A wealth of history
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series about gold mining in Nevada County, past and present. Part One will look back at gold mining through the eyes of Nevada County old-timer Carl Cicogni. Part Two will explore gold mining today with hobby prospector Bruce Darlington.
“Let me show you something,” said Nevada County old-timer Carl Cicogni, standing amid the ruins of the old North Star stamp mill and fondly recalling 20 years spent toiling deep underground.
“Here’s an old star drill,” said the 87-year-old Cicogni, who began his stint underground in the 1930s, the waning years of California’s Gold Rush Era.
Star drills – iron bars with star-shaped bits on the end – were used to drill and pound blasting holes into the bedrock, he explained.
“When you worked in about a mile and had to carry one in on your shoulder – boy, by the time you got there, you were through,” Cicogni said with a chuckle – his pants, neatly pressed, held up to his ribs by green suspenders.
Just down the road from the North Star Mining Museum in Grass Valley, the old mill is partially hidden by trees and underbrush growing on the hillside off Allison Ranch Road where remnants of the mine’s workings slope down toward Wolf Creek.
A bit tuckered out from the hike and picking his way through the blackberry brambles, Cicogni plunked himself down on a weathered chunk of the mill’s foundation and reminisced.
“Twenty years from now,” he joked, “I’ll be working underground on my last shift.”
Like it was yesterday, Cicogni recalled the sound of pounding stamps breaking rock into flour and the sight of muckers scurrying about the mill and loading quartz into ore cars. And he rattled off the names of his old mining mates, some of whom have passed on.
“I miss those days,” said Cicogni as he looked over the stamp mill’s crumbling footings and moss-covered rock walls built when the workings of the North Star were expanded nearly a century ago.
“It was hard work, I’ll tell ya, but it was exciting,” he said. He said he still gets the urge to grab a shovel and start digging at just the mention of gold.
“Ninety-nine percent of the gold is still in the ground,” he said with a wink. “You can sign my name to that because I’m telling you the truth.”
Carl Cicogni was born in 1915 in a mining camp on Gaston Ridge, three miles north and three miles east of the town of Washington.
“My mother delivered lunches to the miners when I was 4 years old, and I’d go into the mine with her,” he recalled.
The mine was a tunnel – not a vertical shaft – one mile straight in, Cicogni explained.
“You’d go in one mile and look out, and the portal of the tunnel was about that big,” Cicogni said, looking through a tiny circle made with his thumb and index finger.
In 1920, when Cicogni was 5, he moved with his family from Gaston Ridge to Grass Valley, where he learned the English language at the old Hennessy School on South Auburn Street.
“I couldn’t speak English. It was all Italian families up on Gaston Ridge,” he said.
When the Gold Rush began in 1849, people poured into Gold Country from nations around the world, he said.
“When they came here in 1850, they picked up chunks of gold off the ground just like that,” Cicogni said. “It was virgin territory. The Indians didn’t want (the gold).”
By the 1900s, Cicogni said, there were hundreds of mines in and around Grass Valley.
Growing up around the mines, Cicogni caught the gold fever early and at 18 went to work underground at the North Star in 1933. At nearly 12,500 feet down, the North Star is still touted as the world’s second-deepest gold mine.
“I worked the Central Shaft in the old North Star, I worked the Idaho-Maryland, the Brunswick and the Alleghany. I worked 20 years underground,” Cicogni said.
At the North Star, Cicogni started as a mucker at $2.75 a day and then began operating as a lessor.
Lessors subcontracted with the mining company and were given a percentage for each ton of ore they extracted from the ground.
Muckers, or mine laborers, separated the gold-bearing quartz from the waste rock and loaded the ore into the ore cars, Cicogni said.
“It was standard procedure for the boss to say, ‘Get your head down and rear end up’ in this position here,” Cicogni said, crouched in his shoveling stance.
In 1940, Cicogni won Grass Valley’s mucking contest held on Mill Street as part of the City’s Fourth of July celebration.
“I mucked one ton of ore in two minutes and 20 seconds, and they gave me a $20 bill,” said a proud Cicogni. “I’m 87 years old, but I still know how to handle a shovel.”
As a lessor at the North Star, Cicogni was able to do a little better than the $3-a-day wage paid miners by the company, but had yet to find his own fortune.
In 1950, he took out a claim in Sierra City, where he worked the Kentucky Mine.
But like many of the wandering souls who came to California in search of the precious yellow metal, Cicogni didn’t strike it rich.
“I nearly starved to death there. Didn’t find a thing,” he said.
Bruce Darlington is a 51-year-old injection molding production manager and self-described “weekend gold miner” who met Cicogni at church four years ago.
“We got to talking about mining and prospecting, and one thing led to another,” Darlington said. “We’ve been friends ever since.”
Darlington said he’s amazed by all the things Cicogni has done and seen in his life.
The thing about “Chick” is how sharp his mind is, said Darlington, who calls his old friend by his nickname.
“He can bring up names and dates and places, and talks about things that happened 50 years ago like it was yesterday,” said Darlington. He can’t get enough of the stories Cicogni has to tell, he said.
“I do a little entertaining,” said Cicogni, who’s known for his knack for telling a good tale.
“I entertain the Lions Club, the Elks Club and senior citizens, and tell mining stories and recite poetry,” he said.
Darlington said he can only wish Cicogni could tell the story about how he struck it rich.
“He did find a lot of gold, but it was always for the other guy,” Darlington said. “Chick made other people rich.”
More Than a Miner
When Carl Cicogni was 10 years old, he bought his first bicycle with the $10 a month he made delivering newspapers for The Union during the summer of 1925.
A professional wrestler for 12 years, Carl “Chick” Cicogni “rassled” the middleweight champion of the world in Mexico in 1940 before an audience that included the president of Mexico.
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