Gold Digging in California
by Carlos Zimmerman
Doug Lance was responsible for managing the work teams that built Cave, so it was thought that the California trip should be given to someone else, both to give Doug a rest, and because the California project would begin work while he was still busy down in Alabama. I was rather surprised when I was chosen, as I was only about 25 years old at the time and had never been given that much responsibility before. However, I did have a lot of construction experience because my dad had his own construction company, and I had been in charge of sending supplies down to Alabama, and evidently they thought I was good about managing people, equipment, and other resources.
I was instructed that mining should begin in California at the beginning of summer, and I would have approximately a hundred workers, although the exact number would vary from week to week. Over the winter, Jon Dexter, our geologist, acquired as much geological and historical information as he could about the California gold rush and also about Nevada gold and silver mining. He decided to mine in both areas, a stay of ten to twelve weeks in California and then one to three weeks in Nevada, getting some blue mud from the second place. "Mud?" I asked him. He replied, "The prospectors in Nevada had a great deal of trouble digging down through some blue mud, which they mainly washed away. When it was about all gone, someone had it assayed, and they discovered that it was extremely rich in silver. We don't have to mine for silver, just dig up the mud." The purpose for getting the silver was different from the purpose in getting the gold. The Community would need very little gold but would sell it to raise cash; on the other hand, our new colonies would need silver for a variety of purposes, but especially for photography.
He had marked some topographic maps, using historical information, to show where the richest gold strikes would be and where the blue mud was found. I was rather puzzled at his California topo map, as he was ignoring the stream beds, where he told me the Founder had done his prospecting. Jon explained, "The richest finds were not in the current streams but in abandoned, fossil streams, as the ancient rivers actually carried more gold than the current ones." "Why not just locate the location of the ore deposits from which this gold was washed downstream?" I asked him. "Can't do that," he said. "The source of the gold has largely been eroded away, and it was in thin veins to begin with. The rivers and streams have been concentrating the deposits over the ages."
At the beginning of spring, the two of us traveled out to Nevada and California to look for property near where his marked locations were. "In the New World," he explained, "traveling any distance will take a good bit of effort, so we want to be as close as possible to one of these locations."
In Nevada, there wasn't much choice, as there was a single location to get to, and most of the surrounding land was owned by corporations. I ended up renting a worthless piece of ground with no water and electricity, and we purchased a couple of used trailers and had them hauled there. While we were there, I told Jon that I had doubts about the Nevada part of the project. "What's so difficult?" he asked. "All we have to do is to dig up some muck and haul it back to Pennsylvania; it's a lot easier than the work that we'll have in California." "But did you ever think," I replied, "about what I could get to haul that muck in?" No, he hadn't. And the problem was actually a real concern. Of course, we could buy or rent some kind of dump truck, but our drivers could hardly be driving it from state to state, carrying blue muck. Some inspector would think they were hauling sewage sludge. I guess I could get a truck designed to haul liquids, but crossing state boundaries would still present problems, and so would trying to clean it out. He asked, "What if we just bought a bunch of trash cans, filled them full, put on the lids, and hauled them in our trucks?" "Could you carry such a can to the truck?" I asked. "Wouldn't the muck slosh while driving, thus perhaps causing a wreck? I also don't think the cans could be stacked, and there is the same problem of what happens if some policeman looks inside." He asked me if I had any bright ideas. I said, "I do, but we will have to work in Nevada much longer than a week, although we can keep a much smaller crew here. My suggestion is to work both places at the same time and carry the loop back and forth. This would give us time to dry the sludge." "What good will that do?" he asked. "At the very least, it won't slosh and seep, and it could be carried more easily. I am also thinking that I could get the men to build simple forms, and they could pour the sludge into the forms, and let the heat turn them into bricks. Then they could put them in any vehicle and stack them as high as they wanted to, the bricks couldn't slosh, and no one will be worried about us carrying concrete blocks." He wasn't sure if that much trouble was necessary, and I suggested an early investigation into the problem to be sure.
In California, we had several good locations marked, all in the foothills. We checked all the newspapers and real estate agents, and we also drove around in the areas we were interested in, looking at every reasonably-price farm or isolated house. What I really wanted was a small farm, so the work wouldn't disturb others. To avoid the impression that we were desperate about buying land within a limited territory, we told the agents that we were investigating for a client, and we pretended to be interested in more places than we actually were. We finally found a very run-down and rather small farm, located just below where one of the fossil streambeds used to be, with an old house and a barn. The real estate agent was rather surprised that that was our final choice, as he had shown us better property at a lower price. However, it was located just where we wanted it, and that was all that mattered. George Brown, an associate of the Community, flew out to California to sign the papers. Besides making our story look good, as George fit the image of a retired farmer wishing to move to a gentler climate, he actually supplied the down payment and purchased the property. He even made payments until the Community could buy it back from him. Jon then headed back east until he would return with the loop.
