The surface gold was easily gathered; the veins in the quartz yielded to hard work, but eventually they too were worked out. One dream remains from the great California Gold Rush: the legend of the lost mine.
It goes something like this: a miner staggers in to the saloon tent, loaded with nuggets. He is a stranger. As he gulps down his whiskey he mumbles a tale of fabulous wealth, a veritable mountain of gold. At first the other miners are skeptical, but the size of the stranger's poke lends a certain validity to his story. The miners become convinced that the fabled El Dorado has been discovered; the source of all the flakes and nuggets stands revealed.
Next morning most of the stranger's gold and all of the whiskey are gone. What remains is hangover with disappointment to come. The fabulous find is lost again.
Take, for instance, the case of Jacob Breyfogle, a Nevada blacksmith, who set out in 1864 with a saddle horse and a pack animal. His horse strayed one night and the next morning's search led to more than a missing mount. Breyfogle claimed to have come upon a ledge of red quartz loaded with the yellow metal. But, his luck was mixed. Without his animals, the prospector soon found himself in dire need of food, water and transportation.
Breyfogle was found and rescued by Piute Indians, who had also found his horse. He returned with his life, but died years later without ever again finding the Lost Breyfogle Mine.
Another legendary strike is the Lost Cement Gold Mine, said to lie somewhere in dense woods near the Sierra Mountain headwaters of the San Joaquin River's middle fork. In 1858 a small band of roaming placer miners found a ledge of red cement-like lava, loaded with gold. Partner trouble led to an axe murder and Indian trouble brought on a hasty exit. The spot was never again located.
The Lost Gunsight Mine got its name from a rifle part fashioned by Mormons from found metal in the Panamint Mountains. They were unable to find the spot again. The Adams Diggings uncovered a sizeable strike for the Mormons near San Bernardino in 1886, but most of the miners were killed by Apaches, taking the lucky location with them to the grave.
Mines were being found and then lost again long before the Gold Rush started. In 1827 horse trader Thomas Smith took a short cut and became lost west of Yuma, Arizona. He climbed a small hill and found its top covered with pebbles colored a dull bronze. Smith put a few handfuls of the strange pebbles into his saddle bags and forget about the hill where he had found them. Years later in Yerba Buena, the future San Francisco, Smith hauled out the rocks amid the frenzy of northern California's Gold Rush. The strange rocks assayed $2,000 to the ton...nearly solid gold.
Smith had lost a leg in the intervening years, picking up the name "Peg Leg." Try as he might to find his way back to that fabulous strike, the Lost Peg Leg Smith Mine took its place in western legend. Smith died of drink in San Francisco in 1866.
The Lost Soldier Mine was discovered by men searching for a kidnapped woman near the big bend of the Gila River in Arizona. They returned with $1,800 in gold stuffed into saddlebags but without a clear understanding of exactly where they had found it.
Add the Lost Lee Mine on the Mojave River, Blue Bucket Diggings somewhere on the Oregon Trail, and dozens more that are not only lost, but forgotten.
Between 1848 and 1860 there were 500 camps, villages and towns scattered across the Mother Lode country. In 1849 miners scratched more than $10 million from the land. By 1853 the yield had peaked at more than $81 million, dropping in 1855 to $55 million. But the dream remains.
Now, in the 21st century, there are still hopeful modern day prospectors with golden gleams in their eyes, spending their spare time trying to rediscover a lost fortune. Each summer they comb the mountains and deserts in search of the legend that still lives; the lost mine waiting to bestow Gold Rush riches on the lucky finder.