Mountain of Gold
They said it was the greatest gold discovery since James Marshall’s original discovery at Coloma in 1848. In November 1855, following the recent discovery of almost incalculable gold deposits, $100,000 had just been extracted from Table Mountain in Tuolumne County, near Sonora. The people in the southern mines were wild with excitement about their “mountain of gold,” said to be of the richest and purest quality.
For a long time, there had been much speculation among the southern miners about the interior of this prehistoric landmark, thought to have been formed some 10 million years in the past, when volcanic lava flows filled the bed of an ancient river channel. That it contained gold, was unquestionable. Yet, even the most idealistic treasure hunters couldn’t imagine the vastness of its riches—riches, however, that required a considerable capital investment to reach. Since the first attempts to mine it in 1851, everyone had known that Table Mountain’s peculiar formation, with its abrupt, perpendicular basaltic walls rising from 100 to 700 feet high, was made of almost impenetrable rock.
One of the first to try was a group organized as the Experimental Tunnel Company, which managed to tunnel some 900 feet through rim rock, finding gravel and a little gold in the spring of 1852. At the time, these men faced no opposition; instead, the skeptical, derisive jeers of other miners said to go right ahead, they were welcome to the benefits of the entire mountain! They tried again, with more success; and another company, called the Scraperville Tunnel Company, commenced similar operations.
By December 1857, numerous shafts, tunnels, and drifts, had been sunk or bored through solid rock by several outfits, at great expense and much hard labor. These crisscrossed the mountain to depths of 1,200 feet, including, among others, the Jamestown and the High Point Tunnels. Altogether, the length of tunneling was some 8,300 feet, some of it only effected by blasting. But litigation, its claims and counter-claims, was consuming more and more court time, engaging the “most able and learned counsel in the state” for plaintiffs and defendants alike. Many fortune-seekers, their dreams dispelled over the loss of time and money, abandoned their claims in disgust.
But that was before a skilled and practical miner, aided by the light of science and the experiences of his less fortunate predecessors, developed the substantial wealth of Table Mountain in 1860. Not someone new: the early 1850s Scraperville Company had hit pay dirt that seemed almost inexhaustible, and the newly-organized Strahan Works was finding gold, too. The Down East Tunnel was paying well; in fact, all the claims being worked were paying well into the millions. The lands on both sides of the mountain abounded with miners’ ranches, gardens, and comfortable homes.
As late as 1905, Table Mountain was still a good producer of gold, with the introduction of new methods and capital that surpassed 19th century miners’ abilities to retard water-flooding in the channels, though producers such as the Nate Clark Claim, the Richard’s Claim, and the Ranch Claim frequently shut down for lack of sufficient pumping stations. Be that as it may, hope never quite died that the site was still rich beyond all avaricious dreams.
Then in January 1915, a development company which for years had been quietly buying up land, and now controlled significant portions of the Table Mountain property, announced that they had built a mile-long tunnel through solid granite, a tunnel that would drain all the waters from Table Mountain, a tunnel the company expected would expose two million dollars of the mountain’s hidden gold. To accomplish this, a spokesman said, they had sunk nearly one million dollars in the work, and would have 500 men at work by the first of February. However, the outbreak of World War I a year earlier, and the United States’ entrance in this war in early 1917, brought higher costs overall and a decrease in gold production, as many people moved away to work in war-related industries. Most of the Tuolumne County mines stood idle during WWI.
One exception was the Humbug Mine, situated on the east slope of Table Mountain near Jamestown, the richest mine of its kind, producing more than four million dollars in placer and river gold in its heyday. Property owner John O’Neil took out the first patent in 1880, but agreed to have the Humbug operated by a company out of Boston. From 1914 to 1950, the mine was owned and operated by Frank T. Moyle and his family (though all California mines were shut down during World War 2).
Tuolumne County’s Table Mountain was also the setting for some of Bret Harte’s more famous short stories, published in the 19th century, that featured miner, gamblers, and other romantic figures of the California Gold Rush.
In the 21st century, it is said that Table Mountain, honey-combed with subterranean passageways that are silent nowadays, still holds millions of dollars of gold buried within it— a treasure that would be far too costly to remove.