If you’ve ever seen the movie Paint Your Wagon, you may remember how the one crew of men tunneled under nearly every business in the whole city and collected gold flakes that fell through the cracks in the floor. It appears the writers of that movie did not make it up. Years before that movie came out my father told me about something he had heard.
My father did his share of prospecting in the early 1950s. Once while prospecting he ran into an old, grizzled prospector who could have been around at the turn of the century. He told my father this tale with a lot of embellishments and swore it happened somewhere between Angel’s Camp and Placerville during the gold rush years.
I talked to another prospector just a few years ago and he said he had heard the same tale, but thought that it had occurred in Horsetown, although he didn’t know where that was. I did some research and found that Horsetown was the area known as the Clear Creek Diggings, which is now West Redding in Shasta County.
I almost forgot about it until just a couple years ago when my nextdoor neighbor, a retired schoolteacher, mentioned it to me. I listened to him tell the tale and decided to combine several versions into the following story.
A RETOLD CALIFORNIA FOLK TALE
Young Al shuffled into the saloon, his arms filled with spittoons. Twice a day he gathered up an armload from the floor of the saloon, took them out to the horse trough, and washed them out. Then he took them back in and got another armload. There were nine of them scattered throughout the crude building. After setting down the clean ones, Al went around and picked up three more of the dirty, smelly things. Going back outside he was almost knocked over when two old, dusty prospectors rushed in and one shouted, “There’s been a rock slide!”
The other one said, “Half the wall overhanging the middle fork came down. Two of them Mormons got theyselves buried as well as a couple of the regular boys.”
The first man strode up to the bar. “We’re gonna need help to dig them out.” Then he chuckled and said, “We’re gonna need something to keep us going, too.” Looking at the bartender he said, “Gimme a whiskey. Gimme one for my pard, too.” He slapped his fat poke down on the bar as the bartender set up two glasses and filled them from a bottle whose label merely said, “WHISKEY.”
Al watched as Hank the bartender picked up the poke, put a small stone on one pan of a balance scale, and poured gold flakes from the poke into the pan on the other side of the scale. When the scale was balanced, he closed the poke, tossed it back to the miner, and poured the gold from the scale into a box behind the bar. Al had watched this happen dozens of times a day and as the bartender was pouring the gold into the box a few flakes missed and fell to the floor.
One other chore Al had was to sweep the bar twice a day. As he swept behind the bar later that day, he noticed the fallen gold flakes on the floor. He bent down and started gathering them up. “What are you doing there?” Hank, the bartender, asked from behind him.
“There’s some gold here on the floor, I was picking it up for you.”
The bartender laughed and said, “Don’t waste your time. It’s not worth it. There ain’t even enough to weigh. Here, gimme that thing.” Without waiting for Al to hand it to him, he grabbed the broom and swept the gold into the gap between two of the rough planks where it quickly disappeared.
When he finished sweeping Al had to go to the livery stable to clean out stalls and feed the horses. Three hours later he finished and went home. Only twelve, Al did everything he could to bring home a dollar or so a day. Working at two saloons, the general store, and the livery stable he was able to earn just enough for him and his crippled father to live. Al and his father lived in a small shack just outside town. There were no other people anywhere near them and they had a small garden plot where they grew enough to eat and also enough to sell some of the vegetables in town.
Al’s father, Brett, had a real knack for finding gold -- he just couldn’t keep it. Bringing his family here in the early ‘50s he had immediately found a rich site and started finding hundreds of dollars worth of gold every day. He never knew how it happened but one day the sheriff told him his claim was invalid and someone else took it from him.
It took him only days to find another site and, once again, after working it for several weeks he was told he had to leave. Frustrated, he took a job with a large company that was experimenting with hydraulic mining. He worked there six months until one of the machines exploded, severing his right arm midway between the shoulder and elbow.
After that, Brett had not done a lot to take care of the family. He lay around the small shack and drank. Occasionally he’d go out and take work at different diggings for a day or so but would almost always end up being let go because he couldn’t keep up with the uninjured men. Al’s mother stayed around only long enough to find another man who had a working claim and then left Al and his father. Al hadn’t seen her in over two years even though she lived in the same town.
After Al got home he fixed dinner and while they ate he said, “Pa, the last few days I’ve noticed that every time Hank measures out gold he spills a few flakes on the floor. Then, when I’m sweeping, I just sweep it into the crack between the planks.”
“Yeah. Most of the bars and stores are the same. There’s so much gold going through this town they don’t miss a few flakes.”
