The California Gold Rush Experience Outlook

From Gold Rush to Ghost Town


Christopher Columbus came looking for gold in 1492but it was not until nearly 400 years later that the gold was finally found. In 1848, in the Sacramento Valley, gold was discovered and news of the event quickly spread like wildfire across the U.S.and then across the world. The following year, 100,000 newcomers had flooded into the California territory to lay their claim to the fortunes that lay beneath the ground.[footnoteRef:2] They came from everywhere in the States, from Mexico, South America, Europe, China and Australia.[footnoteRef:3] They were known as the 49ersand a decade later, after a decline in gold discoveries, they would migrate again and be found in Coloradothere known as the 59ers. For a brief period of time, the gold rush brought an economic boom to parts of the country that beforehand had been sparsely populated. Towns shot up virtually overnightand then, when the boom went bust, they were vacated as quickly as they had been constructed. The remains were known as ghost townsempty shells of a civilization in a hurry to make it rich: the remnants of a society consumed by a dream that had haunted it for centurieswealth, riches, gold, glory. The story of the Gold Rush is a story of mad pursuit of what has always been the most popular of precious metals; it is a story of towns and ghost towns, of economic booms and economic busts. In this tale there is a moralone that America would do well to remember today as its merchants and financiers, bankers and fund managers pursue a new kind of goldwhether it is high yield, crypto, risk assets, or some other form of investment that one day promises great returns and then the next gives nothing. The story of the Gold Rush is the story of every bubble that has ever appeared: it represents the mania and manic demand for riches. In the story of the Gold Rush, gold is only one side of the storythe other is the Ghost Town. [2: The Gold Rush of 1849, History. A+E Networks, 2010.] [3: James Holliday, The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience (University of Oklahoma Press, 2015), 400.]

In the Beginning

The problem with the Gold Rush that began in California and spread to Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Idaho over the next few decades was both social and economical. It became political at points but only because the first two factors necessitate political intervention sooner or later. That is what happened in California as soon as foreign immigrants began showing up in force to stake their claims. As James Holliday notes, with the flood of immigrants from around the world seeking gold in the Golden State came fear and anger from the American miners there, which prompted the California legislature in 1850 to take action: it passed the Foreign Miners Tax, which decreed that only native or naturalized citizens of the United States would be permitted to mine in California without a license, the cost of which would be $20 per month.[footnoteRef:4] Foreigners were not happy about that. The miners had no titles to the land and claims to work the mines were settled informally among themselves with regulations that existed in the camps and were different from camp to camp. In an 1850 letter from William Swain to his brother George, William describes the moral condition of the camps: We found the most extraordinary state of morals in the mines. Everything in this country is left where the owner wished to leave it, in any place no matter where, as such a thing as stealing is not known. Miners rights are well protected. Disputes seldom arise and are settled by referees, as they would be at home.[footnoteRef:5] Essentially, if you were mining the earth for gold, you had a claim to itand tools on the site would typically be the indication of this fact. With the Miners Tax going into effect to pacify the American miners who felt that foreigners were stealing Americas gold, foreign miners took to the streets of Sonora to protest the extremely high fine: they waved their guns and threatened worsebut a group of American miners banded together to form a makeshift armed force; a small skirmish ensued but the foreign threat was suppressed by the American collective action of legislation and firepower. This was Americas backyard and foreigners, if you wanted to partake, you would have to pay a price.[footnoteRef:6] [4: Holliday, The World Rushed In, 401-2.] [5: William Swain Letter Written from The Diggings in California. PBS, Archives of the West.] [6: Holliday, The World Rushed In, 400-1.]

The moral condition of the camps described by William Swain also did not last. Discovered in 1848, gold had ushered in a brief moment of good times among the 49ersbut by 1850, with the arrival of so many competing miners from all over the world, the good times now seemed like a distant memory. As one miner from Missouri put it, Money is our only stimulus and the getting of it our only pleasure. Never was any country so well calculated to cultivate the spirit of avarice.[footnoteRef:7] This desire for riches is what drove hundreds of thousands out West. Sooner or later, there would have to be some form of community established for them all. Thus, the boom town came into existence. [7: Holliday, The World Rushed In, 401.]

