Prospectors used pickaxes to loosen the dirt and rock for examination.
Prospectors used pickaxes to loosen the dirt and rock for examination.

Beginning in 1849, gold seekers from Mexico, Chile, Europe, Australia and even China emigrated to the U.S., flocking to the San Francisco area. They were joined by throngs of Americans eager to strike it rich. The foreigners brought new methods and tools and excitement for possibilities and opportunities. Before mining slowed down into dormancy in 1855, nearly $2 billion in gold was taken from the earth.

Gold Pans

For the early gold-focused miners of 1849, gold panning was the way to acquire ore in a hurry, without all the fancy tools. According to Sierra Foothill Magazine, gold pans were probably the most ineffective of all the miners’ tools. The shallow pans worked well with water added to potentially gold-bearing materials. Prospectors filled potential gold-bearing dirt mixed with water into the pan and gently swished the compounds, resulting in small particles of gold rising to the surface.

Gold Rockers

Popular from the beginning of the gold rush and requiring at least two men to work, rockers were faster and more productive than panning. Dirt, sediment and water were placed on top of a rectangular wooden box mounted on rockers that made it resemble a cradle. Dirt and rocks were placed in the rocker along with water before the rocker was then rocked and sifted by hand. A sieve or grate stopped larger stones from going through with gold moving through to be caught by riffles at the bottom of the box.

Flumes and Sluicing

Water was essential to be successful in finding gold and separating it from the residue of dirt and gravel. Because water wasn’t always nearby or available, miners created flumes, or long wooden chutes, that brought water down to the digging site. A sluice box did most of the work for the miners. It contained an open trough where dirt and rock debris would be placed, and a shaft where it could be washed out with water coming from an attached flume. Gold would be caught by ridges in the bottom, while rocks would be washed out.

Horse-Drawn Arrastre and Stamp Mills

Large rocks or chunks of gravel sometimes contained gold or quartz, and miners from Sonoran Mexico invented the horse-drawn arrastre to pulverize the ore. Horses or mules were hooked to large spokes with masses of rock attached to the inside. As they turned the spokes around an axle, the rocks were crushed over a rocky surface. A stamp mill consisted of heavy metal weights dropped on the ore, breaking it apart.