Travels & Traditions: California's Gold Country - #304

BURT WOLF: Millions of years, ago the tectonic plate under the Pacific Ocean banged into the tectonic plate under what is now California.  The Pacific plate began to slide under the California plate.  They also started grinding against each other which produced a great deal of heat, pressure, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and a series of volcanoes that sent mineral-filled rock to the surface.  And one of the minerals in those rocks was gold.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The discovery of gold in California changed the history of California.  But it also changed the destiny of the United States.  By today's standards about $50 billion worth of gold was taken out of California and it supplied much of the funds necessary for the federal government to conduct the War Between the States.

BURT WOLF: The gold also became a major reason to build a Transcontinental Railroad which united the eastern and western parts of the nation and opened the West to settlement in commerce.  The federal government was so eager to get California into the union that it was the only state in the nation that never went through a period as a territory.  It grew so fast and was so important that Washington told it to just come on in.  Such is the power of gold.  And the story of that gold centers in and around the City of Sacramento. About 90 miles north of San Francisco and 90 miles inland from the Pacific Coast the Sacramento area was always a key transportation point because it's the spot where the American River joins up with the Sacramento River and flows out to the Pacific Ocean.  San Francisco Bay gets a lot of press but it's really just the mouth of the Sacramento River.

In 1848, California was mostly wilderness with a non-Indian population of about 14,000.  The land had just been acquired by the United States is part of the settlement of the Mexican-American War.  A few hundred settlers from the East drag their wagons in each year and that was pretty much it.  But the discovery of gold changed everything.  Within three years the population exploded from 14,000 to 225,000.  People came from all over the world in search of gold, gold that was first discovered at Sutter's Mill.  Sutter was a Swiss store clerk and military reservist by trade.  He left Switzerland to avoid debtor's prison and traveled through the United States, Alaska and Hawaii.

In 1839, he made a deal with the Mexican governor of California and established the first permanent colony in California's Central Valley.  It was called New Switzerland and it was to be his utopian agricultural community.  As Sutter's dream expanded so did his need for construction materials.  In 1847 he partnered with James Marshall to build a lumber mill on the American River.  In January of 1848 Marshall was checking the mill's tail race, the troth where the water passes out of the mill when he spotted a nugget of gold about the size of a pea.  He brought it to Sutter who confirmed that it was indeed a hunk of gold.  They were excited by the discovery of gold but tried to keep it a secret until they could secure legal title to the land, but unfortunately they never did.

Miners soon began arriving and panning for gold.  The site where it was originally found is known as the Gold Discovery State Park and it was part of the town of Coloma, about an hour's drive from downtown Sacramento, and about 150 years back in time.  Randy Everhart is a ranger at the park and an authority on panning.  If you go to pan for gold, the first thing you've got to do is get your gear together, what the miners called the grub stake.  And the place to do that is Frank Bekeart’s trade store. Frank's opened in 1849 just after the discovery of gold and it hasn't changed much.


MAN: Hi, how you doin'?

BURT WOLF: Pretty good.

MAN: Hi.

MAN: How ya doin'? 

WOMAN: Very nice to meet you.

MAN: I brought you a sucker- ... I mean, a ... a green horn.

MAN: Good, we need one tomorrow.

BURT WOLF: Make me feel very secure.

All right, what do I need to go panning for gold?

MAN: Well, we better start you off with a hat.

MAN: Hat (Overlap)

MAN: ... canyons get hot.

BURT WOLF: Yeah, what's that made out of?

MAN: That's coyote.

BURT WOLF: Coyote, my favorite.  Okay.  And, uh, it's my size too, I lucked out.

MAN: Good pocket knife.

BURT WOLF: Pocket knife.

What do I use that for?

MAN: Well, you can use it for cutting some kindling.

BURT WOLF: Kindling, good.  Okay.

MAN: Cut that.


MAN: This here you might want to keep for grizzly bears.

BURT WOLF: More grizzlies, okay.

MAN: More grizzlies.

BURT WOLF: Ha, interesting.  Grizzlies seem to be a thing around here.

MAN: Now, here's what you come for.  You gotta have a gold pan.

BURT WOLF: A gold pan, also good for stir frying.

MAN: Here's your gold poke.  Has about one day's take there, you should be able to fill that.

BURT WOLF: Okay, right.

MAN: There's a nugget to show you what it's gonna look like.

BURT WOLF: Oh, so that's what I'll be looking for?  Ah, mighty interesting.

MAN: Better give him a grub sack for his food.

BURT WOLF: A sack where my food goes in?

MAN: You bet. 


MAN: All right. 

MAN: Unless you end up carrying

BURT WOLF: So, what do I owe you?

MAN: Oh, about $3,000.

