Catching Gold Fever in Holcomb Valley ~Tanya Hanson

First of all, the four frenetic days of the Romance Writers American National convention were fabulous, and having lunch with the fillies was the best moment of all. Now it’s back to the trenches, unpacking, catching up on lost sleep….and finishing the wip an editor asked to see.

The story is set in Holcomb Valley, California, the site of the richest gold strike in the south part of the state. Convincing hubby to take me there (his birthday yet) was one of the highlights of my summer. Located near the resort village of Big Bear Lake in the mountains about 2 hours east of Los Angeles, today’s small, silent valley buzzed with 2,000 residents in the 1860’s.

While tracking bear in 1860, hunter Bill Holcomb came across the valley and found a ledge of gold-riddled quartz. News of the find wasn’t secret for long. By 1862, thousands of claims had been struck. Towns like Belleville and Clapboard thrived.

At first, placer mining was the thing. Simply put, miners staked a claim, then dug down to the bedrock. Once “pay dirt” (black sand) was found, it was washed, or sluiced, in a pond of snowmelt to separate the gold from the gravel.

All the mounds and knolls dotting the valley today aren’t just pretty little hills. Now covered now with pine needles and small plants, they’re actually the “tailings,” the dirt and rocks removed and tossed aside every which way.

Remnants of the Metzger mine show the difficulty of hard rock mining. After the placer sites were all staked, prospectors looked elsewhere for treasure, and found gold-bearing quartz veins in the hills. They started digging. I couldn’t even stand up in the Metzger, and crawling through the horizontal passages was just back-breaking.

The oldest method for extracting the gold from quartz rocks was the arrastra, or ore grinder. A round rock wall surrounded a flat circle of flat, level stones. From a post in the center, a harnessed donkey or mule walked an endless circle in the arrastra, pulling a heavy drag stone to crush the rock. A single load of ore took over four hours to process in this manner.  Over 100 aarrastras dotted the valley. 

Today, about 60 wild donkeys still roam the resort area.

Of course, staking a claim in the wilderness was easy. Protecting it was not. An estimate of 50 murders occurred during the first two years of the settlement. Some outlaws, like Salt Lake’s Button’s Gang, dominated the valley so completely they simply occupied any cabin they wanted. But other outlaws couldn’t evade justice and found themselves hugging the Hangin’ Tree.

Although this juniper(above) is still hailed as the legendary widow maker, with the branch cut off after a neck stretch, it’s most likely the stump below is what’s left of the real thing. Sadly, the valley was denuded of most trees during the heydey, to build shelter and towns, and to shore up mines.

Well, there’s more to tell some other time. Have you ever visited gold country? 

Tanya Hanson
A California beach girl, I love cowboys and happy-ever-afters. My firefighter hubby and I enjoy travel, our two little grandsons, country music, McDonald's iced coffee, and volunteering at the local horse rescue. I was thrilled last year to receive the CTRR Award at Coffeetime Romance for Sanctuary, my tribute to my cancer-survin' hubby!
Updated: July 31, 2012 — 8:56 am

12 Comments

  1. Tanya, thanks for sharing this. I’d love to go see Holcomb Valley. It’s very beautiful and has a peaceful feel about it. I can see myself relaxing on that lake. I think I can actually smell the smoke from my campfire now. 🙂

    I loved meeting you in Anaheim. I hope I get to see you again when you come to Texas.

    Wishing you lots of success with your new book.

  2. Tanya, love your pix and thanks for sharing. I’ve never been to the Big Bear area, but the Forrester’s from my soap opera “Bold and the Beautiful” have a lovely cabin up at Big Bear. They may have come from a family of miners and that’s where their money came from … who knows! Love your blog today, and of course, thoroughly enjoyed meeting you in Anaheim. Big hugs, P

  3. Slow day in the valley, huh? Thanks for stopping by, Linda. Meeting you was so awesome! And thanks for the good wishes. Love ya, sister! xoxox

  4. Hi Phyliss, so fun that you know where Big Bear is. It is such a darling area. We’ve skiied there many times in the winter and just went back for hubby’s birthday. The Holcomb Valley trail is very rustic, and we were all alone. Hard to imagine the little valley once bustled with thousands of miners and many little towns.

    SO amazing to meet you in Anaheim, and thanks for bringing Jodi along. Wow, was I in rarefied company!

    Love you, sister1 xoxox

  5. What beautiful pics, Tanya.

  6. Thanks, Cher. It was such a peaceful day.

  7. Hi Tanya, thank you for this great info. I love the Big Bear area, but for some reason never checked out Holcomb Valley. I will certainly do so next time we hit the mountains.

    Loved seeing you last week. What fun we had! I wish we could have spent more time together.

    Hugs, Margaret

  8. Hi Margaret, the dirt and rocky road is very rustic. But that did add to the authenticity. Sadly hubby’s new Honda CRV will never be the same LOL. Thanks for the post.

  9. Tanya, you did it again. I want to get on a plane and visit these places! Have you ever been to Placerita Canyon? As a kid I found fool’s gold in the stream and thought I was rich 🙂 Big Bear’s such a nice area . . . The story will be awesome!

  10. Hi Vicki, yes, but just recently! I mean, I drove through there. It’s near the Melody Ranch where the Cowboy Festival is held in the spring. Margaret, Charlene and I did a signing there. but yes…I think the Oak of the Golden Dream is a future blog post LOL. Thanks for stopping by!

  11. Great post and great pictures! There are so many places on my ‘gotta visit there someday list’, and it looks like I need to add one more…

  12. I know, Winnie. SO much to see and so little time. xoxox

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