COLUMBIA, Calif. – Maybe it was the nail in Ray’s head. Maybe it was the economy. His wife said one as much as the other drove the decision to auction off everything that wouldn’t fit in the trailer and leave Vermont for the mother lode.
“Thought we’d try to make a living at it,” Kim Lague said, standing in a mining camp that was busier during the Great Depression than it was in the Gold Rush of 1849, and is busy once again.
And so, 18 months after a co-worker’s pneumatic hammer drove a 2 1/2-inch stainless-steel nail into Ray Lague’s skull – “the plunger of the gun brushed my hat and discharged” – the once-thriving contractor took his place among the prospectors lining the steep banks of the South Fork of the Stanislaus River, 40 miles west of Yosemite National Park. The man helping him drag the mining gear into the water was a jobless logger who lost his home to foreclosure.
Fifty feet downstream, an unemployed concrete-truck driver scoured the river bottom beside a laid-off furniture mover, back to prospecting after a day spent wrestling with the unemployment office.
“You have to consider the economy,” said Gary Rhinevault, caretaker of the Lost Dutchman’s Mining Association campground, where 45 prospectors pay as little as 30 cents a day to pitch their tents. “In 1932, there were more prospectors out trying to make a living than in the 1850s.”
Even in the trough of today’s great recession, most of the prospectors still double as hobbyists. But as the economy soured, their ranks swelled with adults of working age, pulled by gold prices flirting with $1,000 a troy ounce – the highest in more than two decades – and pushed by unfortunate circumstance. While there is no way to quantify the trend, anecdotally it is clear that the jobless are showing up places where gold has been found in the past.
“I have been seeing a lot of it this year, with so many people getting laid off or hours cut way back,” said Tim LeGrand, owner of TN Gold & Gems in Coker, Tenn. Permits for prospecting in the nearby Cherokee National Forest, named for the tribe pushed westward after gold was discovered in the early 1800s, have more than doubled since 2007.
“People come out with high hopes and don’t realize the work that is involved until they get into it,” LeGrand said. “Most try a few days and give up. Many struggle on and learn to pan. Very few get enough gold to do them any financial good.”
On the South Fork, everyone claims to know this. And yet, here they all are, investing $1,500 to $5,000 for suction dredges, sluices, and for the big plastic pans that, after the machines have done the heavy work, reveal the glimmers of color that set hearts to racing and render reason irrelevant.