Gold is curious stuff, isn't it?
There just isn't much of it anywhere on the planet, and when a cache is found, men go to extremes to extract the contents of that cache.
Those extremes have much to do why the history of the California Gold Rush is so interesting. Hopeful men, shivering in icy streams, began by panning the sand and gravel found in those streambeds. Sometimes they found a nugget or two, sometimes they found a bit of dust, but more likely they found nothing.
Then mechanization took over and the gold seekers turned to hard-rock mining. They took billions of dollars away from the Sierra Nevadas through this means.
But gold wasn't found just in the mountains. It might be found anywhere water flowed from those mountains – and not just in existing rivers, miles from the mountains, but also in the gravels – they are called auriferous gravels – of prehistoric riverbeds, beds existing rivers long ago abandoned, or beds of rivers that long ago disappeared.
Hm, how to get the gold out of those rivers? That question was answered by the invention of the dredge.
But that's for hobbyists. Seekers after gold who were serious needed much more serious machinery. And that's how the Tuolumne Gold Dredge came into being.
It started operation near the town of La Grange, Calif., in 1938 and operated until 1951. Then its operators ran it aground where it had been working, shut down its impressive array of equipment, and walked away.
It's been sitting there, quietly rusting, ever since.
Bob Taylor, my pal and brother-in-law, happened to mention this giant piece of historic equipment - it's about two football fields long and about four stories high - during a holiday visit. He said he knew of it, but had never seen it. So I said, grabbing my shoes and camera, "Why aren't we on our way there now?"
So we drove to La Grange, a tiny remnant of a town, founded in 1848, that now has withered to almost nothing – a museum, which as closed, and a tiny store that sold mostly booze. We asked after the dredge. Nobody knew. One guy told us that he thought it was a ways down yonder road.
So yonder road it was. We quickly found the historical marker telling the dredge's story. But we could see no dredge. Which was odd, because these things are enormous. If it's there – and where would it go? – we should have been able to see it.
Hmm. I dialed up Google Earth on my phone and discovered that it was indeed there – indeed, it is so big that it's hard to miss in the satellite shot. It's just a ways off the road and hidden from view by clumps of brush that have grown up around it.
Sky-high view? Here it is, straight from Google Earth. The dredge and the lake it dug for itself are clearly visible.
So we hiked a half mile or so to see the thing up close. It's impressive, sitting there in its self-made lake, pretty much where it dug out its last bucketful.
This, below, is just about the best view of this enormous piece of equipment. This, I think, would have been the rear of the dredge. As you can see, graffiti idiots have got to it.
This thing had a long boom along which ran large, steel buckets on a chain. The operators lowered the boom through gold-bearing gravels, all the way down to bedrock, where the heavy gold came to rest. The buckets gnawed through the gravels in front of the dredge, picked them up and carried them to the machine's internal systems, which separated the gold from the rock and sand, and then spat that rock and sand out its back. The thing, you see, didn't need an existing lake or river. It made its own moving lake as it worked.
And that's where this one quietly sits today, in an autonomous pond that it created, fed by groundwater percolating from the nearby Tuolumne River – the one that started this business of dredging in this location in the first place – as it flows straight out of the Mother Lode.
In its day, this beast must have been an awesome sight, chewing out huge swaths of rock and gravel, spitting the tailings out its rear conveyor belt, and separating the gold that made jewelry and other precious things for our parents – all to an ear-shattering din as its machinery did its work.
Not much left of a once proud old beast, run aground where it last worked. Its boom and tangled piles of cable as thick as your wrist rest nearby.
There are several of these old dredges around, some of them recipients of preservation efforts. This one has not received that kind of care. It's just an old mechanical warrior, its last battle over, waiting for the elements to claim it. It's worth seeing while we can.