Soon after the property was purchased (near the beginning of April), I had a dozen workers making changes on the house to improve its suitability for our purposes. I had them rewire the house to carry more current, and buy and install several old kitchen ranges and a large freezer, as there was a need to cook for nearly a hundred people at a time. I got them to add extra sink space to take care of the dish washing, and a dining room with several tables made from plywood. Another effort was the installation of a dozen double bunkbeds, for those who would not be comfortable sleeping outside; these were made from plywood and two-by-fours. I also purchased inexpensive tents, sleeping bags, and mattresses from discount stores. And I had them fix up one room for food storage, with plywood shelves, as I would be ordering large amounts. By the time they finished work on the house, it no longer looked like a house any more, at least on the inside. I left the outside alone, but I did have some equipment installed outside, so those off duty could play baseball, horseshoes, soccer, and badminton, if they so chose. However, I ordered everyone to stay on the farm (except when shopping) and away from adjoining property. The hippie movement was getting a lot of bad press there in California, and I didn't want anyone seeing our people and wondering if they were hippies. In addition, our numbers might attract suspicions. The last thing I needed was a raid by the police; it would be very difficult to explain what we were doing, even though we were doing nothing illegal. I had some music installed in the house too, but I didn't allow any loud music outside, as the noise might carry.
The barn also was converted on the inside. It would be our passageway to the other side, and I wanted travel through to be relatively easy, but I also wanted to avoid air leaks and the risk of seizure of the loop. At all times, someone would stay with the loop and would disconnect it from the other side in the event of any disturbance.
I had them construct some sluices, following plans that Jon had made, designed to concentrate the ore which we would be digging up, and I purchased a great deal of hosing and piping, which Jon would need to bring in water to wash the gold.
All the work was finished over a week before the loop arrived, so we went over to Nevada, and made some improvements there too. We added an outbuilding, to travel to the other side and back, and we put poles up around the trailers and suspended roofs on the poles above the trailers, making them a lot more comfortable. However, we ended up using the trailers very little. Mainly, they were used by the truck drivers for an overnight rest and by one or two people, left there as guards.
Jon arrived in California with the loop and an unknown Southern friend very late in the day near the beginning of June, and I had it installed. There was an immediate problem, as the barn was lower than the ground level on the opposite side. Fortunately, only soil was involved, so I got workers to dig a ramp within a couple of days. As soon as the hole was large enough to wiggle through, I sent other workers out to investigate the mining site, and Jon and his friend went with them. Everything on the other side looked just as Jon had expected, except that there were a lot of trees in our way that would have to be removed.
As soon as we had finished digging the ramp, I organized our strongest men together, and gave them the task of cutting down the trees and getting them out of the way. I had some oxen sent to us from Pennsylvania to help drag them, since we couldn't use any heavy machinery on that side. Fortunately, the trees were on the small side, and Jon thought this area was recovering from a forest fire which had occurred many years ago. The rest of the workers, except for those responsible for cooking, were given the task of installing the piping, and Jon and his friend supervised the laying of the pipe.
Here was the situation: There were several miles of abandoned, ancient stream bed covered with as much as 20 feet of soil which had to be removed. The gold deposits would mainly be down near the bedrock. Since I couldn't use a bulldozer, it seemed to be a task that would take years. However, Jon had figured out how to get through the dirt very quickly, using the power of water. This same method had been used over a hundred years earlier by the forty-niners. The plan was to connect the pipe to the stream at a much higher elevation and then to pipe the water down. Besides supplying lots of water to wash the dirt away, piping water from a higher elevation would also provide a good bit of pressure, so the water itself could be used to eat through the dirt. It may seem that with the huge amount of dirt to remove that finding the gold would be difficult, but actually the gold was already preconcentrated in selective areas, so Jon and I could ignore most of the soil the workers were washing away. And it was never necessary to remove all of the soil from the old bed; Jon and I just had to hunt around for the main concentration of ore. To make sure that we weren't missing anything, samples of the material would be run through the sluice from time to time to check for nuggets and flakes.
Some unexpected problems showed up. As the workers washed away the dirt, numerous tree roots appeared, and these had to be cut up and hauled away. There was also a bit of a battle at the other end of the hoses, maintaining the flow of water. Due to the elevation change, the hoses were pretty effective at sucking in dirt, rocks, and even tree limbs, and their screens filled up rapidly. Whenever a pipe clogged up, we had to try to unjamb it without getting air inside, as there was a possibility that we could lose suction and would have to prime it again -- a lengthy task -- as the pipes actually ran uphill a ways after leaving the stream. Using plywood, light rebar, and wire fencing, we made devices to keep the ends of the pipes away from the mud, rocks, and limbs. Still, we had to keep a couple of people up there at all times during the day while we were working.
