislate wisely, hampered and seriously lamed enterprize, sending many a miner who owned valuable property there to try his luck 2,000 miles away at Nome.
But if in the creek diggings of Alaska men would talk of their "returns," certainly on the seashore miners were not given to that sort of babbling until they were ready to move on. For you cannot stake and hold a claim on the public beach; and after sundry frays it was found that there was no effectual way of keeping others at bay the moment it became known that you were "making more than wages"--the phrase used even among men who are their own employers to indicate returns of over $15 a day.
I soon discovered that if I were walking the beach with a man (especially with a business man) we seldom got much satisfaction as to "returns." But the miners would sometimes tell the facts to an idle woman, and even show her shining proofs--in Alaska. In the
Klondyke, no. I had several experiences of this small difference between the British and American mining camps. I remember in particular the angry eyes of a rich Klondyker on Eldorado, when following, as he led the way down his line of sluice boxes, I said carelessly: "I suppose one mustn't ask how the pay is averaging?"--and the sudden right-about of the man with the sharp reply, "No! and if you've come to find that out, we can stop just where we are." I tried to calm him, saying that, as a matter of fact, I didn't care a button how well or ill the dirt was paying--that my question was prompted by a polite interest in his personal fortunes that I didn't really feel. But it was plain he looked on me with a suspicious eye as possibly a spy. For had I not come armed with a letter from the Gold Commissioner?
The first "clean-up" that I saw in the north from start to finish was in the camp about seven miles across the tundra from Nome, behind that hill standing out so definitely, that from a sense of its contrast with the leagues on leagues of frozen flat morass, men have called it a mountain, although in Dr. Johnson's phrase it is "merely a considerable protuberance" crowned by a rock, shaped by erosion and rough weather very like an anvil. Out of the little creek on the far side, also called Anvil, a handful of penniless prospectors had taken in a little over two months something like nine hundred and eighty-five thousand dollars.
No. 9, above Discovery, is not the most valuable of the claims, but it has made half-a-dozen men very comfortably off.
In the summer of 1900, in "the rainiest place in the world" as we had been forewarned, there had been only two hours' light shower in forty days. As we know, running water is the indispensable ally in this kind of work, and for lack of it many valuable properties were lying idle, the owners losing thousands every day the drought lasted.
From far off across the tundra, as one looked into the shallow valley, one had the impression of its being not drought that made Anvil Creek so shrunken and dry, but the presence there, in the middle of the watercourse, of a huge white worm--a pestilent-looking mythologic sort of serpent, hundreds of feet long, grown fat and sluggish with draining the life of the precious little river.
You realised, coming nearer, that the huge white worm was a beneficent monster, gathering together all the spent forces of the shrunken stream in its white canvas body, and giving the water out on demand, as best aided and abetted the miner. Not only to our friends at No. 9 had it occurred to "pick up what was left of the water," as one said, and by damming and concentrating the stream in a great "duck" hose, get enough power to do a little sluicing.
They were going to "clean up," on this particular morning, and
we were there to see the result of two days' work--double shift, of course, four men shovelling in the "pay" all night, by the never failing light of the same steadfast sun that shone upon the three men who worked on the day shift. There were 28 feet of sluice, but the "clean-up," for some reason I have forgotten, was only from the contents of two boxes, two feet long.
We, of the visiting party, sat on drift-logs above the creek, and watched the initial preparations. Down below, out of sight now, was the little tent camp, at that portion of the Creek called "Discovery"--always the name given to the first claim staked. The others are numbered from this, 1, 2, and so on, Above or Below. One of our hosts was arranging with another (appointed "gate-man") what the code of signals was to be--a necessary readjustment because of the low state of the water. Then the gateman went up stream to the head of the line of graded sluice boxes, and in the first instance turned off the water altogether.
We were called to come down and look into the boxes, before the riffles were taken out, to see what we could find. We turned over two or three stones, and beheld a small blackened bit of something, the size of the end of my little finger. I thought at first it was pyrites, but it was gold, quite pure save for the surface iron stains. Just as the gateman turned on a full head of water my companion saying, "Yes, that's a little bit of all-right," recklessly threw the nugget back into the sluice. I said nothing, but was uneasily glad the owners had not seen the rash act. To my inexperience and from any but the miner's point of view, it was as though a collector had been showing his cabinet, and one of us, after looking at a curio and admitting its value, had thrown it out of the window.
