The State’s geology and mining history supports that rich gold deposits remain to be found, and many deposits that were mined likely have considerable unexplored resources. But the naivety of the public, over-regulation by bureaucracies, costs and liabilities of mining, and exploration costs have left the state broke. California produced more than 118 million ounces of gold in the past worth about $130 billion at today’s gold prices (Hill and others, 2001)! In addition to gold, the state yielded by-product platinum, sapphire and benitoite from its serpentinite belt in the Sierra Nevada. And the accidental recovery of >600 diamonds from 15 different counties suggest this same terrain could provide an important source for diamonds (Hausel, 1998).
Gold was initially found by Spanish prospectors along the Colorado River between 1775 and 1780, but it was the later discovery of the precious metal at Sutter’s Mill in 1848 that produced one of the most important events in the history of the western US and led to a major gold rush that enveloped California with thousands of prospectors and merchants swarming to the Californian gold fields and settling large regions of the West. Gold was soon found in many locations that included Grass Valley, Jackson-Plymoth, Hammonton, Folsom, Columbia, La Porte, Oroville, Nevada City, Alleghany, French Gulch, Bodie, Sierra City, Angels Camp, Jamestown, Placerville, Carson Hill, Magalia, Big Oak Flat, Forest Hill, Mojave, Iowa Hill, Rand, Soulsbyville, Snelling and Polker Flat. It soon became evident that a major gold belt unparalleled in North America occurred in the north-central portion of the state east of Sacramento and west of the State’s elbow.
This belt, known as the Mother Lode, was outlined by gold discoveries in quartz veins in a region about 4 miles wide and 170 miles long that reached north from the Sixteen-to-One mine at Alleghany to Mormon Bar in the south. The precious metal was found in quartz veins in phyllite, schist, slate and greenstone. The more productive veins were discovered along at contacts between two different rock types. Where extensive erosion occurred, major placers formed downstream in Holocene and Tertiary gravels. Broad zones of mineralization found in weathered lodes that were hydraulically mined.
The Mother Lode was legendary for its incredibly rich pockets of gold. The richest contained crystalline gold within the Alleghany-Downieville region 75 miles northeast of Sacramento. In the 1920s, a pocket intersected at the Sixteen-to-One yielded nearly 95,000 ounces of gold! At today’s gold price, this one pocket would be worth $105 million! Another pocket found about the same time produced >45,000 ounces. Other mines in the Mother Lode belt noted for rich pockets included the Oriental, Alhambra, Four Hills, Keltz, Bonanza, Kate Hardy, Carson Hill, North Fork, Kenton, Angels, Green Emigrant, Finnegan, St. Patrick and Plumbago. But those of the Allegany district were especially rich (Clark, 1970).
Some pockets showed enrichment of iron, others did not. Many of the rich pockets were small but found at or adjacent to serpentinite-slate contacts. In some, quartz-mariposite (a green mica) was found. Near serpentinites, many of the quartz veins split or were bent. Such structures produced gold pockets in some cases. Other high grade pockets were found at vein intersections or in shears.
Another variety of pocket veins were termed ‘Seam Diggins’ that were essentially a form of stockworks. These were found at Placerville, nearly 50 miles to the south of the sixteen-to-one mine and close to Sutter’s Mill. Most were mined by hydraulic methods because of the broad zones of gold mineralization with numerous crisscrossing quartz veinlets. Not only did the veinlets contain precious metal, locally some fractures contained gold. Possibly the largest seam was mined at Georgia Slide north of Georgetown (8 to 10 miles north of Sutter’s mill). The seam in amphibolite, was nearly one mile long and as much as 400 feet wide (Ralph, 2010). Today, such deposits would be likely mined by open pit. Many of the veins produced rich pockets cut by iron-rich fault offsets.
Sample of milky quartz with visible gold containing considerable green mariposite.
By 2007, environmentalism and government had taken its toll on this rich gold state. California only produced 9,400 ounces of gold from two mines: the Mesquite and Briggs. Aerial examination of the giant gold placers suggest blocks of placer ground were missed along the American and Yuba rivers. In addition, because of technology, gold placers could only be mined to limited depths, thus unmined placers likely underlie several mined placers. And all lode gold deposits have not been found and additional exploration would result in more discoveries. Then there is the question of diamonds and sapphires found in the placers. The geology of California appears to be very favorable for Benioff and obducted related diamond-rich slabs and intrusive breccias. And while the author was exploring the Poker Flat region for Western Archon in 2003, several excellent sapphire and benitoite specimens were discovered and while searching for serpentinites in the Trinity River area, several chromian diopsides were discovered by the author in serpentinite belts in that region.
