‘Quartz Fever’ struck Nevada City in 1851
It happens every Spring.
There are thoughts of new beginnings, of endless possibilities, of fulfilling dreams. The poet Emily Dickinson referred to this refreshed attitude as “a little madness in the Spring.”
During the early years of the California Gold Rush, this attitude was eternal. Everywhere you went there were golden dreams of endless wealth. It fostered hope and excitement. But … sometimes it is best to be wary of what you wish for, as dreams can become nightmares.
In Nevada City and Grass Valley (which went by different names in those days) in early 1850, the discovery of rich gold-bearing gravels led to the establishment of many mining companies, both big and small, hoping to prosper from the glimmering resource. Much of the activity centered on Deer Creek. Hydraulic mines sprang to life and the hills were pockmarked with “coyote holes” – small, crude mines burrowed into the slopes with the dirt and gravel deposited in heaps at the entrances. So common were these mines that Nevada City was jokingly referred to as “Coyoteville” in its formative years. Hope sprang eternal in the hills of Nevada County. But it was the 1850 discovery of rich gold veins in quartz outcroppings that elevated the dreams to fever pitch.
By 1851, Nevada City especially became obsessed with quartz. Placer, or surface, mining was showing signs of depletion, and miners turned their attention to quartz mining with growing enthusiasm. Mining companies designed to reap this golden harvest blossomed like wildflowers. The great majority were abject failures. And, often, the only people to gain profit were charlatans fleecing gullible stockholders. A classic example was the “Bunker Hill Mine Company” on Deer Creek.
In 1856, Nevada City newspaper editor Aaron A. Sargent (who would later become a United States senator from California) described the Bunker Hill Company investors as a “hundreds [who] made themselves poor by misapplied capital.” An understatement, to say the least. Many leading citizens of Nevada City invested in the mine.
Thousands of dollars were poured into the mine. Bunker Hill was to utilize the experimental technique of “roasting” the gold or cooking it in an immense furnace with the hope that the gold would drip out the bottom. It did not work. A Dr. Rogers, who was the “inventor” of the technique, was certain that his idea would work if given another chance. More thousands were invested. Still no success. The quartz was then crushed by stamp mills in a traditional manner. No success. The Bunker Hill Mine yielded an exceedingly high quality of quartz, but no gold. The company loss was estimated at $85,000 in 1851 dollars – a loss of $1.8 million in today’s money.
Other Deer Creek mining companies suffered the same fate. Soon the creek was dotted with abandoned equipment from these failed experiments. Sargent called them “huge monument(s) of the fortunes buried there.”
However, a characteristic of the early Gold Rush was the sense that risk-taking was the norm, that not trying was a greater failure. The residents were able to laugh it off, to a degree. In an October 1851 edition of his newspaper, Nevada Journal, Aaron Sargent printed what he called “an amusing burlesque upon quartz operations.” It was the fictional annual report of “Munchausen Quartz Rock Mining and Crushing Company.” Munchausen was a reference to the popular character Baron Munchausen, who told wildly exaggerated stories and made ridiculous, grandiose claims. The report is a classic example of “California Humor” – a genre of writing that came to be distinguished by madcap overstatement, tongue-twisting names, and comical author pseudonyms. Among the most famous practitioners were Lt. George Horatio Derby, a sober military man who called himself “John Phoenix” or “The Veritable Squibob”; Alonzo Delano, Grass Valley’s first city treasurer, who used the penname “Old Block”; and, the most famous of all, Samuel Clemens, or “Mark Twain.”
According to Sargent, the document featured a mix of real or slightly altered names of actual investors and obviously invented characters. When it was printed, Sargent reported, the report produced “inextinguishable laughter” – the laughter of recognition. It is reproduced in part here.
MUNCHAUSEN QUARTZ ROCK MINING AND CRUSHING CO.
Incorporated by special Legislative enactments of 1849 and 1850.
(See page 1102 of Journal of Legislature of 1001 drinks.)
Capital Stock, $2,000,000.
PRESIDENT-Gen. Napoleon B. Gulliver .
TRUSTEES-Dr. G. Washington Crum, P. T. Barnum, Esq., George R. Glidden, Esq., Professor Espy, Don Quixotte Crawley, old Dr. Jacob Townsend. Moses Y. Beach, Magnus Rex Wemeh.
SECRETARY- Junius Quien Sabe.
TREASURER- J. Squander Swartwout.
FINANCIAL AGENT- N. Biddle Jones.
PROSPECTING AND AMALGAMATING COMMITTEE- Guy Fawkes, Robinson Crusoe, Abby Kelly Folsom.
This Company claim 405 claims of 60 feet each, beginning at a blazed dogwood tree on the right bank of the river Styx, … The company have been … explicit in defining their lead, in all its labyrinthine ramifications, owing to the vague uncertainty and transcendental obscurity which have involved individual rights, sacrificing wealth and enterprise upon the shrine of cupidity, and furnishing material for the wildest legal vagaries.
Skillful Siberian miners have been obtained at an immense expense, through the agency of one of our distinguished Board of Trustees, P. T. Barnum, Esq.
The laborers are enabled to carry on their work by the light of diamonds, which brilliantly illumine their vast excavations.
A new patent … has been introduced into the machinery, which is found to surpass any invention yet in use. The steam necessary to propel the machinery is obtained from a cistern placed upon Lake Avernus (in classical literature, Lake Avernus is the entrance to Hell); all expense of fuel is thus avoided.
Specimens of the lead may be seen at the office of Dr. Diabolus Pillgarlick, on Expansion street, where the obliging agent, Triptolemus Middlefunk, late of Mount Olympus, will give the most definite information in reference to auriferous quartz formations, and the most approved mode of pulverization.
By order of the Board of Trustees,
JUNIUS QUIEN SABE, Secretary.
It happens every Spring.
Gary Noy is the director of the Center for Sierra Nevada Studies at Sierra College, 5000 Rocklin Road, LRC 442, Rocklin, 95677. (916) 781-7184. To reach Noy by e mail, email@example.com.
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