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?