“That’s what Hank said.” Al thought a moment then asked, “Pa, what happens to all that gold?”
“Huh?” Al’s father massaged the stump of his missing arm and finally said, “I don’t know. I guess it goes down in the ground, gets washed back to the river, and someone else finds it.”
The next day on his way to work at the saloon he saw a small animal scamper under the building. At least once each spring the river overflowed its banks and washed through the town. Because of that all the buildings were set up on pilings and there was at least a foot of open space under each of the buildings in the town and the animal had run into that space. Bending down, Al looked to see if he could see it. There was nothing but open space all the way under the building except for the steps and walkway in the front.
For some reason, as he looked under the building, he thought about the gold flakes falling through the floor. Throughout the day Al couldn’t keep his mind off the same image of gold flakes falling onto the dirt under the building. While he was working at the livery stable he saw an empty grain sack, had an idea, and stuffed the sack into his pocket. Then he went back to the saloon.
As he was sweeping, Al paced off the distance from the front door to the back of the bar. After he was finished he went outside, paced the distance, and, checking to make sure nobody was watching, crawled under the saloon. When he guessed he was directly under the bar he scooped up a handful of dirt and put it into the sack he had brought with him. He kept scooping until the sack had about ten pounds of dirt. Then he crawled out from under the building.
When he got home his father wasn’t there so he rummaged underneath his father’s cot and found his old gold pan. Walking out to the small stream behind the shack he poured a couple of handsful of dirt into the pan then bent down and put water in it. Although Al had never done it himself, he had watched his father many times. He was a bit clumsy at it, but when most of the dirt was gone, there were shiny flakes of gold scattered across the bottom of the pan.
“Al! Where are you, boy?” he could hear his father calling from the shack. Holding the pan very carefully he walked toward the shack.
When he got there he called, “Pa, look what I found.”
His father came out of the shack and looked at the pan. Taking it from Al he swirled around the little remaining water and said, “Where’d you get that? Why there must be two dollar’s worth of gold in there.” He looked up at Al and repeated, “Where’d you get that? We gotta stake a claim mighty fast.”
“Well,” Al started, “I don’t think we can stake a claim on it, Pa.”
“Why not? Al, don’t you understand, I’ve already lost two claims ‘cause I didn’t protect myself. Now, you gotta tell me or we’ll lose all our rights.”
“Well,” Al said again, “I kinda crawled underneath the saloon and scooped up a bunch of dirt from under the bar.”
“Under the bar? Look, boy, if you’re kidding with me, I’ll lay into you something fierce.”
“No, Pa. I wouldn’t kid. Come on over by the stream, I have more of it.”
Brett followed his son to the stream. He watched as Al opened the sack and poured a bunch of dirt into the pan then started swirling it in the stream. “Here,” Brett said, “let me do that. You’ll lose too much of it.” He bent down and took the pan from Al then started swirling it around in a small eddy in the stream. As the dirt washed away he saw more and more gold flakes appear at the bottom of the pan.
He carefully separated the flakes and put them on a flat rock to dry then grabbed another handful of dirt from the sack and did it again. After a half-hour he had panned the entire sack and had a nice little pile of gold flakes on the rock. When he had done the last of it he sank back and sat down. Then, to Al’s surprise, Brett started laughing. He laughed for several minutes until he was crying.
“Pa? Are you all right, Pa?”
“All right? Oh, yes. I’m right as rain. I just can’t believe I’ve been doing it wrong all these years. I found two good-paying claims and lost them. Then went to work for that mining company and lost my arm in a stupid accident. And all that time the best paying claim around is right under my nose.” He started laughing again. Al actually started to worry about him until he suddenly stopped. “C’mon, boy.” He carefully scooped the gold off the rock into his poke. “We got work to do.”
The next day Al found some excuse to go into each business in town and pace off distances. Then, later, he climbed under each of them, scooped up ten or fifteen pounds of dirt, and took it home to his father who carefully panned it. When he had the time, Al watched his father pan the gold. He was amazed that even with only one arm his father never lost so much as one flake of the precious metal.
Over the next eight months Al quit his job and spent his days crawling under the buildings scooping up dirt. Each day he would shovel out sand from the river and let it dry, then spread it under the buildings to make it easier to see and collect the gold.
The only thing that stopped their mining venture was an early winter storm that caused the river to flood the town so deeply that half the buildings were washed away.
Al and his father retired from gold mining and moved to Nevada where the proceeds of their eight-month’s venture kept them well-off for many years.