Grass Valley was the most productive gold district in California. Total output from lode mines was estimated at $300 million (historical gold prices or 30 to 52 times lower than today’s gold price). Placer mines yielded a few million dollars. The two largest operations, the Empire-Star and Idaho-Maryland had outputs of 5.8 million ounces and 2.4 million ounces, respectively. The district lies within the Sierra Nevada 50 miles northeast of Sacramento. The Eureka and North Star Mines were consolidated into one of the largest gold mines in the world. The shafts were sunk on a 50 to 60 degree incline reaching a vertical depth of more than a mile with >11,007 feet of incline length. More than 367 miles of tunnels were dug in the development of the mine (Kelly, 1997). The mine operated from 1850 to 1957 and according to the historical park, only 20% of the gold was recovered! The Idaho-Maryland mine was the second largest underground mine in California and operated from 1861 until 1957. Both mines closed due to labor problems, increasing mining costs and due to a fixed price at Due to recent gold price increases, this property is in the process of being permitted for a 2,400 ton per day gold mill and 1,200 ton per day ceramics operation.
Right - A view down the incline of the Empire shaft
The area is underlain by an elongated 5-mile long (north-south), 0.5- to 2-mile-wide granodiorite that intrudes greenstones, metadiabase porphyry, amphibolite, serpentinite, gabbro, diorite and slate. To the north and southwest of the granodiorite , metasediments of the Calaveras Formation (Carboniferous to Permian) crop out. A number of intermediate to basic dikes are present along with aplite and granite porphyry dikes. Overlying part of the district to the east and northwest are Tertiary gravels, which are overlain by andesite.
The ore shoots vary in size and shape, and the distribution of gold within the shoots is erratic. Some have pitch lengths up to several thousand feet and have been developed to inclined depths as much as 1,000 feet. Much specimen ore has been found, but milling ore usually averaged 0.25 to 0.5 opt Au (ounce per ton of gold). The erosion of the auriferous veins from this district carried the precious metal in the Yuba River producing rich placers near Yuba City.
Placerville lies 30 to 40 miles east of Sacramento in the Sierra Nevada. The district also includes placer deposits at Smith Flat, Diamond Springs, Texas Hill, Coon Hollow, White Rock and Placerville. Gold was discovered in Placerville in 1848. From the 1850s through the 1870s deposits were also mined by hydraulic and drift mining. One 20-acre claim at Coon Hollow yielded $5 million and the Spanish Hill area yielded $6 million (historical prices).
The district is underlain by a northerly-trending belt of gray to black slate of the Mariposa Formation (Upper Jurassic) that is one to two miles wide. The western portion of the district is underlain by greenstone and amphibolite and the eastern portion by schist and slate of the Calaveras Formation (Carboniferous to Permian) which is intruded by granodiorite. The South Fork of the American River and its tributaries enter Placerville from the east. In places, Tertiary gravels are overlain by thick rhyolite tuff and andesite flows.
Of the numerous tributaries of the main Tertiary channel in this district, one of the richest was the Dee Blue Lead. This channel extends south from White Rock to Smith's Flat and then west-southwest through the Texas Hill area. Lode-gold deposits appear as massive quartz veins as much as 20 feet thick with numerous parallel stringers. The ore bodies are low to moderate grade and the veins were mined to depths of 2000 feet. The ore contains finely disseminated gold and small amounts of pyrite and occur chiefly in slate.
The Jackson-Plymoth district lies 35 miles east of Sacramento and 20 miles south of Placerville and forms a 20-mile-long belt enclosing the towns of Jackson, Sutter Creek, Amador City, Drytown and Plymouth. Most of the important lode deposits were discovered during the 1850s and includes the Original Amador, Keystone, Central Eureka and Kennedy mines. From the 1890s until 1942, this belt was one of the more important gold-mining districts in the nation with production that ranged from $2 to $4 million annually (historical gold prices).
The principal lode mines in the district progressed to great depths until costs became prohibited due to decreasing ore grades, increased requirements for timbering, dewatering, increased costs of ore haulage to the surface, and low gold prices. The veins were developed to depths of nearly a mile or more. The Argonaut mine reached a vertical depth of 5,570 feet and the Kennedy mine reached a vertical depth of 5,912 feet (the Homestake later surpassed these reaching depths >8000 feet). The Argonaut produced >$25 million in gold (historical gold prices) recovering 720,000 to 1.1 million ounces and the Kennedy mine produced $34.3 million in gold (historical gold prices) recovering 1.0 to 1.5 million ounces. The Central Eureka reached a depth of 4,965 feet and produced 1.8 million ounces. Other deep mines included the South Eureka and Plymouth Consolidated mines that reached >4000 feet. All of the mines were shut down in World War II. The Central Eureka reopened in 1945, but because of increased costs, closed in 1953. This was the last active major gold mine on the Mother Lode belt after a total output estimated at $180 million (historical gold prices). At today’s gold prices of 30 to 50 times that of the historical prices, it is likely that one of more of these could again be economic with government support and incentives.
