"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."
Cornish Miners Followed Vanishing Gold Underground

by Don Baumgart

The first men who rushed to California to find gold were amateur miners; clerks, farmers, doctors, writers and common laborers deluged the state in 1849 and quickly learned the skills and hardships of placer mining. Gold close to the surface was shovelled, sifted, collected and quickly spent.

When gold mining went underground, California needed skilled hard rock miners. From one of the oldest mining regions in the world the Cornish miner came to dig deep for the precious metal.

"The miner was the hunter," Arthur Todd wrote in his book Cornish Miner in America, "and his mine provided all the excitement of the chase as the lodes twisted and writhed and then disappeared."

They had long ago solved the problems of blasting, timbering, flooding and ventilating underground mines. And they contributed to the language of mining such terms as shafts, winzes, galleries, levels and cross-cuts.

In 1850 miners in Cornwall were bringing up much of the world's supply of tin and copper.

"For the miner the life was nasty, brutish and short," Todd comments, "with endless physical toil and often marginal poverty." They seldom saw the sun; their complexions were pale and bodies stunted from crawling into narrow spaces and working in a day-long cramped position, hammering at the granite by the light of a single candle. Some Cornish mines were so deep a man might have to climb ladders continuously for an hour to reach the surface.

The year after the Gold Rush began high grade Cornish copper was showing signs of playing out at a depth of 1,000 feet while competition from deposits in America and Chile forced world prices down. Tin mining took a hit from richer deposits discovered in Bolivia.

"The only solution to the widespread unemployment and human misery that resulted from closure of mine after mine was emigration," Todd wrote.

The gold mines of California attracted the Cornish miners and some accounts credit James Rickard with being the first miner from Cornwall to reach the gold fields. Crossing the Panama Isthmus with the first stamp mill to be put to work in the mines, he set up in Coulterville in 1850. In 1852 a writer met several Cornish miners in Hangtown, now Placerville, who said they had already worked in mines from South America to Wisconsin.

By 1856 Nevada County had a population of 25,000 and hard rock mining was the driving force of a vigorous economy. How many were Cornish miners is hard to establish since the men moved from strike to strike, often before they could be counted. By 1859 economic times had changed and by 1861 a third of Nevada County's population left what had become a depressed area for work on the Comstock Lode strike in Nevada.

The skilled immigrants who stayed labored in 500 miles of tunnels beneath Grass Valley and Nevada City for nearly a hundred years, prying out more than $2 million. The Cornishmen accumulated money and sent for fiancés waiting back home to cross the ocean and start families and new lives in the golden state.

The war between the states brought a new boom to Grass Valley; the population jumped to 10,000 with 19 quartz mills running 208 stamps, crushing the ore brought up from underground. Thirty-eight mines employed 1,500 miners -- 200 of which were Cornish. The town was described as "wealthy" and "prosperous."

The "Cousin Jacks," as miners from Cornwall were called, began feeling their oats. It's reported that one day a number of Cornishmen amused themselves and the whole neighborhood in the vicinity of Richardson Street by indulging in a fight near the brewery. Three new cells were added to the county jail.

In 1865 and '66 500 new homes were built in Grass Valley for immigrants. Cornish were arriving in California by the hundreds, fleeing a dark economic depression in their homeland. The best were earning $3.50 a day. In Nevada City 480 stamps busily crushed 250,000 tons of ore a year.

A poem published in the Grass Valley Union newspaper sums up the courage and dogged determination of the Cornish miners, and all who worked underground during the Gold Rush:

'Tis his to find the glittering ore

For ages hid in earth's dark womb,

To creep and climb, to dig and bore

And build himself a living tomb

Some six feet high, some four feet wide

And reached o'er depths that few would stride.

— end —
(Copyright 2001, Don Baumgart)

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