Gold Rush drawings and photos

The discovery of gold in California touched off a madness that raged worldwide. Although the “yellow fever” didn’t impel John Mackay, hero of The Bonanza King, to the Golden State until the second half of 1851, these scenes would have been typical of how he lived through the rest of the 1850s, when he was working the mines around Downieville.

This cartoon in the Library of Congress’s digital collection pokes some fun at the extremes to which people were willing to go to reach the goldfields. Gotta love the suave dude riding that funky rocket west. (Click the images to enlarge them for more detailed viewing.)

The California Gold Rush was one of the world’s first major events to be captured by the techniques that would evolve into modern photography. Miners loved having their likenesses made. They posed with pistols, knives, liquor bottles, and the tools of the mining trade. Here’s an unknown Gold Rusher in the LoC’s digital collection. (Click on the image to enlarge)

Other excellent collections of Gold Rush daguerrotypes can be found in Daguerrotypes of the California Gold Rush at Hyperallergic, in this slideshow of 13 Gold Rush daguerrotypes posted by the New York Times, and in these 17 colorized daguerrotypes and this collection of 28, both posted by the SF Chronicle.

Oh, how I’d love to find one of John Mackay during his Gold Rush days…

Here’s a color illustration of a typical Gold Rush camp that shows three of the simple apparatuses used in placer gold mining operations: a pan, a rocker, and a long tom. (Loc)

Also, J. D. Borthwick’s lithograph “Our Camp,” showing a remote gold mining camp.

And these four scenes of Gold Rush life. (LoC)

All miners wanted to end up like this lucky fellow, who “struck it” in the pages of the Mining & Scientific Press (December 2, 1876).

Things quickly got a lot more complicated than that simple illustration would have us believe. Since I started researching The Bonanza King, I’ve been astonished by the industriousness of the gold rushers. They worked long and hard and on a much larger scale than I would have thought possible. Here’s a guy “panning out” next to a long tom for photographer Thomas Houseworth in the 1860s. (New York Public Library Digital Collections)

And this fellow working a rocker in Columbia (LoC)

The next one purports to show miners working somewhere in El Dorado county. They’ve got two well-cared for dogs posed on the bridge in the middle of the photo. (LoC)

This guy at Brown’s Flat surveys what I suspect is a flume carrying water to a gold washing operation on the far side of a cut, with a simple derrick beyond him. (NYPL)

More elaborate operations at Jacksonville, on the road to Yosemite.

The Gold Rushers discovered it more efficient and profitable to work in large groups, with pooled resources. Such organizations often launched “river turning” operation. They’d build a wing dam and divert the flow of an entire river into a flume or ditch and use pumps to drain the pools and expose what they hoped would be the richest deposits at the bottoms of the deepest pools. Such endeavors were sometimes extremely profitable, but they also exposed the men to the vagaries of California’s misunderstood climate. Early season rains could wash out the dams and sweep away the whole apparatus of a river turning operation before the men had a chance to mine the deep pools, the ones on whose exploitation hinged the profitability of the enterprise. Here’s a drawing of a river turning operation at Murderer’s Bar, near Auburn on the North Fork of the American River. (LoC)

And here’s J.D. Borthwick’s drawing of a similar river turning enterprise. It’s fascinating to see how they harnessed the power of the diverted river’s flow to run pumps that drained the deep holes. There’s even a steam engine powering a pump or a hoist at Murderer’s Bar.

For laughs, here’s “Christmas in a Mining Camp,” which shows the miners rushing out on Christmas Day when word of a new strike electrifies the cabin. (LoC)

Here’s a daguerreotype of the Espenscheid Store in Nevada City in the 1850s. (LoC)

Gold mining operations became larger and more “corporatized” as the years passed. Here’s a succession of late-Gold Rush photos taken at Columbia in the 1860s that show ever-more elaborate gold mining. Today, Columbia is one of the best preserved Gold Rush towns. I wonder if any of the buildings behind the huge wheel still stand? (LoC and NYPL)

Here’s what a “worked out” claim near Columbia claims looked like.

I’ll make a different post to show the enormous hydraulic mining operations that shredded the Sierra foothills and touched off a legal tussle between agricultural and mining interests that culminated in one of the most influential court decisions in American history.



  1. Thank you for applying your gift for writing and research to bring this wonderful biography of John MacKay to print. Why is it so few of us have ever heard of him? Of course, you answered that question in the book. Hopefully your book will be even more of a success in bringing John Mackay’s life and accomplishments to all of us!

    1. You’re welcome, Steve. And thanks for reaching out. One of my objectives in writing TBK was to return John Mackay to the national consciousness. He certainly deserves it.

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