BURT WOLF: Okay.  Put it on my credit card?

MAN: Sure can.

MAN: Ah, only take gold.

BURT WOLF: Gold.  Should have known that.  There you go.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Nice thing about shopping at Bekearts is if you don't do so well in the creek they'll sell you this little bottle with gold already in it, so when you get home you have something to show while you tell the story of the incredible hardships you went through while searching for wealth beyond your wildest dreams, you know what I mean?

RANDY EVERHART ON CAMERA: You know, back in the original days miners had to do 50 pans of this size every day in order to make our quota, that was in order to recover enough gold to pay for their expenses.  And it was a lot of hard work.  The miners would have to stand in this icy cold water, hot sun beating down on their back.  Normally they would take and excavate somewhere else and fill their pans with a shovel ...  BURT WOLF: Right.

RANDY EVERHART: ... but today we're just gonna scoop up some stuff here.


RANDY EVERHART: And load our pan.  Normally I do this about half full but, you know, when those miners were doing their 50 pans a day they would heat this thing up.  Okay, after you get your pan full you want to go ahead and set your pan in the water.  Here, we're gonna show you how this goes.  Gonna step out here in the water a little bit.  So the first thing you want to do after you get your pan full is you want to set it in the water.  Now, you want to thoroughly saturate all the material in your pan, because if you have any ... any dry spots from lumps of clay or other materials, any gold that may be in those dry spots is going to wash out of the pan right away, and we don't want to lose any gold.  So in order to settle our gold to the bottom of the pan, now we need to agitate.

And it's a combination of a shaking and a swirling motion, and this helps settle everything to the bottom.  Then we're slowly gonna tip our pan over, to what I like to call the working angle, which is right about here, and then we're gonna let the water do the work for us.  So you simply dip your pan into the water and lift it out.  You can see everything just kind of rolls off the top.  The stuff on the bottom, where our gold is supposed to be, is not gonna be bothered by this process.  So we just dip and let the water pull everything off the top.  When you get down to this point here you want to put just about a half inch of water in the bottom of the pan, and then start rolling it around to see if we have anything.  Now we have some good black sand, but we found no gold this time.

BURT WOLF: So I should pretty much stick with television, huh?

MAN: I think so.

BURT WOLF: That's it.  Now you're ready to pan for gold in the California state parks that allow it. Dig a little more gold, live a little better, that's what I always say.

On your way back to Sacramento, a place to stop for lunch or dinner is Fat's Asia Bistro and Dim Sum Bar.  The Fat in Fat's Asia Bistro comes from Frank Fat whose family has been running some of the best restaurants in town since he opened his first place next to the capital building in 1939.  And the bistro is a hip new spot offering dishes from China, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Korea and Japan.  We had dim sum served in a bamboo basket with a red wine vinegar dipping sauce, sesame chicken with a spicy sweet and sour sauce served on a bed of fried rice noodles and honey walnut prawns in a sweet sauce with caramelized walnuts.

After lunch, I headed over to Sutter's Fort to take a look at what was going on before the gold was discovered.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Sutter was one of the first people to find out about the gold and he tried to keep it a secret but he totally blew it.  The word got out, the rush began and Sutter was left in the dust.  And it wasn't even gold dust.  Before that unfortunate episode in his life he was trying to build the Sutter empire and he was trying to build it around this fort.

BURT WOLF: Today, the best way to get an idea of what the fort was like is to stop by on a Tuesday or a Thursday.  For the past 25 years the Sacramento Historic Sites Association has run an environmental living program.  For 24 hours, fourth graders from schools all over California dress up in period costumes and relive history.

MAN: Captain Sutter, the fort's been prepared for your arrival, Sir.

BURT WOLF: They cook in the old kitchen.

WOMAN: Okay we did it. 

BURT WOLF: Make corn husk dolls.

WOMAN: Do you know why we're making corn husk dolls?

BURT WOLF: Twist Rope. Build furniture, pour candles.  Fire a musket and obsess about the Nasdaq.

Ten years after the fort was established the men rushing to the gold overwhelmed it and stripped it of everything of value.  Sutter went back to Washington, D.C. and tried to convince the federal government to pay him something for his loss as well as his contribution to the formation of the State of California.  Fat chance.  His son tried to recoup a few dollars by laying out a plan for the land around the fort and selling it.  His neat grid, set out numbered and lettered streets that ran alongside the river.  In 1850 the area was incorporated as the City of Sacramento and Sutter's grid is still the city plan.

And you can still see the first place where that plan was laid out.  It's called Old Sacramento and it has been restored to its original look.  And if you're interested in changing your own look you can stop into Evangeline's Costume Shop and reinvent yourself.

