The Wild West wasn't born in California. Its glory days however, mythologized in fantastic tales of guns and gold, played out amongst the rugged topographies of the 31st state. Boom towns, with general stores to supply tools and more than a few saloons to satisfy other needs, often formed the backdrop to dreams of attaining gold-encrusted immortality. These were rough mining towns, where "justice" was usually swift and deadly.
In the early 1850s, just a few years after California had ceased to be Mexican territory, it is believed that a group of prospectors wandered into the San Gabriel Mountains via the Cajon Pass. They found gold in the canyons of the East Fork and decided to stay, according to the Los Angeles Star :
There has been some excitement this past week about the new gold diggings on the headwaters of the San Gabriel. We have met several persons who have been prospecting and although they found gold of the best quality, differ very much as regards to the richness of the mine. The Crab Hollow diggings are now considered the best and will pay from two to five cents to the pan.
By early 1859, profits had improved from a few cents to six and seven dollars per day. By May, "the East Fork was being prospected over almost its entire length, and promising new discoveries were made," according to San Gabriel Mountains historian John W. Robinson. As more prospectors arrived, the rustic settlement became known as Prospect Bar, a boom town located four miles up the East Fork. A reporter from the Los Angeles Star noted at the time, "a boarding house, two or three stores, blacksmith shop, butcher shop, etc."
The typical mode of production consisted of a team of miners, 10 to 20 men, directed by the claim's owner. The technology in use -- sluices, long tom's, quicksilvers -- surpassed the traditional pan, and the golden minerals of the East Fork were being worked by water wheels, flumes, and an elaborate system of dams. In November of 1859 the Star reported that the famed Driver Claim, owned by the prosperous Thomas Driver, was clearing "$1,000 for their past week's work."
The successes of Prospect Bar were short lived, however. On a rainy night that same November, a ferocious flood ravaged the canyon, destroying the settlement, along with the dreams of its settlers.
After a disaster of this magnitude, most Old West exploits would go from boom town to ghost town. But just four months after the flood the East Fork was once again teeming with mining activity, and after a meeting between laborers, company owners, and shopkeepers, the "Eldoradoville Mining District" was born.
Eldoradoville was described by the Star as, "Commencing at the junction of the waters of the main San Gabriel River and Cattle Canyon Creek, thence following the course of the main river toward the head ... and running on both sides of the river between said points and at right angles to the river course." The East Fork soon became so densely populated that the Eldoradoville Mining District enacted a series of 27 "mining laws." The extent of the law stopped at the mines, however, and life in Eldoradoville was often ruled by the blade and a six shooter. The embedded correspondent from the Star reported:
We have frequent disturbances of the peace here, and as we have no local officers, rowdyism and sanguinary assaults are a very frequent occurrence ... If death is not the result, there is no notice taken of the number of assaults with knife or pistol. At one o' clock yesterday morning, one Mexican or Indian killed another, by stabbing him in the breast with a knife. The apathy with which the white men received this news was, to say the least, degrading to our sense of civilized refinement.
The situation was likely exacerbated by the presence of more than six saloons featuring gambling and dancing. Robinson tells of a saloon keeper, named John Robb, that alleges to have made his real fortune by collecting the gold filled pouches that often fell from the pockets of his drunken patrons.
For the next two years, Eldoradoville was thriving. The Star reported that Wells Fargo & Co. was sending more than $15,000 per month in gold shipments out of their Los Angeles branch, the majority of it from the San Gabriel Canyon.
Eldoradoville eventually met the same fate as its predecessor -- a torrential downpour followed by a deadly flood. Those who managed to escape death ran up the hillside, beyond the torrent's reach, and observed what Robinson described as the "Shacks, whiskey barrels, groceries, beds, roulette wheels, sluices, long toms, and China pumps that were swept clean out of the mountains into the floodplain of the San Gabriel Valley ... thus ended the boom days on the East Fork."
Indeed, to this day, nothing can be found to mark the existence of Eldoradoville. While the canyon has become a hotbed of recreation -- 4WD trucks, bungee jumping, hiking, and picknicking abound -- mountain rangers would rather you forego looking for abandoned mines. But if you're looking for the spirit of '49, you needn't search any further than the shores of the East Fork, the veritable graveyard of Eldoradoville. To this day, throngs of gold "enthusiasts" practice old and new techniques in search of that 'color.'
If these gold seekers seem distant and guarded, it's with good reason: according to the U.S Forest Service, and the 1928 Mining Act, it's illegal to remove minerals from the San Gabriel River. Nevertheless, these modern day prospectors are eager to share their stories, if asked nicely, and they continue their operations largely due to the fact that the law is rarely, if ever, enforced upon them. Sound familiar? Perhaps the connections to the boom towns of yesteryear are a reach, but there is little doubt that gold fever is still alive on the tempestuous banks of the upper San Gabriel.
Top Photo: The remaining ruins of the Big Horn mine, high atop the San Gabriel River, 2013. | Photo: Daniel Medina