They were extracting the big rusty nails, now, that held the riffles firm. Then there was a great signalling to get the water regulated, that it should be safe to take out those same riffles--the signalling supplemented by such a deal of shouting, you wondered why they did not abandon so impotent a code and trust entirely to lung power. But this was obviously not the view of the chief owner. He leapt into the sluice (every man wore rubber boots to the thigh), and standing there in the bright gravel and tumbling water, he shouted and beckoned, and spasmodically tossed his arms like a semaphore gone mad--until the water-power was not too much for the psychological moment approaching, and yet sufficient to admit of the riffles being effectively "dowsed," and washed more or less free of clinging particles of gold. I noticed, as they were lifted out dripping into the sunshine, water-worn and frayed at the edges, how they glittered with specks and points of light. "Oh yes," said one of the men, "you can't help the quite fine gold sticking to them. When they and the
boxes get too woolly it's always worth while to burn them and pan the gold out of the ashes."
The riffles out of the way, and the water playing down at about half power, one of the men walked up the sluice, and near the head of the line he began with a great iron sluice-fork to take up in its prongs, to dowse and throw out the bigger stones that the water had failed to carry away. Further down the line, another man, with a small short-handled shovel or scoop, was turning over the conglomeration that had been caught in the riffles, letting the water wash through it and make the most of another chance to carry away everything lighter than gold.
When this had gone on for a while: "Look where the boxes join if you want to see 'the proper stuff.' Hold back the water with your hand."
We did as we were told; and behold wherever there was a corner or inequality in the box there lay ridges and heaps of yellow "stuff"--brightened by the water, blinking at the sunlight like aged prisoners unused to the day. Wherever there was a stone that sluice-fork or miner's fingers had not tossed out, there all round it, except on the upper side, was closely packed the coarse bright gold.
Suddenly I saw the oddest-looking thing in the water, and fished out a piece of rusty metal about an inch and a half long, beaten and chiselled, and cunningly fashioned by the river god's own hand into the likeness of an old Roman with mouth open, laughingly immoderately at some ancient jest, laughing so maliciously that all those gathered about my find laughed too, until turning the head over we were confronted by the same face reflecting fury and disgust on that side, mouth open, ready with a howl of pain and rage. I ran up to the head of the sluice to give the nugget to the owner, but instead of being grateful to me for rescuing his Roman from the water, he laughed at him for an "old-fellow making faces" and threw him back into the sluice.
"I wonder how many nuggets you lose that way," said I quite unconvinced that he would ever set eyes on the Roman again. But my miner friend seemed to be as sure of seeing that nugget at the end of the "clean-up" as though he had it in his pocket. No one pretends that much fine gold is not lost in sluicing, but the water is held to render faithful account of nuggets and coarse gold. However, no amount of familiarity with placer mining ever cured me of feeling that it was tempting Providence to throw a lump of gold back into the swift water to mix again with a mass of sand and gravel.
The man who had been wielding the great sluice fork having finished throwing out the bigger stones, now joined his companion lower down the line, and exchanged the fork for a scoop, and a small corn-broom or whisk. Standing not a yard apart, these men work
slowly up, from bottom to top of the boxes--brushing everything indiscriminately up stream for the water to lay fresh hold on and sift anew. Every moment now, there are fewer and fewer stones, less and less of "ruby sand," and even the magnetic iron is bidding a lingering good-bye to the gold; while here, there and everywhere the proud little nuggets are lifting up their heads playing stars to long, comet-like tails of wedge-shaped gold dust. The nuggets were of every size and shape, from the biggest (on this occasion about 3 inches long by 1 1/2 wide) down to little rough-edged pellets or flattened bits, that looked as if they had been hammered and rolled. But nowhere did I see the Roman.
"Gather it up in your hands!" commanded one of the owners, "And when you've hefted it you won't doubt there's the right sort of stuff in the Nome district." With sleeves tucked up, we leaned over the side of the sluice-box, dipped into the bright water and brought up double handfuls of gold, dripping and heavy and shining. Someone had a magnet, and trying it on what little remained of the black sand, showed it to us clung about thickly with particles and tiny splinters of iron, looking like black hoar frost.
When at last the water and the little brooms had done their work of winnowing, the coarser gold was scooped up and put into a rusty sheet-iron pan. There were still some tailings left to be washed out at leisure, and also the amalgam on the plate, at the end, to be cleaned off and fired. But we were concerned to-day only with the cream of the clean-up, the pan half full of gold and nuggets, which was taken up on the bank of the creek and set down in front of the miners' tent. There in the open, a little drift-wood fire was made, and over it was propped the pan of wet gold. We all sat about on the ground, and watched the cook as, with an iron spoon, he turned over and stirred about the shining heap--mixed it and roasted it until sad to relate, all the beauty and the richness seemed to vanish. When at last the gold was thoroughly dried, it was also thoroughly tarnished, and as bare of beauty as a heap of old broken brass.
I am afraid something to the disparagement of the dish reached the ears of the cook. For he began to spoon up the fat and goodly nuggets, and having made a hillock of the rest of the gold, he disposed the best specimens about on top, where they sat with an obvious mission to be alluring and decorative, like cherries and angelica on a Buzzard cake. But is was no use. The finer glory had departed. The very nuggets abandoned the jaunty pretence, and looked out upon us from the top of the heap, dull and spiritless, seeming to confess "the fun's over--now the trouble begins."