Evangeline's is housed the oldest building in old Sacramento and contains three floors of outrageous costumes.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Most of the settlers who came to California in the early 1800s came to reinvent themselves.  Sutter was a perfect example.  When he lived in Switzerland he was a lieutenant in the reserves.  When he got to California he became Captain Sutter of the Royal Swiss Guards who had fought in the French Revolution.  Of course, Sutter missed the point that the Royal Swiss Guards were on the losing side and had all died in a screwed-up battle in the king's palace.  It appears that Sutter couldn't get his act together even when he was making it up, and he might have been doing that most of the time.

BURT WOLF: There's also a great shop with Hollywood memorabilia called Stage Nine, photos of famous actors and actresses, a great selection of Pez dispensers, some very funny bumper stickers, and Wonder WomanT-shirts for my producers.  When you're in Old Sacramento a good place to eat is the Firehouse Restaurant.  The building was put up in 1853 to house the first paid fire department in town.

In 1959, Newton Cope purchased the property and turned it into the Firehouse Restaurant.  Victorian antiques, an award winning wine list, and good food.  We started with baby spinach salad tossed with sherry vinaigrette and garnished with candied pecans and Stilton blue cheese.  Next, lavender salmon served on a bed of asparagus and red mashed potatoes with a caramel orange wine and butter sauce.  For dessert, a rich chocolate mousse cake drizzled with raspberry cream, creme anglaise, and garnished with fresh raspberries.

Old Sacramento will give you a good idea of what this town looked like during the second half of the 1800s.  For the most part, you are looking at a society made up of descendants of European stock.  And yet much of the story of Sacramento and the rest of California rests in the Chinese community. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In 1848 China was in total chaos.  The Manchu Dynasty was falling apart and unable to govern.  There was widespread starvation and the peasants were in rebellion.  Tens of thousands of Chinese left home in search of their golden opportunity, which they believed was buried in the hills just outside of Sacramento.

BURT WOLF: To see what a Chinese community looked like pay a visit to the town of Locke, about 45 minutes southwest of Sacramento.  It is the only remaining rural Chinese village in the United States.  When the Chinese district in the nearby town of Walnut Grove burned down in 1915 the displaced residents rented some land in an orchard and built Locke.  Built by Chinese for Chinese, it has been designated as a national historic site.  Three blocks of cracked sidewalks, faded and peeled paint on aged buildings, shafts of light piercing into the dust of deserted storefronts.

Ping Lee's father was the founder of Locke..  What was going on in these stores?

PING LEE: Well, you see up, up ... all those sort of has a balconies, well, those are usually residents.  The businesses are downstairs.  And most of 'em, you can come through it from the top of the road and they all have, stairways coming down to the stores.  The Gambling House, they served more than just the gambling house.  God, I mean, I would call it a recreation places.  There was no TVs, there's no movie.  They don't understand English.  So they come in here and they get together ... these towns here was a necessity for the Chinese laborers at the time.  Where else the single man gonna go?

BURT WOLF: If you pass through Locke during the weekday morning, you might think that you were in a ghost town.  But stop by on a weekend afternoon and you'll see that Locke's clock is still ticking.  Al's Bar has been here since 1934.  It was established, if that's the right word, by Al Adami who at the time was the only non-Chinese businessman in town.  Al's maintained some unique traditions.  If you place a thumbtack into a dollar bill and throw it up to the ceiling and the dollar bill sticks you get a free drink.

BURT WOLF: All right, Steve, what do I do?

STEVE: Well, sign your name to it, or whatever you'd like.


STEVE: Then what we do, Burt is we stick a dollar ... or a thumbtack in the middle of a dollar bill.  Great, the silver dollar and put it over the thumbtack.  You go back ...

... and back, try to get it in the middle, sides down.  The whole secret of this is to hold it waist high and throw it directly above your head.  Don't try to catch it if it doesn't stick. You non-believers give me a dollar, I'll show you.

CROWD: You can do it. 

BURT WOLF: Do I get a drum roll

MAN: You go!

BURT WOLF: Yeah!  I made it… there.  Yeah!  Thank you.  Thank you very much.

That was very exciting.          Well, I'll give you back this dollar, right?

STEVE: Oh yeah.

BURT WOLF: But you got that dollar?

STEVE: I got that dollar too.

BURT WOLF: You do report that to the IRS.

STEVE: Oh, you bet.    What would you like?

BURT WOLF: I think I should have a drink to celebrate my achievement.

STEVE: Ah, let me buy you one.

BURT WOLF: I'll have a Bloody Mary.         Huh.  This is about teamwork, you know?

You keep wrapping 'em, I'll keep throwin' 'em.

STEVE: There ... there you go ...