Mining Towns

Just as the Americans displayed a knack for instilling loose-fitting regulations that allowed them to maintain a semi-structured order among themselves as they mined the earth, their approach to building a community within the vicinity of the mining activities quickly showed a greater tenacity and devotion to the Gold Rush. These were the gold mining townsand they sprang up like weeds to meet the needs of the miners. They had everything to offer and were complete with shops, saloons, brothels and other businesses seeking to make their own Gold Rush fortune.[footnoteRef:8] If the proprietors of these towns could make a fortune in mining, they would seek by satisfying the miners desires, one way or another. In short, the whole economy of these towns was dependent upon the success of the miners in the region. [8: The Gold Rush of 1849, History. A+E Networks, 2010.]

And if the morals of the camps, which started out respectable, were quickly eroding under the everyday pressures and tensions that were building up as a result of the conflict and competition coming in from all sides, the towns were quick to reflect this decline in morality. Lawlessness was rampant: this really was the Wild West. There was rampant banditry, gambling, prostitution and violence.[footnoteRef:9] The gold was becoming harder and harder to reach as well. By 1852, in California, mining hit its peak when some $81 million was pulled from the ground.[footnoteRef:10] It declined from there on. The gold rushers did not, however. They kept coming, and by 1860, there were nearly 400,000 people in California, most of them there to get rich. Unfortunately, they were now in the wrong place: in 1859, gold had been discovered in Colorado. The Colorado Gold Rush now went into effect. Denver City came into existence as a result.[footnoteRef:11] Like San Francisco in California, it would be one of the few locales to actually turn into a metropolis of sorts. So many other mining towns would cease to bear any resemblance to a community: slapped together to fill a passing need for migrant miners, they would be abandoned at the drop of a hat as soon as the miners headed off for other parts of the country. Legislation like the Miners Tax was meant to curb the immigrant problem that the Americans wanted addressedbut it also had the added effect of incentivizing foreigners to seek their returns elsewhere, which meant that boom towns erected during the California Gold Rush had fewer souls to draw upon for economic supportand that is one reason they went bust. The emergence of the Ghost Town was the direct resultof too few souls sticking around to haunt the regions: with nothing to nourish their bodies, there was no reason to stay. [9: The Gold Rush of 1849, History. A+E Networks, 2010.] [10: The Gold Rush of 1849, History. A+E Networks, 2010.] [11: The Colorado Gold Rush. Explore Old West Colorado, 2018.]

Problems within the Mining Towns

Even those towns that did survive, like Denver, had their problemsthe same as any other mining town. As Sandra Dallas shows, many of these boom towns never got beyond the stage of log cabins on rutted streets where every second structure housed a saloon or gambling hall or whorehouse.[footnoteRef:12] They were often makeshift in every sense of the word, affording the local miners only the most basicand typically the basestopportunities to replenish themselves. The ones that managed to thrive did so with style, incorporating Victorian architecture into their venues, upgrading their gambling dens to stylish halls that would attract visitors from across the country. They established themselves as juncture townsgateways to the West, where the economic life could be provided by more than the fate of the gold mining industry. For mining towns that had no other means of economic support than the miners themselves, they were destined to die quicklywhich is why so many remained as jaunty shells of an expeditious life with rutted streets and log cabin store fronts. [12: Sandra Dallas, Colorado Ghost Towns and Mining Camps (University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 3.]

American City in Gilpin, Colorado, was one example of a mining town that never amounted to anything. Towards the end of the 19th century it thrived briefly as a combination of gold discoveries and eastern capital sent dozens of miners to the Continental Divide town of American City, a site so windswept that branches grow on only one side of the pine trees.[footnoteRef:13] A handful of log houses were built. There was a school, and a mill, and a small hotel, all there for the hundred workers of the Boston-Occidental Mining Company and the American Mining Company. When the mining ceased to be profitable, the homes, hotel and school were abandoned. During the hey-days of Hollywood, American City became a shooting locationbut even that did not last, and today it is a privately owned ghost town.[footnoteRef:14] It is also only a small reflection of the types of towns that popped up during the Gold Rush. American City was relatively mild in demeanor and deportment. Some were much worse. [13: Sandra Dallas, Colorado Ghost Towns and Mining Camps (University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 11.] [14: Sandra Dallas, Colorado Ghost Towns and Mining Camps (University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 11.]

