Out in California the gold-mining towns of Grass Valley, Placerville, Nevada City, Jackson, Eldorado and Downieville, nestling in the High Sierras, do not have the riotous life and wealth that they knew during the latter half of the nineteenth century, when gold was still the State’s principal source of wealth. But since 1929 they have come a long way back toward their former glory. These towns, along with others in Nevada, Placer, Amador and Eldorado Counties, in California, and in the gold mining sections of Utah, South Dakota, Nevada, Colorado and Arizona, are once more alive after years of drowning in semi-oblivion.
The old stagecoach does not swing along the dusty California trails, carrying miners, gamblers, fancy ladies and gold to Sacramento and San Francisco from the distant East and the nearer mountains, but new automobiles now swiftly skim the smooth highways where until recently there was only silence and tall trees. The rough amusements of earlier days—gambling, great drinking bouts, dance-hall carousing and frequent set-tos with knives and pistols—may be a part of the exciting past, but new motion picture theaters, lighted storefronts and bustling throngs of workers and their families now take the place of inactivity and despair.
Fabulous now seem the tales of the great fortunes dug from the hills east from San Francisco. Unbelievable are the stories of speculation, extravagance, riotous living. One person out of every 2,000 living in San Francisco a half century or so ago was a millionaire. The city’s population was then close to a quarter of a million, and each of its millionaires got his wealth from gold. Those were the days when Virginia Consolidated Mines paid out $1,000,000 in dividends each month—and kept it up for more than two years.
It is impossible to exaggerate the manner of life in those days. The citizenry of all the mining camps and the larger cities were adventurers, lured to the scene by the hopes of great wealth and an exciting existence. They gave no thought, for the most part, to the morrow. Great sums were wagered at cards or any other game of chance that came to hand. Small and large fortunes were won and lost speculating in gold stocks, gold mines, and anything else on which these hardy people might risk their wealth. Life was fast, exciting and uncertain.
Whole volumes have been written around the coaches that plied the California roads. Romantic tales have depicted the operations of the great mines and the workers. Ogden L. Mills, former Secretary of the Treasury, who had purchased some shares of the old Virginia & Truckee Railroad brought another flood of lurid reminiscences and attempts to determine what possible plans led Mr. Mills to make the acquisition. Built to take the untold wealth dug from the Comstock Lode down to Virginia City, the railroad—only 52 miles of winding track—was once the best known and most prosperous line in the world. The tales of its famous days seem unbelievable now. But there came a time when the greatest boom that this country has known was over—after $40,000,000, most of it silver, had been taken out of the ground.
Gold was still in the mountains, but it was less easy to get. There was no more of picking great fortunes from the ground, of lone workers becoming millionaires overnight. Those who sought the metal must take more trouble, put more into the enterprise. Elaborate and expensive equipment was necessary to operate many of the mines. Mining became an industry rather than an individualistic adventure. In some mines it turned out that the expense of obtaining the ore was greater than the price of the gold they produced. More fertile fields attracted the miners and mining capital. Imperceptibly, almost without anybody realizing it, the boom was over.
A few mines continued to operate, but their rate of production was greatly reduced. Where thousands of men had formerly been employed there were in some cases less than 100 men at work. Most of the mines were simply left as they had been when word came that operations were to be abandoned.
Towns that had sprung up about mines and in mining districts were left deserted. Buildings that had been built to house thousands had only a few, or none at all, to occupy them. Stores were active and thriving one day, the next they were tenantless, often with the merchandise left on the shelves. Dance halls that one night were thronged, on the following evening were deserted as darkness fell.
Throughout the length and breadth of the mining areas similar scenes were enacted. In those towns that were not left utterly uninhabited, the few poor creatures remaining were bewildered, hopeless. In the few towns where one or two mines still made some feeble attempt to operate, perhaps only a fourth of the houses would be inhabited. Of six streets that formerly were alive with stores, saloons and dance halls, a part of one now sufficed.
Thus for 30 years, more in some places and less in others, with varying degrees of solitude, there were these dreary, desolate, uninhabited towns throughout the High Sierras. A stranger, coming into the town over the rutted, unused road, might have found his heart gladdened by the sight of houses and the indications of human habitation, but the blindness of the windows, the quiet air of decay, the forbidding loneliness would have chilled him within and he would have ridden on in haste to put this ghost behind him.
Through the long Winters snow pressed heavily on the roofs of these ghost towns. It was piled high in the deserted streets. The soft sun of Spring melted the snow, dried the streets. The roofs sagged. The streets were washed bare of the smooth dirt. Great rocks stood out. And this was the hopeless picture of those ghost towns, with their vacant houses and stores.
The silver camps of the last century, had a history as glamorous as that of the gold-towns. Silver City in New Mexico, Leadville, Silver Cliff and Aspen in Colorado were the scenes of dramatic excitement around 1870. Silver City saw its first wild rush in 1870. For years it was a lively, wicked, exciting community, but the collapse of the silver market took away its glory. The other silver-producing States, Nevada, Idaho, Utah, Montana, Arizona and California, all have their silver ghost towns, steeped in romantic tradition. It may be that the death of the gold ghost towns will seethe rise of silver ones. If so, the loss of the former may be mitigated a little. But there is sorrow in their passing, for this time it may be for always.