BURT WOLF: As Sacramento grew it became the western terminus for much of the cross continental commerce and communication, including the Pony Express.  The Pony Express delivered mail between Sacramento and Saint Joseph, Missouri, a distance of 2,000 miles.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: They got paid about $25 a week, which would be about $500 in today's money.  Youngest rider was 11 years old, the oldest was 40.  Buffalo Bill had been a Pony Express rider.  The average trip took about ten days and the fastest one on record was seven and a half.  They were in a hurry to deliver Abraham Lincoln's inaugural address, which I think was, uh, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

BURT WOLF: In spite of its fame, the Pony Express was only in business for 18 months during 1860 and 1861.  Part of the reason it came to an end was the introduction of the telegraph, which ironically was housed in the same building.  The Pony Express was a financial disaster for its founders and investors and ended in bankruptcy.  Yet it lives on in legend like the dotcoms.

A much more successful business model was that of Wells Fargo.  The miners in the gold fields needed a regular and reliable link to the eastern part of the United States.  The closest government post office to the gold fields was in San Francisco, a trip that no miner wanted to make.  When you left your claim someone usually stole it.  So pretty much miners were homebodies.  Henry Wells and William Fargo, who had set up an express service from the east coast to Chicago, understood the problem and opened up offices in the middle of the Gold Country.  They provided postal service, but perhaps more important, a prospector could take his gold into Wells Fargo and convert it to money.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: By the 1860s, Wells Fargo had a successful stagecoach business.  Instead of spending six months seasick hanging over the rail of a boat as it went around the southern tip of South America, you could hop into a Wells Fargo stagecoach going from Mississippi to Sacramento and only spend three weeks puking out of the window.

BURT WOLF: In 1877, the Omaha Herald published a guide to stagecoach travel.  Number one, don't spit into the wind.  Two, don't swear or lop over on your neighbor when sleeping.  Three, if delicate women are among the passengers don't point out places on the road where horrible murders have been committed.  And finally, please do not operate any electronic devices that might interfere with the driver's sense of direction.

The great fortunes that were made during the Gold Rush were not made by the miners who separated the gold from the rocks, but by the guys who separated the gold from the miners.  The cost of living in the Gold Country took almost everything the miners made, and made the suppliers rich.  Eggs were selling for $50 a dozen, and they weren't even organic.  Four of the richest guys in town were Charles Crocker, a dry goods merchant, Leland Stanford, a grocer, and two hardware dealers, C.P. Huntington and Mark Hopkins.  They were known as the Big Four and the fortunes they made from selling things to the miners gave them a one-track mind.

A track that became known as the Central Pacific Railroad, which was financed by the Big Four.  The first spike was set at the edge of Sacramento's waterfront in 1863, and track was laid east as fast as possible.  California's gold was running out, but silver had been discovered in Nevada.  And the Big Four loved the idea of controlling the commerce between the mines and the coast.  Federal money poured into the railroad because that would keep California and its wealth in the union during the War Between the States.

Today Sacramento is home to the California State Railroad Museum, which is the most visited railroad museum in the world.  With over 225,000 square feet of exhibition space, the museum explains the role that the railroads played in the development of California and the nation.  It starts with the first transcontinental railroad and continues through the golden age of railroading.

The oldest locomotive in the museum is the Central Pacific's Governor Stanford.  It was shipped by boat around the southern tip of South America and arrived in Sacramento to start work in 1863.  There is a spectacular collection of beautifully restored locomotives and cars from the golden age that spans the period between 1869 and 1910.

Starting in 1873, the Virginia and Truckee ran between Carson City, Reno, and the Comstock silver mines of Nevada.  There are 19th century Victorian passenger cars with every inch of surface covered with decoration.  They also have the finest restored example of the American standard locomotive, the Northern Pacific Coast Railroad number 12.  It went into operation in Marin County, California in 1876.  There's a legendary dining car from the Santa Fe Super chief with table settings from the 1940s when it was the last word for Meals on Wheels.

An old mail-sorting car where the postman was tested on his ability to remember the location of over 100 boxes.  An old 4294, the last of the unique cab-forward steam engines designed to run through the tunnels of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  When I first saw it, I thought the cab-forward plan was designed so the engineers could get a better view of the track.  But the real reason was based on the fact that when the engine and the smoke stack were in front of the cab, where the men drove the train, and they went into a tunnel, the smoke would come back and the engineer would die of asphyxiation.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The railroads couldn't have cared less about the loss of the men, but shortly after the engineers died, they noticed that the trains and their valuable cargos would crash, and that was serious.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: That’s a look at the Gold Rush and the one-track minds it created.  And that's "TRAVELS & TRADITIONS" from Sacramento, California.  I'm Burt Wolf.  Let’s high ball it.