The gold deposits in this district occur in a north- and northwest-trending belt of gray to black Mariposa Formation (Upper Jurassic) slate that is 1 mile wide with interbedded coarse and sheared conglomerate. To the west, massive greenstones of the Logtown Ridge Formation (Upper Jurassic) crop out. To the east are graphitic schist, metachert and amphibolite schist of the Calaveras Formation (Carboniferous to Permian). Several Tertiary auriferous channel gravels are exposed south of Jackson. The lodes occur in massive and sheared quartz veins with abundant fault gouge. The veins are primarily in Mariposa Formation slate and are sometimes tens of feet thick; in places the Keystone vein is as much as 200 feet thick. The ore bodies contain disseminated gold, pyrite, and minor amounts of other sulfides. Greenstones with disseminated auriferous pyrite occur adjacent to some quartz veins at depth. The ore averaged 0.14 to 0.3 opt Au.
Hammonton (Yuba River)
The Hammonton district lies along lower Yuba River downstream from Grass Valley and from the famous 16 to 1 gold mine. The placers are 5 to 10 miles east of Marysville and Yuba City. This was a major placer district and was dredged for about 8 miles (portions of the placer were not mined). The river and streams were initially worked by small-scale placer methods and dredging began in 1903. The Yuba No. 20 dredge was one of the largest gold dredges in the world at the time of operation. The river was dredged almost continuously from 1903 to 1968 with total output estimated at 4.8 million ounces (about $5.2 billion at today’s price).
In 1968, the last dredge shut down after mining >1 billion yds3 of gravel. The extensive gravel pipes have become increasingly important sources of aggregate and likely contain considerable discarded gold, typical of dredge tailings. The gold-bearing gravels ranged from 60 to 80 feet deep on the upper end to 100 to 125 feet in the vicinity of Hammonton. The eastern part of the field is underlain by metamorphic rocks, while the central and western portions have gravels underlain by clay. Minor of platinum was recovered. Estimates suggest that 235 million yds3 of unmined gravel remains in the field.
Folsom (American River) district
Folsom lies 5 to 10 miles east of Sacramento and is a placer district that was dredged downstream from the town of Folsom for approximately 10 miles. The area was originally settled in 1849 and first known as Negro Bar. Bucket-line dredging began at Folsom in 1898. In 1916, 11 dredges yielded more than $2 million in gold. Dredging operations terminated at the outbreak of war, but resumed on a major scale after World War II. However, increased costs, the depletion of placer ground, and changing land values resulted in curtailed dredging operations. By 1960 there was only one active dredge, and this shut down in 1962. Folsom, one of the largest dredge fields in California had a total output estimated at $125 million (historical gold prices).
Recent stream gravels lie in and adjacent to the American River. To the south, sand and gravel deposits of the Victor Formation (Pleistocene) and silt, sand and gravel of the Laguna Formation (Plio-Pleistocene) are underlain by andesite of the Mehrten Formation (Pliocene). The paying gravels are in or along the American River and near the lower contacts of the Laguna and Mehrten Formations. Digging depths ranged from 30 to 110 feet. Along with gold, minor amounts of platinum were recovered. A few narrow gold-quartz veins are found in greenstone east of Folsom.
The Columbia district is located 60 miles southeast of Sacramento in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. This was a placer district and includes Yankee Hill, Sawmill Flat, Squabbletown, Brown's Flat and Springfield areas. The Sonora district is just to the south and the American Camp district to the northeast.
Columbia was one of the richest and most famous placer-mining districts in California. Early in 1850 a group of Mexican miners struck it rich. During the 1850s and early 1860s, the diggings were enormously productive but the district declined in the late 1860s, but small-scale mining continued. Total production was estimated to be at least $87 million - some estimates suggest as high as $150 million (historical gold prices).
Columbia lies in a Tertiary valley, a flat valley underlain by crystalline limestone and dolomite of the Calaveras Formation (Carboniferous to Permian). The limestone has numerous potholes and cavities, which contained enormously rich gravel. Several large nuggets were found including one that weighed >50 pounds and several weighing >300 ounces. Slow degradation of the area. Gravels were hoisted from the potholes and washed in sluices and long toms on raised platforms.
The LaPorte district lies 25 miles south of Quincy and 50 miles northeast of Oroville. It was one of the great placer-mining districts where streams were mined early in the gold rush. Hydraulic mining began in the middle 1850s and continued through the 1880s. During this time the district was enormously productive; the output from 1855 to 1871 alone was $60 million.
