There's Gold In Them Thar Hills (Again)

A hundred and sixty years have passed since the California Gold Rush of 1849. Today, with the price of gold far exceeding $900 an ounce, gold prospecting is hot again. Memberships in gold prospecting clubs have shot up 85 percent in California in the past year. Just as they did in the 19th century, Americans are packing up their shovels and heading to California's river banks to try and strike it rich.

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A hundred and sixty years have passed since the California Gold Rush of 1849. Today, with the price of gold nearing $1,000 an ounce, gold prospecting is hot again. Memberships in prospecting clubs have shot up 85 percent in California in the past year. Just as they did in the 19th century, Americans are packing up their shovels and heading to California's river banks to try and strike it rich.

Anna Sussman reports.

(Soundbite of music)

ANNA SUSSMAN: On the banks of the Bear River in California's gold country, men in leather boots and rolled up blue jeans shovel gravel into plastic buckets.

(Soundbite of gravel)

Doug Junghans says the rivers in California are clogged with gold prospectors, like himself, in search of coveted gold nuggets.

Mr. DOUGLAS JUNGHANS (President, The East Bay Prospectors): We are definitely in a modern gold rush, without a doubt. When the price of gold goes up and the economy's down, there's a lot of people out of work, these people are trying to, you know, put beans on their table.

SUSSMAN: When the price of gold began to climb, Junghans and a few friends formed The East Bay Prospectors, a gold panning club, and started digging up riverbeds across California.

Mr. JUNGHANS: Well, we're having an outing where people just come and try to find some gold in a atmosphere of camaraderie. You can do it. It's not easy. The old-timers got most of the easy gold. But if you dig down in cracks and crevasses in the bedrock, you're going to get gold. In fact, I would say the last three years, I've seen more people that have lost their jobs and lost their homes, and they're up there trying to find gold.

SUSSMAN: Starting in 1849, tens of thousands of gold prospectors set out for California, converging on these same rivers with their pick axes, pans and dreams of fortune.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) I come to California with a heart both stout and bold and have been up to the dickens there to get some lumps of gold.

SUSSMAN: Just like in the old days, finding gold is not always easy. But some have found they have a natural talent for the subtle craft. Carol Ebbitt is a member of the Mother Lode Gold House. And at 71 years old, she's a competitive gold panner.

Ms. CAROL EBBITT (Member, Mother Lode Gold House): I am a California State Gold Panning champion, a U.S. National Gold Panning champion. A lot of people are surprised how many women now are in this.

SUSSMAN: Ebbitt wades into the icy water with a bucket, a shovel and a plastic pan to see what she can find.

Ms. EBBITT: Oh, check this out and see if there's anything here.

(Soundbite of scraping)

Ms. EBBITT: Okay, I'm digging around at the base of a rock. Shake it real good.

(Soundbite of rattling)

Ms. EBBITT: You start washing it out.

(Soundbite of water)

Ms. EBBITT: It's like washing dishes and getting, swirling everything around. Oh, here we go. Here's some gold right there.

SUSSMAN: Ebbitt only found a few specs of gold. But today, prospectors can sell an ounce of gold for about $940. That's up from only $250 an ounce 10 years ago. More serious gold prospectors are filing gold claims on federal or public land.

Mr. JAMES HUTCHINGS: Okay. Well, I'm James Hutchings. I live in Foresthill, California. I've been gold mining, well, actually since I was a kid, but more seriously in the last 20 years. And we've got 160-acre placer claim under claim and prospect right now.

SUSSMAN: Gold claims filings have increased by 75 percent in California in the last two years, with almost 7,000 new claims filed, according to the California Bureau of Land Management. Hutchings has two claims at the bottom of the 800-foot deep Duncan Canyon in Placer County.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

SUSSMAN: The treacherous footpath down to Hutchings' gold claim is actually the 1856 Gold Dollar Trail, originally used for mule carts to access the gold mines. Hutchings spends most of his summer down here in the canyon, digging up gravel near a ramshackle stream-side campsite, that's not so different from 1849.

Mr. HUTCHINGS: Got a little camp cook stove, a little table across a couple of stumps and a little fold-up tent. It's pretty simple.

SUSSMAN: At night, Hutchings and his wife heat up cans of soup and play cards under a gas lantern. He says that a hardworking prospector could make up to $100 a weekend, hauling buckets of gravel from the river and picking out the gold.

Mr. HUTCHINGS: There is a - in a sense, there's a gold rush happening. The high price of gold, the economy certainly is driving people's interest towards gold. Again, like I said, everybody, young people started out with the idea that there's treasure to be had. They hear about the gold in California and they hear about the fantastic stories of gold finds. Every young person has understood what gold was or treasure and thought treasure, looking for it under every rock and tree. And I think that that's just a continuation. We're looking for treasure to this day.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) And ho, boys, ho to Californio. There's plenty of gold, so I've been told, on the banks of the Sacramento. And ho, boys, ho to Californio. There's plenty of gold, so I've been told, on the banks of the Sacramento.

SUSSMAN: For NPR News, I'm Anna Sussman in Placer County, California.

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