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Prospecting for Gold With the New 49ers

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.
Dickey Melton, 65, New 49ers member. (Photo: Mark McKenna)

Dickey Melton, 65, New 49ers member. (Photo: Mark McKenna)

Prospecting for gold in the Sierra Nevada foothills is not the most popular way to get rich in California anymore, but it’s still a going concern for a few thousand romantics and fortune seekers. Modern prospectors converge on Northern California in the summer months and during holidays. One group, the New 49ers, has about 2,500 active members, and is based in the Siskiyou County town of Happy Camp.

What drew you to prospecting?

I love old-time history.... In high school, I remember getting these old True West magazines. I spent a lot of time in my mind living in those books. And then to actually visit some of the old 49er spots up out of Marysville, California, and up in Timbuctoo and Smartsville—for me, gold prospecting is living those fantasies.

How do you even know where to look for gold?

Anything heavy—nails, lead weights—take a certain route in a flood. That’s when gold moves. So you have to learn that route: If there’s gold there, it would probably settle here, and that’s where you look. So you get your gold pan and dig a little bit here, dig a little bit there. There’s an art to it, and once you learn that, it’s a game. What have I got to do to get to this next step?

Besides panning, what are the different techniques involved?

Panning is the smallest way: shovel dirt in your pan, go to the river, pan it out. Then the next step up is a sluice box, which you lay that in the ripples, and you shovel dirt into it. That’s a little faster than panning. Then you have the high-banker: You dig buckets of dirt, and then have this little machine that you pump water into, and spoon feed the dirt in. Then the dredge, that’s the big step up from the high-banker. In the state of California, there’s a moratorium on dredging, though.

Obviously the more dirt you run the more gold you’re going to get. I would probably get more gold if I didn’t pan so much, but panning is fun. You can walk all over the place. You see an area.

Getting rich doesn’t seem to be your number one goal, then. What do you like about prospecting?

I like the noise of the river, the quietness a little bit away from the river. I’ve had bear encounters, cougar encounters through the years. Bald eagles.

Sometimes I come up with these little conversations with the critters I see—like kid stories. I told my granddaughter about a skink. I told her, “He said his name was Larry the Lizard, and then he laughed, and said, ‘Well, I’m laughing because my name isn’t really Larry and I’m not a Lizard.’” I did it with a turtle, too. He was hitchhiking, and I got a little selfie with the him. I asked him if he wanted a ride, and he said, “Nah, I don’t ride with strangers.”

Are other prospectors more serious about making money? Can people make a living off this?

The people that I know who [prospect] all the time have another income. Even the guys that are there everyday during the season, say May through November—very few people I know do it and make payment.

I’ve seen people down at Happy Camp who buy a lot of equipment and camp gear, banking on paying all of their bills by finding gold. And they get out there and are just bummed out, you know? No gold. I would look at those people and think that’s the same mentality that the old 49ers had. The difference is that, today, they can get here quicker and get back home quicker. But they still lost everything.

A good day highbanking for someone like me who’s playing around would be a pennyweight [of gold]. Right now an ounce is like $1,100, and it’s 20 pennyweight to an ounce. The price was way up higher than that, but it’s dropping. So you figure one-twentieth of a thousand bucks, let’s say. You can do much better than that, but you can do worse than that, too.

How do people react when they strike it big?

When some club members find gold, you’ll never know where they’re mining at. There’s a club rule that you have a 60-foot radius that no one can come into without your permission, and they don’t want somebody coming down there when they’re not there. They like being secretive.

This is an incident I’m thinking about from a long time ago: This couple was getting a little bit of gold from dredging, so somebody went down and told them they should try a different area up a ways. They ended up moving there, and got help moving. But then they started getting into about a quarter ounce a day. Somebody went to move close to their area, and there was verbal abuse and that. So, where before, they were making one pennyweight or less a day and they didn’t care about people being around them, when they moved to where they were getting a quarter of an ounce, all of a sudden they changed. I’ve seen people [at Happy Camp] that come and they say, we’ve been lied to, we’ve been set up. Some people get really displeased and you hardly ever see them again.

Gold’s a strange thing. You could have five dollars on a table, and you could have 50 cents worth of gold lying there next to it. If somebody was to steal, they’d steal the gold before they’d steal the five bucks.

Dickey Melton, 65, New 49ers member. (Photo: Mark McKenna)

Dickey Melton, 65, New 49ers member. (Photo: Mark McKenna)

What do you think is special about its appeal?

For me, it’s that gold has looked like this forever. Iron rusts, copper turns colors, everything goes through changes. But gold don’t change. What you’re looking at—what I got out of the river last week—has looked that way forever. You can’t change it. You can’t corrode it. Gold is gold.

What is Happy Camp like?

People from all over the world go to Happy Camp. My wife and I met a couple from Germany there. We dredged with them for a little bit. We ended up over in Germany just before Christmas with this family looking down on the Rhine River in an ancient castle. I’ve met people from Korea, from all over the United States. People start showing up every year with their travel trailers around the same time, and we have potlucks. Every Saturday night, there’s a big potluck.

The one thing that you have is the social structure doesn’t really matter. You have doctors that belong to the 49ers. You have government officials from Washington, D.C. You have people that are homeless. There are people who come to Happy Camp in helicopters, and then you have people driving 1962 Ford pick-ups with the doors wired shut. And they all go to potluck and sit together and talk about finding gold.

If you did happen upon a ton of gold, what do you think you’d do?

I don’t think I’d change much.... Just a few months ago, somebody said, “So what are you going to do if you hit a big old pocket of gold, and you make a million bucks?” And I said, “I’m going to hire somebody to manage it, and I’m going to be back out there finding more.”

—Dickey Melton, 65, New 49ers member (as told to Paul Bisceglio)

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