The main Tertiary channel of the North Fork of the Yuba River, known as the La Porte channel, extended south-southwest from Gibsonville. The channel continued southwest and south and was joined by a branch from the east from the St. Louis-Table Rock area. The main channel continues south to the Poverty Hill and Brandy City districts. At La Porte, the channel is 500 to 1500 feet wide and as much as 500 feet thick. The lower gravels are quartz-rich and up to 80 feet thick. Most of the gold was recovered near bedrock. The gravels are capped by thick beds of sand and clay. During the heyday of mining, these lower gravels yielded 0.1 to 1.0 oz/yd3 gold. To the east, channel deposits are capped by 800 feet of andesite. Considerable faulting disturbed channel gravels. Bedrock is amphibolite, with a belt of slate and quartzite of the Calaveras Formation (Carboniferous to Permian). Some narrow gold-quartz veins were found in the district.
Oroville was a placer field extending from west of Oroville to the southwest along the Feather River to 5 miles east of Biggs. The field is one to two miles wide and nine miles long. The area was settled in 1849: and bucket-line dredging began in 1898. The field was highly productive from 1903 to 1916; in 1908 there were 35 dredges active in the district. Output declined, but dredging continued from 1936 to 1942 and 1945 to 1952. The total Output from dredging is estimated to be about 1,964,000 ounces of gold ($2.2 billion at 2010 gold price).
Gold occurs in river and adjacent terrace gravels on a flood plain. The gravels rest on andesite and rhyolite tuff. Coarse boulders, which become smaller downstream, are present with alternating sand layers. Digging depths ranged from 25 feet upstream to 55 feet downstream. The gold was fine. Minor amounts of platinum also were recovered along with diamonds.
The Nevada City district is located 40 to 45 miles northeast of Sacramento and covers an extensive area from Indian Flat on the west to Canada and Banner Hills on the east. Both lode- and placer deposits were mined in the past. Gold was first found in Deer Creek in 1849. The placers were rich and some hydraulic mining occurred at American Hill. Drift mining began in the 1850s, and these mines were continuously active until 1900. Gold in quartz was discovered in 1850 when the Gold Tunnel vein was found. However, important production of lode gold did not commence until the early 1860s. By 1865, the output from lode minies averaged $500,000/year (historical gold prices). The Champion and Providence mines were the major producers during these years. Large-scale lode-gold mining resumed at the Lava Cap and Banner mines. Total output is estimated at more than $50 million and may have exceeded $70 million.
The district is underlain by granodiorite with slate, mica schist and quartzite, most of which are part of the Calaveras Formation (Carboniferous to Permian). To the west and southwest are fairly extensive beds of massive greenstone, amphibolite and serpentinite. There are a number of fine- to medium-grained dioritic and aplitic dikes, some of which are associated with the gold-quartz, veins. In places these rocks are overlain by Tertiary channel gravels capped by rhyolite and andesite.
Several major gold-quartz vein systems traverse the district. In the western portion, one system extends northwest along a granodiorite-metasedimentary contact. In the southern and eastern portion of the district the veins strike nearly west and dip steeply. There are also a few northeast-striking and southeast-dipping veins. The veins usually are one to four feet thick, but in places a few are as much as 15 feet thick. The ore contains varying amounts of free gold, often abundant pyrite and smaller amounts of other sulfides. Some of the ore bodies are extensive; the ore body at the Providence mine persisted to an inclined depth of more than 2700 feet. Considerable high-grade ore was recovered.
Several important Tertiary channels were sources of ore-bearing gravels. One, the Harmony channel, which enters the district from the northeast, was extensively mined. The pay gravel in this channel was 150 to 200 feet wide, two to four feet deep, quartzitic, often containing sub-angular clasts that were well-cemented. These pay streaks yielded $1.55 to $2.50 in gold to the ton (historical gold prices). Northwest of town is the northwest-trending Cement Hill channel. In the southern part of the district is the Town Talk channel, which was narrow but rich in places. Much of the placer gold taken from the channels was coarse.
Cherokee lies 12 miles north of Oroville on the north side of Table Mountain in the vicinity of the town of Cherokee or Cherokee Flat. It was also known as the Spring Valley district. Most of the output was from a single hydraulic mine, that yielded about $15 million in gold.
The Tertiary placer deposits are associated with a west-trending channel about 700 feet wide. The sequence from bottom to top of the hydraulic pit is as follows: irregular greenstone gravel 5-10 feet thick that is lean in gold with local clay streaks and minor basalt blocks; a rich 20- to 30-foot layer of coarse fresh blue gravel with greenstone blocks, coarse and fine gold, small diamonds and minor platinum; several feet of decomposed gravel; 50 feet of sand and quartzitic gravel; 200 feet of clayey sand; and 50 to 75 feet of massive basalt. Between 400 and 500 diamonds were recovered from the gold-bearing gravels (Hausel, 1998). Several stones weighed >two carats and were of good quality, but most were small and had a pale-yellow tinge.