The frenzy created new businesses and broke up families. Those with vision were intoxicated by the lure of easy money. The dream pitted friend against friend and made hermits of many. Before it was over, fortunes were made and lost and made again — and the world would never be the same.
Does this describe the first “dot-com” race? Well, yes. But collectors know history often repeats itself and moreover, it proves our parallel to the past, for here, we describe the California Gold Rush of 1849.
As Americans and migrants streamed to the Pacific Coast, the future of California … and to some degree, the world was determined. However, mining gold, an alluring metal on which the world’s money systems are based, was nothing new, so why was there such a fuss made over the bright yellow ore in a part of the world considered primitive at best?
The lure of finding gold in wild and wooly California, seemingly with the toe of a boot and available to anyone, was simply too tempting. “Poverty was often changed to affluence and destitution to prosperity by the blow of a pick. It was this great uncertainty that gave to placer mining a charm words are inadequate to express.” So said ol’ Charley Peters in his 1915 account, The Autobiography of Charles Peters – The Good Luck Era – The Placer Mining Days of the ’50s.
Hand drawn illustrations of miners’ lives and photos of key people help narrate an engaging chronicle. Peters describes the find on Jan. 24, 1848 that launched a prolonged worldwide exodus to what became the Golden State by 1850. “It was a small chispa that James W. Marshall found. It was worth, he says, about fifty cents. Though small in value, what an immense influence upon the destiny of millions of the human race its accidental finding has wrought!” (Copies available online in good condition, $25 and up.)
News traveled slowly then and the spark that fanned the gold rush flame would not flare until the following year. While the gold of 1849 was found, “beneath the rocks and under the roots of trees,” finding gold rush era antiques and collectibles today is a more difficult feat, but certainly with its own rewards. If you have not yet been bitten by the collecting bug of this pioneering period, what are you waiting for?
Although true antiques of the time may be pricey, affordable gold rush memorabilia is available. You can create attractive historical displays and fascinating landscape accents, with everything from colorful blasting cap tins and candle boxes, to ore cars and buckets.
Sure, you can find these items online along with gold pans, miner’s scales, lighting and more. But really, isn’t half the fun of buying antiques in the thrill of the hunt and delight of discovery? The Miner’s Pick Antiques and Western Hardrock Mining Museum “in the heart of California’s historic Mother Lode” is a great place to start. “We try to keep items in stock from entry level to upper-level,” said Roger Peterson, in a telephone interview from their Amador City shop, co-owned with wife, Connie. But they want to meet you!
At minerspick.com you will find just two pages … a home page gives all the information you need to visit, call and e-mail, with a few pictures for enticement. The second page is a nostalgic poem of “The Story of 1849.” So stop by the shop to discover your gold rush treasures from blasting cap tin manufacturers, Hercules, Dupont, Giant Powder Co. and if you’re lucky, a desirable Grasselli tin, ranging in price from $45 into the hundreds.
Mine signage, especially bell signal signs, said Peterson, is a popular collectible. What to look for? A serious collector will seek porcelain signs possibly proclaiming “This bell for cager only” or “Disconnect blasting switches,” and pay as high as $2,000. But take heart – more affordable signs in cloth, paper or painted, can be acquired for $100 and up.
The gold rush era is compelling and you may want to consider some investigative reading. A good place to start is Jody and Ric Hornor’s gold rush history series. Available at 19thcentury.us/Gold, “We simply researched primary source documents and present the history as it was written in the 19th century. The introduction and photo captions are all we really lay claim to,” states the site. Residents of Pilot Hill, Calif., just up the road from Coloma, the Hornors offer tantalizing peeks into this vibrant time with The Golden Corridor, The Golden Highway and The Golden Quest.
Collectibles of this exciting era can be found in journeys from around the world. Newspaper ads offered steamer passage to riches and a July 31, 1849 issue of The Salem Gazette had this to say about a new California town, “ … said to be situated on high and solid ground, is within a short distance of the mines of the Rio Americano, North Fork, Bear Creek and Yerba and Feather Rivers.” Speculation points at today’s Oroville as the subject of the article. (Complete issue, $29 on eBay).
Love that ephemera? Explore the ornately designed mining company stock certificates at Scripophily.com. Their extensive inventory offers a prized Anglo-Californian Gold Mining Company certificate issued in 1853 and hand signed by the company’s directors. It was reportedly used to raise money in England during the gold rush (sale priced at $139.95).
Have a hankerin’ to redecorate and stick something old in your wall? That’s how the Petersons came to collect the gold rush items that fill their museum adjacent to the shop. Over 20 years ago and then in Colorado, Connie came home with an old miner’s candlestick and told Roger she wanted to stick it in the wall of their log cabin home. Their curiosity over its original use eventually spawned a new interest, a new home and a new life. The Miner’s Pick inventory includes indoor and outdoor relics and with antiques becoming more scarce, they’ve entered into restoration parts, even recasting ore car wheels.
Some of the Peterson’s most memorable sales have been to Disney, supplying ore cars for their new park in Japan and an especially satisfying sale of a stamp mill to the producers of HBO’s Deadwood show. “The mill was about ready to fall to the ground,” said Roger, “and I wouldn’t have been able to restore it.” For someone with a love for antiques, the five-figure sale was more than lucrative – he was pleased that in centering an episode on it, HBO restored the old stamp mill to its original glory and people will now enjoy its rich heritage for another 150 years.
Can another “gold rush” happen today? It already did – in 1986 when the Columbus-America Discovery Group salvaged the fabled “Ship of Gold,” the S.S. Central America. It sprung a leak in 1857and sunk off the Carolinas. Its cargo represented nearly double the number of California Gold Rush ingots previously known to have survived the era. According to SSCentralAmerica.com, “Only a dozen original 1855 Kellogg $50 gold coins are known to exist, and some have traded for as much as $300,000.” However, by 2000, another rush for the gold was created when some of the 330 Kellogg & Humbert ingots retrieved were converted to planchets, producing gold commemorative coins, with a suggested retail price of $5,000. Now that’s goin’ for the gold.
“In search of dreams and gold With all their wagons could hold They came to California in 1849 And built a state upon a mine” (From The Story of 1849, copyright 2004 by S. Duby)
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