The new gold diggers

When gold nuggets were found in the foothills of California in 1849, a frenzy of prospecting ensued. Now, thanks to the ‘Great Recession’, it’s happening all over again.

By Kevin Fagan | Telegraph UK
Published: 12:15PM BST 14 Jul 2010

Avery Rathburn and his highbanker along the Scott River,  California.

Avery Rathburn and his highbanker along the Scott River, California. Photo: SARINA FINKELSTEIN
Ken Oliver's gold nuggets and jewelry workshop, Scott Bar, CA

Ken Oliver’s gold nuggets and jewelry workshop, Scott Bar, CA Photo: SARINA FINKELSTEIN
Ken Valenta, 49er Mining Supplies, Columbia, CA

Ken Valenta, 49er Mining Supplies, Columbia, CA Photo: SARINA FINKELSTEIN

Not too long ago, David Basque was a carpenter living in northern California. In his early twenties, the work came easy and fast, and life was good.

Then came the Great Recession, and unemployment that spiked over 12 per cent in California alone, and 10 per cent across the United States. Construction dried up and even small carpentry jobs went away or paid just half of what they used to. It was, he says, very worrying.

Like so many others, David was sure things would work out. Then his savings dwindled and his optimism soon followed. But, when things looked darkest, he found he had an ace up his sleeve, the same ace thousands of people have been pulling out of their sleeves in the past two years as jobs dried up all over California and something approaching panic seeped through every county of the state. David turned to gold prospecting.

He’d panned over the years as a hobby. But with the downturn came an opportunity he had never anticipated. Just as in the recession of the early Eighties, the inflation crisis of the mid-Seventies and even the Great Depression of the Thirties, David noticed that gold had not only retained its worth – it had actually risen in price.

In fact, its value had shot through the roof – tripling to more than $1,000 (£658) an ounce since the start of the recession. Earlier this month, fears of a ‘double-dip’ prompted claims that bullion could hit nearly $1,500 an ounce. Encouraged, David spent some of the last of his money on some pans, a sturdy tent, a sluicer and a dredging machine, and hit the hills.

That was more than two years ago. The sturdy, trim Californian boy still does construction work, but he hasn’t lived in anything resembling suburbia since. Now, day after day, David rises from the floor of his yurt – a round tent patterned after an ancient American Indian design – grabs his machinery and hits the Klamath river.

His yurt is up in the hills west of the little frontier town of Yreka in far-north California and there are months when he can gouge $1,000 worth of gold out of the river. ‘I’d be in tough shape without it,’ he says.

There was a time – 1849, to be precise – when the desperate, the poor and those simply seeking a new life came to California from all over the nation. And when a handful of pioneers found gold in the Sierra foothills, Gold Fever turned into a frenzy. The idea was that you’d come here, sink your pick into the ground and make a fortune. Except it didn’t quite work out like that.

Certainly, the Hearsts and others made fortunes in the riverbeds and mines of the not-yet-Golden State’s mountains and backwoods. But for most, digging and panning was back-breaking work that rarely paid above subsistence. But even in the five-year frenzy that constituted the 19th-century Gold Rush of the 49ers (as they came to be known), many people were just fine with this.

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