San Juan County in Colorado had its share: one was Animas Forks, established in 1875, a ghost town by 1915. Even by the mid-1880s, the one time-booming mining town where hundreds of men had braved the elements of the 12,000 foot elevation of the Forks had dwindled to only a dozen men, three women, and twenty dogs.[footnoteRef:15] The gold might have lured them, but the weather was cruel and harsh. One storm lasted twenty-three days, dumping twenty-five feet of snow on the main thoroughfare of Animas Forks. Cabins were routinely covered by avalanches and the local saloon became the place where the dwindling number of miners would hole up to wait out the barbarous winters. What had appeared so promising in the beginning, with two groceries, a drugstore, and four hotels, one of which advertised especial attention paid to the comfort of ladies, soon gave way to the realities of nature.[footnoteRef:16] Boom turned to bust before three decades were out and Animas Forks became a ghost town before the 20th century had barely gotten underway. [15: Sandra Dallas, Colorado Ghost Towns and Mining Camps (University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 12.] [16: Sandra Dallas, Colorado Ghost Towns and Mining Camps (University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 12.]

Cripple Creek was one of the most famous mining communities. It supported several mining towns and camps, and while most of Colorados boom town mining camps were doomed to failure, Cripple Creek managed to thrive. The doomed towns in the state fell because they were unsophisticated, investors lacked sufficient understanding of risk, and the demand supply was not there for the long run. Cripple Creek came later in the Gold Rush and was supported by more refined investors who understood the uniqueness of the location. Close to the railroad, Cripple Creek could accommodate travelers more so than other boom towns. Its weather was mostly hospitable (unlike in Animas Forks), and what originated as a flim-flam town of saloons, dance halls, and whore-housesJohnnie Nolans Saloon, Crapper Jacks, the Topic Dance Hall, the Bucket of Blood, the Turf Club, the Mikado, and the Old Homestead all along the main intersection in townbecame something more stable after a fire wiped much of it out and a new wave of investors helped turn the location into something specialno longer envisioned as merely a boom town, Cripple Creek now became a brick and stone city with an air of prosperity and permanence.[footnoteRef:17] It survived the boom because it was supported by good weather, easy access to the railroad, and young, rich investors who had profited handsomely from the Gold Rush in the state and viewed Cripple Creek as a fine place from which to manage their investments. [17: Sandra Dallas, Colorado Ghost Towns and Mining Camps (University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 62.]

Gillett in Teller County had visions of itself becoming a respectable boom town like its elder brother Cripple Creek, in whose district it hoped to become the Monte Carlo of the West. Established in 1894 but discontinued by 1913, Gillett was an example of how poorly some boom towns were created and how easily they became Ghost Towns when the visions turned to nightmares. For Gillett, the beginning of the end came when the town promoted a three day sporting spectacular with a bull fight being the centerpiece of the action. With fourteen saloons, open twenty-four hours a day, and three dance halls, Gillett had the type of recreational facilities in demand by many on the frontier.[footnoteRef:18] The bullfight drew thousands and the town tried to maintain them by throwing up a hastily built midway, gaudy with bunting and complete with bunco artists plying suckers.[footnoteRef:19] The promoters of the bullfight were frontier hucksters whose bullfighters hardly lived up to the name (but that did not matter since the bulls were too frightened to fight).[footnoteRef:20] In the end, the bulls were tortured and shot and the spectators who had flocked to Gillett to see some real sporting action left before the weekend was out. The high hopes of this boom town were dashed and Gillett never recovered its sought-after reputation as a reputable sporting destination. [18: Sandra Dallas, Colorado Ghost Towns and Mining Camps (University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 86.] [19: Sandra Dallas, Colorado Ghost Towns and Mining Camps (University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 86.] [20: Sandra Dallas, Colorado Ghost Towns and Mining Camps (University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 86.]