I pushed everyone to work very hard for three days at a time, and then they would all take a day's break, which was used to take the loop to the Nevada site. On the other side in Nevada, there was no problem getting to the mining location, and there was a stream that would supply water, but the muck was just as Jon described. I carried along plywood, form oil, and lumber, and I had the men make some simple forms to pour the muck into. After the muck dried sufficiently, the forms could be removed, and the bricks allowed to harden in the sun. Each brick was about 3½ inches thick by one foot by one foot. The workers poured the muck into all the forms that could be made with the lumber on hand, and then we returned to California. When we returned three days later, I found that the experiment was successful. The bricks were still rather soft, but I had the men stack them on their edges in the sun in pairs, so each could support the other. Since my idea worked, before making the next trip, I got enough lumber, plywood, and form oil to make a couple of hundred forms, and I organized a small group of workers who were willing to stay on the other side in Nevada, out of contact for three days at a time, making the bricks. Jon and his friend would journey over there every three days to carry them food and supplies, and to see how they were doing. While there, the bricks would be carried over to our side through the loop, where the heat was stronger, for additional drying. After a few weeks, I assigned some men and trucks to start carrying the bricks back to Pennsylvania. The bricks were so convenient that when the men dug into drier material, they mixed it with water and continued to make bricks from it.
Back in California, it was nearly two weeks before we hit any quantity of gold, but when we did, the amount was considerable. Before the deposit was discovered, everyone except Jon was becoming pessimistic, but Jon was still in high spirits. We started running into these concentrations every few days from then on, and sometimes they would be almost continuous for days at a time. Jon explained that the ancient stream had determined where the deposits would be. In fast-flowing water, the nuggets and flakes would wash downstream, but when the current was moving at just the right speed, they would stop while lighter pieces of rock would sweep on by. Since gold was heavier than any of the other deposits washing downstream, it took a greater flood of water to move it, and as a result, it showed a tendency to be concentrated along the bedrock in areas where the other deposits were not. In fact, once we knew exactly where the center of the ancient, buried stream bed was, we could concentrate on digging out the main channel alone, since the gold deposits were concentrated there. After several weeks experience, Jon could even predict where we would find the next deposits, based on the surrounding terrain.
As the gold was found, it was put into cloth bags and sent back to Pennsylvania in the Microbuses. We used the simple precaution of making a false floor for each vehicle. This would not help us in the event of a careful search, but then again, we were not breaking any law either. Each time a vehicle made the trip, I rotated some of the workers back home, to be replaced with some fresh hands. I also sent word back to Pennsylvania to have the vehicles overhauled while they were there and to get some newer ones as well. The heavy driving was rapidly wearing them out.
I must confess that I made one serious error in carrying out my assignment. It seems that I was going around giving orders all the time, and the workers were beginning to resent it. Fortunately, one of the workers pointed it out to me one evening, so I gave them the task, while we were gone on another trip to Nevada, of picking some foremen from among themselves to meet with me each evening about the next day's assignments. These turned out to be pleasant meetings, and the workers performed better afterwards. I also found the job easier to manage if I didn't have to worry about every detail. I must admit that I did not fully understand the Community's way of doing things, as I had grown up in Johnstown and got my experience on my dad's construction jobs, working with him. We would have liked to have lived in the Community full-time, but there was just not enough work locally available. Of course, everything has been changing rapidly, and Dad is now working for the Community full time, just as I am.
I don't want to leave the impression that we didn't have any other problems. There were always problems, but solving them just makes work pleasurable. I was very worried the entire time that one of our vehicles would wreck, which never happened, or that it would break down, which did happen a few times. However, no one ever spotted our ore, which was carefully hidden, and they didn't think twice about the bricks. I suppose that if we had considered it necessary to hide the gold better, that we could have placed it inside mud bricks, or something like that. A few years later, our vehicles would have been stopped a dozen times along the way, to search for drugs, but the drug/hippie thing had not yet spread beyond California.
At the end of the summer, there was some delay in finishing. It was hard to get the workers focused on pulling out, since they were still finding gold deposits every day, and it took quite a while to ship everyone, the ore, and the bricks back home. Because they were anxious about the people at Cave, Jon and his friend left with the loop just as soon as every person and all the ore and bricks were back on our side, and I stayed behind until the last sack, brick, and person was gone. We did keep the property in California for later use, with the house stuffed full of used tents, mattresses, sleeping bags, and digging equipment. We left the hoses and forms on the other side, where I suppose our descendants will find them some day. I learned, shortly afterwards, that this summer was being called "the summer of love." It seemed more like a summer of hard work to all of us.