Even if you know (or care) very little about the way gold is mined, you’ll have heard of the phenomenon of the Gold Rush. It has become firmly cemented in the public’s consciousness, and symbolizes the early spirit of those who built America out of the ashes of the War of Independence and then later after the Civil War.

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man panning for goldThe first “Gold Rush” started in the United States in a little city called Dahlonega in Georgia in 1828. While most people would probably not have heard of the city, or even be able to pick it out on a map, it became famous for the phrase, “There’s gold in them thar hills”. This phrase, which has gone on to become the inspiration for stories, films and songs right up until today, was supposed to have been said by the Dahlonega Mint assayer as a way to encourage prospectors to the town in 1849. As it happens, he probably never said anything of the sort, but it does make for a good story. The reason the area became so popular for gold miners was that the gold in the region was, at first, easy to find. It was mainly in “placer deposits”, which means that it was found in alluvial sand deposits, which meant that miners could use open pit or open cast mining techniques to recover the gold from streams, creeks and river beds.

Because of the thousands of eager prospectors that came flooding into the area once word of gold had spread, it did not take long before the “easy” gold had been discovered. By the 1840′s, for example, the gold miners were having to work smaller and smaller known deposits. By 1848, when word had spread that gold had been discovered in California, many of the gold miners packed up camp and moved west to start the process all over again. But it was worth it: it has been shown that those early gold miners who could take advantage of the abundance of gold might make the equivalent of 6 year’s wages in just 6 months of gold digging. With the recent price increases, people today could make similar money by gold digging than they could in those early Gold Rush days. The problem today, of course, is that gold is not just lying around in creeks and rivers as it was in the early 19th century.

It has been estimated that the discovery of gold in California brought over three hundred thousand extra people to the State from the rest of the United States and from overseas (mainly Latin America). The effect this had on California is immeasurable, with entire cities such as San Francisco coming into being almost overnight. Transport infrastructure such as the railroads and steamships suddenly sprung up in the State, and roads, boarding houses, taverns and schools were being built at a prodigious rate never seen before (or after) in the country. The initial boom ended, and gold recovery enterprises began with the use of gold dredging machines in the late 19th century.

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