Anaconda in Cripple Creek, Colorado, was another example. It had its saloons, its dance halls, its gambling houses and was a genuine boom town established in 1892 that was a genuine defunct Ghost Town by 1917. While booming, it had its own business district and churches. And like so many boom towns, it rose because of miners and fell because of miners: when the gold was there, it succeededand when the gold was gone, so too were its residents. Of note is the young girl Mary Louise Guinan, who played the organ at one of Anacondas churches: she eventually left the boom town turned ghost town (as all its inhabitants did) and settled in New York where she adopted the name Texas Guinan and became acelebrated speakeasy operator who greeted her customers with, Hello, Sucker.[footnoteRef:21] Texas Guinan was the type of social fruit born of the Gold Rush boom towns: her establishment as a speakeasy matron in NYC during the Prohibition Era may serve as a testament to the sort of souls that the Gold Rush produced among its church-going residents. In short, the majority of these were not towns designed to thrive: they existed to support the miners and their families, and while there those families had to go about their lives like they would in any other placeexcept the frontier was not just like any other place and everyone knew it. There was a sense of fatality looming over every passing day, week, month and year. Soon the towns reason for being would vanishunless, like the survivors and thrivers, it could manage to find an alternate reason for being. [21: Sandra Dallas, Colorado Ghost Towns and Mining Camps (University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 11.]

Those That Made It

Towns that survived and thrived even after the Gold Rush ended did so for numerous reasonsGrass Valley and Nevada City are two such examples.[footnoteRef:22] They were established as boom mining towns in California and figured squarely into the states economy, supporting miners and their families for years in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. All the excitement happened primarily in Nevada City: it was the social hub of the region and for that reason became the county seat and commercial heart of the region. It established its importance socially, economically and politically. But when the gold mining work dried up, both Nevada City and its nearby neighbor Grass Valley were faced with the challenge of how to sustain themselves. [22: Mann, Ralph. “The Decade after the Gold Rush: Social Structure in Grass Valley and Nevada City, California, 1850-1860.”Pacific Historical Review41, no. 4 (1972): 484.]

Would they go bust like so many others or would they find a way to last? Fortunately, the good earth would provide the two towns an alternate resource to mineone that would become highly important in the coming years, following the end of the Gold Rush. The secret to their success was simple: as Ralph Mann states, Nevada City was able to maintain itself through its political, legal, and business importance until rich hydraulic and quartz mining interests could be developed.[footnoteRef:23] Grass Valley struggled a bit more as its quartz deposits were not as goodbut when mining technology advanced the towns mineral wealth could be tapped. Both Grass Valley and Nevada City thus found ways to thrive long after most camps had disappeared by shifting their focus away from gold and finding support among those willing to use advances in mining technology to pursue newly sought after mineral deposits in the region.[footnoteRef:24] [23: Mann, Ralph. “The Decade after the Gold Rush: Social Structure in Grass Valley and Nevada City, California, 1850-1860.”Pacific Historical Review41, no. 4 (1972): 484.] [24: Mann, Ralph. “The Decade after the Gold Rush: Social Structure in Grass Valley and Nevada City, California, 1850-1860.”Pacific Historical Review41, no. 4 (1972): 484.]


The Gold Rush offered people from all around the world the opportunity to strike it rich quickso long as they got in on the action early on and got rich along with the boom town entrepreneurs whose saloons and dance halls were a source of recreation for many. However, when the rush wore off the temporary settlers of these boom towns sought new streams of revenue. The Gold Rush expanded to other parts of the West. Colorado received a lot of the miners eager to continue the pursuits that they began in California. Boom towns turned to Ghost Towns: weather, wilderness, a lack of underlying infrastructure (transportation, economic foundation, and social value) plagued most of them. A few managed to keep their populace and establish a reason for being beyond the rush for gold.


The Colorado Gold Rush. Explore Old West Colorado, 2018.

Dallas, Sandra. Colorado Ghost Towns and Mining Camps. University of Oklahoma

Press, 1985.

The Gold Rush of 1849. History. A+E Networks, 2010.

Holliday, James S.The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience.

University of Oklahoma Press, 2015.

Koschmann, A. H., & Bergendahl, M. H. (1968). Principal gold-producing districts of the

United States: US Geol.Surv. Prof. Paper,610, 211-216.

Mann, Ralph. The Decade after the Gold Rush: Social Structure in Grass Valley and

Nevada City, California, 1850-1860.Pacific Historical Review41, no. 4 (1972): 484-504.

William Swain Letter Written from The Diggings in California. PBS, Archives of the


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