GOLD RUSH STORIES
Ever since I was a child I’ve been intrigued with the Gold Rush Era. My grandfather used to love to tell us stories about the miners and mines in the Nevada City, California, area where they lived. Lucky for me, I now live where gold was discovered in 1849 and stories of ghosts and hangings, mysterious tunnels, and original buildings from that time still exist. I put a hero hunk and spirited heroine into my stories and then toss some of the adventures from the gold rush at them to see what happens.
On January 24, 1848, in the tiny hamlet of Coloma, in Northern California, James W. Marshall, a skilled carpenter and partner in a sawmill, looked down into the tailrace to notice two small gold nuggets sparkling in the water. He scooped them up and put them into his pocket. Gold had been discovered. Once the secret was out almost every able-bodied man in San Francisco had hurried to the gold fields. The fever spread throughout the country and abroad as homes and shops were abandoned, crops were left in the fields to rot, and newspapers suspended publication. What businesses remained were primarily conducted by women as their men set out to make the fortunes. Between 1847 and 1850 the population of California increased from 15,000 to 92,497. (As per The Gold Rush Ghosts written by Nancy Bradley and Robert Reppert.)
Miners spent back-breaking months with gold pans dipped into the rivers and streams, sluice boxes and tunnels looking for the elusive gold. But the largest amount of gold came from hydraulic hoses sending pressured forces of water against hillsides to flush out the gold. Placerville got its name from the process known as placer mining.
Some came not to look for gold, but to provide services or to prey on the tired miners. There were gamblers and prostitutes, store-minders and saloonkeepers. Operators of general stores became very wealthy, as an egg for example, could easily sell for five dollars.
There are ghosts – several which I have personally had dealings with. The building where Chablis Gallery existed (where I worked for five years) was built over a creek and stood as a saloon in 1849. During Christmas when the tenants upstairs were gone, I’d hear a man’s heavy footsteps and doors slamming overhead. My boss would check out the upstairs and come back swearing the place was empty. One day I showed up at work to find several paintings scattered around the floor and tags that were taped on the wall next to the paintings on the carpet next to them. The only time our ghost showed violence is when my boss and friend were behind the counter on one side of the main room and a huge vase (about four foot tall) was mysteriously thrown so hard against the wall it shattered and put a deep gash in the decorative table’s leg.
The most famous ghosts are the two at the Cary House Hotel (pictured left) that stands across the street from the gallery. Stan worked the desk in 1857 and had an eye for the ladies. One night he’d been drinking and didn’t pay attention to the lady’s boyfriend giving him a jealous eye. Stan was shot and bled to death on the lobby floor. He still rides the elevator at night and checks all the doorknobs of the rooms where lady patrons sleep. One night Stan locked one of the tenants out on the balcony and the tenant had to scream down to the street to get someone to come up to his room and let him back inside. When I was at the hotel taking photos for my third story, Stan absolutely would not let me open the elevator door so I had to walk up the three flights of stairs. Had no problem riding the elevator down, though. He was anxious to have me leave his hotel. The other ghost is George. He was a gambler and used a room in the back of the hotel lobby to play cards. One night a man came in and George thought it was the gent who had cheated him at poker the night before. He pulled his gun and shot the man dead, then realized he’d made a mistake. He was hanged for his mistake. They’ve had a replica of George hanging over the entry door of the Hangman’s Bar in Placerville for years and years (pictured right).
Placerville also has tunnels that travel under the township. One Victorian house has a beautiful dining room where a finely crafted dining room table sits on a rug over the tunnel entrance that could take them under the road to the house across the way. Another building was a hotel that had the entrance to a mine in the bar area. To this day you can look down into this black hole (about four foot diameter), feeling the rush back of cold, damp air daring you to venture into the bowels of the earth.
At one end of Placerville there is a building called the Soda Works (pictured left). In 1849 men walked through the bar, entered a tunnel and walked quite a distance to find the entrance to the Chinese bordello (pictured below, right). I had a chance to visit the building and saw cubbyholes cut into the walls. They looked about two feet wide and maybe five foot long. These were the “comfy” places where men fulfilled their lust with the prostitutes. A whole new meaning for “hole in the wall.” Up until a few years ago the tunnels remained clear and usable. Since then, a rockslide has closed the main section. I was able to walk several yards into the entrance from the Soda Works entrance – it was small and damp and not a place I wanted to be.
This exciting town and even more exciting era gives my imagination a run and I have a lot of fun exploring and learning about the strong men and women who lived the life. Putting them into stories is the best part. I do keep an eye out over my shoulder while sifting through some of the places just in case another ghost has something to explain.