But here all of a sudden is the Roman, lifting his wicked old head above the surface, and laughing still as he takes his place atop the heap, with that face of Schadenfreude, as though he knew for what
sort of work he and his companions had been summoned out of the dark, as though he gloried in the greed that they would waken, at the terrible things they could buy. His re-appearance was greeted with enthusiasm, and I saw from the pleased look of the miner that his cunning had kept this nugget dark till now.
While the gold is cooling, a rude table is hastily constructed out of boards laid on trestles. The gold scales are brought out of the tent and set in the middle of the table on an open newspaper. And the scales presently tell us that the little pile of tarnished metal in the rusty pan is worth over twenty-three hundred dollars; to which must be added, for the credit of that clean-up, the five hundred dollars or so which the tailing and the amalgam plate would yield; an average roughly of one thousand three hundred dollars to each box after two days' work. Such a result is modest even for Anvil, while for the more valuable claims in the Klondyke diggings, there are those who will tell you it is beggarly.
However, it was as interesting a "clean-up" to the wayfarer as though the returns had beaten the record. And every step of the way the gold had travelled in submitting to the age-old process, had been beautiful to look at so long as water helped in the work.
Some of the extraordinary vividness and richness of colour revealed by sluice boxes in the Nome district is due, not doubt, to the presence of that much talked of "ruby sand." Of course, to us, who knew the Nome beach so well, it was nothing of a novelty. We had seen it, day in day out, drifted along the upper side of rocks, left in a wavering line by the receding tide, hugging bits of wreck, or where men were digging down for pay dirt, we had seen it darkly reddening the heavier stratum, which all the world knew would be the most likely to carry gold. But on the seashore these fragmented garnets (miscalled ruby), are ground fine. Up here behind the mountain in the famous creek they are not so broken up--indeed with a little sorting you may get a handful of the perfect crystals.
On one occasion, when I was with some other miners going over a different claim, one of them picked out half a dozen whole "rubies" for me--and then it occurred to him that they should be "set in gold." But I could not wait for the "clean-up," so he got an empty gunpowder tin and filled it to the neck with a rich compound not yet "washed," chiefly broken "rubies" and gold dust. This he said, with, as I thought, a pleasant touch of imagination for a man who all his life had been a miner, I was to empty into a clear glass bottle when I got home, and I was to get a glass-blower to seal it, and there I would have a paper-weight of gold and rubies to keep that day in mind.
Descriptions, even by the honest, I have found to be commonly
over-coloured. They spoil you for the actuality. Even Niagara has been so dwarfed, so obstructed and built about by high-sounding phrases, that I have thought the only people who ever really saw it, were the few who had not heard tell of it before they stumbled on it unaware. To compare small things with great, one of the few experiences neither over-described (so far as I am concerned) nor blunted by familiarity is this sensation of seeing native gold among stones and sand brightened by running water. To look at piles of new minted sovereigns, or of $20 gold pieces in the dull setting of bank or cash-box, leaves the majority of us cold. We have all seen other people's gold lying about under such conditions, and we cannot recall the first time or the last. It made no enduring impression. But so long as you live, you shall not forget your incredulous surprise, or your aesthetic pleasure, in the revelations of the bottom of a sluice-box; the shimmering water glancing over bits of snow-white quartz, green-stone and jasper; over glinting mica and crystals of garnet; bringing out the keen colour of all the polished and far-travelled pebbles, the red of the "ruby" sand, and the heavy magnetic iron, coal-black, and sunk to bottom, where it lies striking sharp contrast against the yellow gold. To take "the stuff" up so, in your hands, dripping and shining and mixed with the elements, is to get the fine flavour of the richness of the King of metals.
I am sure that we have here the essence of the relish everyone has in his heart--or has had--for tales of buried treasure. Spanish doubloons are more than money when they are found in some mysterious cave. To the imagination yet unseared by pound or dollar signs, unshackled, unperverted, it needs no urging, that beyond the power of current coin in any kingdom under the sun, will pieces of eight enrich the finder who unearths them on some wild sea coast. Who as a child has not got usurious interest on some silver piece or bit of birthday gold by burying it for a few fearful minutes? Or by just dropping it on the ground and looking at it, lying there so beautifully set off by common clay?
Even to some of those who hold that they have put away childish things, gold in the ground, or out in the open, or anywhere except in purses or in banks, is purified of its tarnish of vulgarity, is beautiful again, and of the essence of Romance. And next to a Treasure Cave, commend me to a placer-mine, where I may do a little of the mining.
First available on line: 25 February 1999