SoCal Connected on KCET

Gold Prospecting

Original Airdate October 9, 2008; Updated August 13, 2014

Judy Muller: Deep in the Angeles National Forest, just an hours drive from L.A., the San Gabriel River is a wash in dreams.

Gold prospector: When you see that first color, when you do a pan, you shine that first piece of gold. It gets the heart going.

Gold prospector: It’s the same thing when you catch a fish, you know. It’s an adrenaline rush.

Bernie McGrath: I do believe everybody has that little bit of fever.

Judy Muller:Gold fever?

Bernie McGrath: Yeah, that’s an addiction.

Judy Muller: 75-year-old Bernie McGrath - tough as a bird and just as toothless - knows something about that. He used to be hooked on heroin. But for the last 20 years, he’s been hooked on prospecting.

Bernie McGrath: I think I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t have it.

Judy Muller: Bernie is known as the unofficial mayor of the community of regulars who work the stretch of the San Gabriel River. But he also takes time to help the newcomers. Day in and day out, Bernie searches for flakes or nuggets of gold. Sometimes he uses the simple approach: Panning.

Bernie McGrath: The gold of any size is in this pan. What’ll happen is it will go to the bottom. Well, gold is 19 times heavier than anything here.

Judy Muller: But usually he relies on his dredge, which he hauls around himself in search of a promising section of bedrock. A hose vacuums up the loose material and sends it through a box.

Bernie McGrath: There’s a spot of gold right here. See?

Judy Muller: There it is! It’s right there.

Bernie McGrath: Look at that. 1, 2, 3, 4. Big ones! Another big one. Another big one. Look at that, there’s a nice one!

Judy Muller: A hole like this can yield an ounce a week worth perhaps $800, hardly enough to trigger a Gold Rush, especially since prospectors must first invest hundreds of dollars for the dredge. The regulars here enforce their own code of ethics. It’s illegal to stake a claim along the river. So once someone sets up their equipment in a spot, it’s understood that that spot is him. If an outsider comes along and tries to jump the unofficial claim, the regulars make it clear that they should move on. There’s really not much fighting because today, California’s gold is mostly gone, yet the ever hopeful keep flocking here.

Gold prospector: You have a chance of finding something big, you know? It’s still a chance but it’s still there.

Judy Muller: Bernie, who lives in a trailer park not far from the river, has no illusions of getting rich from this line of work. In fact, he keeps much of the gold he finds in display boxes to show friends.

Bernie McGrath: For the camaraderie, we’ll show it to each other.

Judy Muller: Even so, he understands why dreams die hard for families facing mounting economic pressures.

Bernie McGrath: Paying the gasoline, and the job layoffs, and people with families and kids want to do things. They can’t, because there’s no money.

Judy Muller: The Tron family has been at it for more than two years now. Sometimes they head to the Sierras, the heart of Gold country where they’ve made as much as $150 a day. The San Gabriel is proving tougher.

Gold prospector: I haven’t found enough to make it worth setting up..the ideal would be to find enough that you can sell. Right now, we’re lucky to cover the gas.

Gold prospector: We have plenty of friends up here. Everyone watches out for each other. It’s the good people that do this that I like to hang around with.

Judy Muller: This bachelor isn’t only digging for gold. He’s also got his eye out for a partner.

Gold prospector: The prerequisite that I have is a girlfriend that likes to camp and second of all, doesn’t mind looking for gold.

Judy Muller: And not just on her ring finger?

Gold prospector: Yeah, exactly. The next ring I give to someone, they’re going to have to find their own gold. (laughs)

Judy Muller: Bernie McGrath has hit his own load, and it can’t be measured in ounces.

Bernie McGrath: It’s peace of mind and things that I couldn’t do before. Being part of their lives, being there for them. Being of help. Back then, I couldn’t even say “please” or “thank you.” Everything is coming to where it is supposed to be at a time in my life.

Judy Muller: You’re a rich man.

Bernie McGrath: Very rich. Very rich.

Judy Muller: For “SoCal Connected,” this is Judy Muller on the San Gabriel River.

The Gold Rush may be over, but panning for gold is still very much alive in California.

Deep in the Angeles National Forest, about an hour's drive from L.A., is a group of dedicated "gold diggers" who meticulously examine the San Gabriel River and pan for gold.

Even though much of California's gold is gone, many Angelenos believe otherwise.

Reporter Judy Muller interviews Bernie McGrath, a prospector who turned his life around after spending years hooked on heroin. McGrath is one of many regulars who work a stretch of the San Gabriel River, patiently gold prospecting with the hopes of finding flakes and nuggets of gold.

Featuring Interviews With:

  • Bernie McGrath, gold prospector


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