While the process of sourcing gold is often referred to simply as “mining,” mining is actually just one piece of the puzzle. As we’ve talked about here and here, the road to obtaining gold is nuanced, involved and often quite costly. Gold production has become big business and needless to say, the gold mining industry today is a far cry from the shovels, picks and pans of the 19th-century gold rushes.
Today on the blog, we’re kicking off a two-part series examining the story of U.S. gold production through the lens of individual states. We’ll look at the top five gold producing U.S. states from the kick-off of the 19th-century gold rushes through the mid-20th century and explore each region’s unique journey to gold fame.
We’ll start by diving into the stories of the two highest gold-producing states in the nation – California, and Colorado – and round out our discussion by examining South Dakota, Alaska, and Nevada in part two next week.
Gold in the United States
The first gold discovery in the United States was officially made in 1799 on a North Carolina plot of land called Reed Farm. While smaller recovery efforts had been carried out by Native Americans and Spanish explorers prior, the Reed Farm discovery kicked-off what would become two-centuries-and-counting worth of continual gold mining in the U.S.
Gold sourcing in other Appalachian states soon followed the Reed Farm discovery, making the region a prominent precious metals producer leading up to the Civil War.
While the Appalachian discoveries were significant by the standards of the day, they would pale in comparison to the extraordinary amounts of gold unearthed in the western United States later that century.
Gold Mining in California
In January of 1848, the legendary California Gold Rush officially kicked off when James W. Marshall, a sawmill operator at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California, spotted shiny objects in the channel bed where he was working. Upon further examination, his hunch was confirmed, and he officially became the first to discover gold in California. Marshall tried to keep his discovery secret, but the news couldn’t be contained. Tales of striking it rich in the American West quickly spread not only across the country but around the globe, setting the stage for enormous influxes of strike-it-rich hopefuls to California in the 1850s.
With this profound history, it’s probably no surprise that California has maintained its title as the highest gold-producing U.S. state of all time. According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s 1968 Professional Paper, Principal Gold-Producing Districts of the United States, the “Golden State” produced upwards of 106 million ounces of the precious metal from 1848 through 1965.
While more than half of all states in the union have produced gold in varying forms and fashions, California, Colorado, South Dakota, Alaska, and Nevada – the Top 5 – together produced upwards of 75% of the nation’s gold supply through the late 1960s. While trailing the other four states through the middle of the 1900s, Nevada saw significant spikes in its gold yields beginning in the 1980s, and today produces more than 70% of the nation’s and nearly 6% of the world’s gold supply.
The California Gold Rush
The California Gold Rush of the mid-1800s commenced the state's reign as the top producer of gold in the United States. While vast amounts of the precious metal have been recovered in the state to date, by some counts, production peaked in 1852 at 3.9 million troy ounces. The placer deposits that were the focus of Forty-niners and other early Argonauts were quickly depleted, forcing strike-it-rich hopefuls who only had the means to prospect by hand to look for fortunes elsewhere.
By 1929, gold production sunk to less than 420,000 troy ounces but notched back up again about 10 years later when the price of gold increased from around $20 to $35 per ounce. In 1929, California gold production surpassed the one-million troy ounce mark and would remain at these increased levels through 1941. At the onset of America’s involvement in World War II, the state’s production figures would drastically fall again.
The Mother Lode
The most fruitful Gold Rush-era region in the state was the famous – and aptly named – “Mother Lode” of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Stretching about 120 miles north to south from El Dorado County to Mariposa County, the Mother Lode produced more than 13 million troy ounces of gold through 1959 according to the USGS 1968 report. Notable mining towns in the Mother Lode region include Placerville, Diamond Springs, Sutter Creek, Jackson, Fiddletown, Mokelumne Hill, Jamestown, Sonora, and Columbia.
California’s second most viable gold recovery region was the area around Nevada City and Grass Valley in Nevada County, both of which are still active towns today. Situated slightly north of the Mother Lode, this slice of gold country produced 10.4 million troy ounces of lode gold and 2.2 million troy ounces of placer gold through 1959.
Other notable mining towns established during California’s gold heyday include Auburn, Bodie, Downieville, Fiddletown, Shasta and many others. San Francisco also owes much of its boomtown success to the allure of the California Gold Rush.
Gold Mining in Colorado
While gold was first discovered in Colorado in what is now Arvada, a present-day Denver area discovery in the same year of 1858 sparked the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush. The initial placer deposits prospected during the rush, which lay on the banks of Cherry Creek, Clear Creek and the South Platte River, turned out to be quite small, and when miners caught wind of larger-scale discoveries farther west, they quickly forged onward, leaving what is now Denver behind.
While the initial Denver-area discoveries were important historically, the push westward led to the first significant gold revelation in Colorado. In January 1859, California prospector and Missouri native George A. Jackson unearthed a supply of gold at a site where Chicago Creek empties into Clear Creek. While Jackson attempted to keep his discovery secret – as James W. Marshall had done before him – news inevitably got out, beckoning hordes of gold diggers to the area. Because of the hot springs nearby, the settlement was dubbed Idaho Springs. It remains an active town to this day.
The Gregory Lode
The Gregory Lode, just a bit north of Idaho Springs, was discovered in May of the same year in the areas surrounding what became mining towns Central City and Black Hawk. The district would produce approximately 6.3 million troy ounces of gold through 1959, according to the USGS 1968 report.
Gold in Breckenridge, Colorado
Placer gold was also discovered in 1859 along the Blue River near the site of present-day Breckenridge. The town was originally established in honor of and named for Vice President John Cabell Breckinridge, and was thus spelled with a middle “i.” The original spelling wouldn’t last long, as Union-supporting Colorado citizens quickly sought to distance themselves and their town from the pro-South Breckinridge. A mere two years after its founding, the townspeople changed the town’s official spelling to “Breckenridge.”
The USGS 1968 Report credits the Breckenridge mining district with producing about 1 million troy ounces of gold throughout its tenure.
Gold in Leadville, Colorado
Leadville was another important mining district during Colorado’s gold rush. The story of the Leadville district begins in April 1860 when placer gold at California Gulch was unearthed, marking one of the most fruitful discoveries in Colorado gold history. Gold recovery in this area led to the finding of silver deposits in the late 1870s. These discoveries, in turn, eventually lead to the founding of the city of Leadville, a town that remains active today.
The site of perhaps the largest-scale rush in Colorado's gold history is the famed and today widely known Cripple Creek district. In 1890, a man named Bob Womack discovered substantial gold deposits in Poverty Gulch, but it wouldn’t be his efforts that would open the flood gates to the region. Perhaps jaded by earlier revelations of a fake gold mine in the area a few years prior, it’s presumed that many people were probably wary of sinking their hard-earned money into the area.
A few believers did invest, however, and once news of their involvement spread, the boom at Poverty Gulch commenced. A town was established west of the Gulch with an original name of Fremont but later became what is known today as Cripple Creek.