Gold Panning in the North State
By Jon Lewis
Photo by Ron Gregory
When the skies opened up last winter and drenched the North State, not everyone was focused on the overburdened dams, rising rivers and flooded roads. More than a few were thinking about the good fortune that most certainly was being rinsed from the mountainsides and sent tumbling to the valley below.
It’s not exactly the rush of 1849 that colored California’s history, but there’s definitely a strain of gold fever going around these parts. Chip Hess, who runs The Miner’s Cache with his wife, Stacy, certainly sees the symptoms.
Recreational prospecting “is very viable at this time,” Hess says, “especially with all the rain and pictures of the dam being blown out in Oroville. It has generated a lot of interest” among the part-timers and those “looking to make some money—the price of gold is bumping up against $1,300 (an ounce). It had been in a lull for the last year.”
Hess sees anywhere from three to five families a week come through his shop, but that number went up to eight to 10 a week as spring turned into summer. “A lot of this stuff has been on the news,” he says.
The newcomers ask about gold—where and how to find it—and Hess is more than happy to help. He even offers a conditional warranty: “I can pretty much guarantee gold if the person does as instructed, but I can’t guarantee how much.”
Indeed, there is gold in them thar hills, and a prospector does not need to travel far. “We have areas right around Redding that are pretty amazing,” Hess says, noting the Washington Mine near French Gulch has long been a productive source of in-place or lode deposit gold.
There also are plenty of local opportunities to find alluvial or placer gold, the term for deposits created when mountains erode over time and gold is carried off by streams and rivers. In California, commercial miners extracted that gold from riverbeds through the use of suction dredging. A statewide ban halted suction dredging in 2009.
A miner for the past 60 years, including 40 years as a professional, Hess says folks could make a tidy living before dredging was stopped. “In good ground, you could get one to four ounces a week, and then we’d hit pockets where it would be three to five to 10 ounces in a given day. Those are nice paydays,” he says.
Prospectors are still known to engage in a little “sniping,” the practice of floating down a stream and looking into cracks and crevices for signs of gold. Hess was doing some sniping in the 1980s, making his way down a creek, when he saw a speck of gold and “popped out a full one-ounce nugget, right out here in French Gulch.”
These days, most prospecting is done with metal detectors, sluice boxes and the humble gold pan. In fact, Hess says, “everybody in mining is a panner. Everything goes back to the gold pan. Whether you’re a novice, running a metal detector, doing some hardrock mining… we even use ‘em for testing equipment.”
With Redding situated in the heart of gold country, Hess tries to keep his shop well-stocked for would-be prospectors. “We carry over 1,000 gold pans, and probably 30 to 35 varieties,” he says.
Hess recommends people combine gold panning with other outdoor activities they enjoy, like camping or fishing. Rules and regulations exist, Hess says, but there’s no single location or agency that has all the answers. “Hands and pans are OK in most places,” Hess says, but to be safe he recommends gold hounds stop by the Miner’s Cache for some free advice. Private property and staked claims are always off limits.
Gold panning is allowed in some sections at Whiskeytown Lake but prospectors need to purchase a $1 permit and can only use a scoop or trowel no bigger than 8 inches long and 4 inches wide. “You can find some color at the north end of the lake,” Hess says. “It’s a federal park and usually they don’t allow the extraction of minerals, but Whiskeytown was a gold-mining town so they give us some leeway.”
Matt Switzer, a Whiskeytown park ranger, says grade schoolers studying the gold rush during their weeklong stay at Whiskeytown Environmental School have been finding quite a few flakes of gold lately. Most of Whiskeytown is fair game for panning and permits are available at the visitors’ center.
Hess and his wife are members of Shasta Miners and Prospectors Association, a nonprofit group that allows members access to its gold-bearing claims. Monthly meetings are open to the public. “I’m kind of the go-to guy for anything that needs to be handled professionally and the training,” Hess says.
Tales of amazing finds and lost loot have achieved near-legendary status, says North State historian Dottie Smith. In 1870, three miners found a gold nugget weighing more than 11 pounds on Spring Creek, a short distance below the falls near the Iron Mountain Railway crossing. An even larger chunk of gold was discovered in 1880, a mere 100 feet from the location of the first nugget.
Perhaps the most well-known story of hidden treasure involves the infamous Ruggles Brothers, John and Charles, who in May 1892 robbed the stage to Weaverville, shot the armed escort, Buck Montgomery, and made off with a strongbox filled with $5,000 in gold and currency.
Fearing that Charles Ruggles had been mortally wounded in the shootout, brother John hid the strongbox to hasten their getaway while the stage proceeded to Old Shasta to get help. The route used is the present-day Middle Creek Road. The Ruggles were subsequently captured and ultimately lynched by vigilantes; the whereabouts of their loot remains unknown.
Smith’s other favorite tale of lost treasure involves a caravan of Mormons traveling through Shasta County that crossed Clear Creek near Horsetown while the creek was running high. A horse stumbled, a wagon got stuck in a rut and a chest containing $40,000 in gold coins was lost from the tailboard of a wagon. The swift waters made recovery impossible.
The Mormons returned the following spring to retrieve the chest, but all traces of the crossing were gone, covered with sand, rocks and gravel. The coins were never found, although in 1910, William Diestelhorst discovered a $10 gold piece dated 1841 while dredging on Clear Creek. “I’ve heard stories of people who find one or two. That one really intrigues me,” Smith says.
The Miner’s Cache
1600 E. Cypress Ave. #8, Redding • (530) 410-3122