Author: Cornish, Rick

Cornish Miners
My son Phillip arrived on Thanksgiving Day with another of his get rich quick schemes. He and his brother and I would pan for gold in Whiskey Creek and split all proceeds three ways. Cynic Peter balked at the idea until I pointed out that fortune hunting in our own back yard was light years more promising than Phil’s scheme last Thanksgiving—a rent-a-Christmas-tree business. “Besides,” I said, “what have we got to lose?” A once stung, twice wise kind of kid, Peter replied, “I don’t know, but I’m sure we’ll find out tomorrow morning.”

And so very first thing next morning we headed down to Jamestown where, nestled in between antique stores and bed and breakfasts, right there on Main Street, we found the Jamestown Prospecting Tours and Outfitters Company. Though the JPTOC makes far more money selling postcards and chunks of fools gold to tourists, they do carry a nice line of gold pans, how-to-find-gold books and maps of the more likely spots for finding the yellow stuff.

“Wow,” said Phil, “check this out! Whiskey Creek.” Sure enough, there on a six fold glossy map of Tuolumne County was Whiskey Creek—my Whiskey Creek, the creek that runs through the middle of our six acres—and there right next to the crooked line on the map were three little miner’s pick axes. “And that’s out of a possible four”, Phillip enthused. I suddenly found myself getting just a little excited when son number two reminded us both that we were not looking at a just-discovered treasure map. We were looking at a brochure cunningly designed to cause tourists to buy merchandize, and lots of it. Phillip and Peter disagreed over which type of gold pan to buy—one had a solid bottom and the other, fine wire screening—so, being peace-maker, I bought both) and we headed back home.

Edward and William Rogers, two brothers from the tiny mining town of Redruth in the North of Cornwall, sailed from Port Gaverne on March 14, 1856. Since hearing of the gold find in California that sent shock waves around the world, the two brothers, both veteran tin miners in their mid-twenties, had saved every penny they could scrap together for the trip to the new world. The ocean voyage lasted just under two months and took them across the stormy Atlantic, down around the tip of South America known as Cape Horn and then close along the Pacific coast up to San Francisco. Judging from a diary found in the attic of the house the brothers eventually built and which still stands today adjacent to my property, the journey was not a comfortable one. “So sick were we when the boat began to roll and tumble that Will and me prayed to God that He might carry us home to Him. And thus whole days passed but in His perfect wisdom the Lord knew best and did deliver us.” The two young Cornish miners landed in San Francisco on May 11, 1856, spent the last of their precious savings on prospecting equipment, provisions and a donkey, and within forty-eight hours of arriving in America, headed east toward their fortune.

Since Whiskey Creek runs December through June it was decided that we’d need an artificial source of water to use our new gold pans. I patched together three garden hoses, Phillip gathered together a pick and a couple spades and Peter went inside to see if the NBA was on yet. The creek stretches approximately 200 hundred yards across my property. The slop down to the creek from the house is a gentle one, but just across the creek, the hillside banks up steeply. Oaks and bays canopy the entire creek side and carry thickly all the way up to the ridgeline, which is also my property line. Even with the limitation imposed by the length of the hose we were using, the exact spot where we would start our prospecting was open for debate. And debate is what my two sons did in earnest. Each had a theory about where the gold was most likely to be found. The theories were mutually exclusive. I stood and listened.

It was the last week in May that Edward and William Rogers first set eyes on Whiskey Creek. They’d spent the night before at the Willows Hotel in Jamestown, the first real beds they’d slept in since their sea voyage, and had intended to head north up to Angel’s Camp and beyond. But just a few miles outside of Jamestown, along a trail that would later become Shaw’s Flat Road, Will had gone up ahead of his brother, who was leading the donkey. When he came rushing back Will announced with a yelp that he’d found a likely spot—a slow, meandering stream with a gradual drop and deposits of quartz along either side. That night the Rogers brothers camped along side of Whiskey Creek, no doubt within sight of where I sit each day to compose this column.

“Whooooa, check this out.” Phil was holding a tiny pebble, the size of a bb. Peter and I rushed over.

“It’s not shiny,” Peter said, “to be gold it’s got to be shiny.”

“It’s yellow isn’t it? Maybe it just needs to be polished. Here, put it in your mouth and bite down on it.” We’d seen a photograph back at the Jamestown Prospecting Tours and Outfitters Company of Michael Landon biting a nugget of gold. The caption read “Little Joe Discovers Gold in Jamestown”.

“You bite down on it,” Peter said, backing away.

“Here, give it to me,” I said, still the peacemaker. I bit down hard on the rock and it disintegrated in my mouth. It was bitter. “Not gold,” I said, spitting. “Heh,” said Peter, I think Chicago’s playing New York. The two Cornish boys dropped their gold prospecting gear and walked up toward the house. As quickly as they’d begun, they ended their careers at gold prospectors.

But Edward and William Rogers did find gold in Whiskey Creek. Lots of it. They staked a claim, twenty acres, and immediately began working the land for ore. But there was trouble from the beginning. Edward, the oldest brother, believed that the most lucrative approach for extracting the gold was to set up a sluice box and mine the creek. Will was convinced that a shaft needed to be dug on the far side of the creek; he was sure that a rich vein would be found without having to dig too deep. After trying in vain to change one another’s mind, the two Cornish miners went forward with their own separate plans and worked independently from that point on.

Along with William’s diary, several yellow stained assayers receipts were found in the attic of the wood frame house the brothers built. The documents showed that within a few months of working their claim, the Rogers brothers were taking into the Jamestown assay office a fair amount of dust and nuggets, some weeks as much as five hundred dollars worth. A lot of money in those days. Of course the records found in the attic didn’t say whether the gold was coming from the creek or the shaft being dug in the side of the hill. But one thing was certain, the feud between the tin miners from Cornwall over the best way to pull gold from the claim continued. In fact, it continued over the next three years.

By the time I put away the tools, including my twenty-eight dollars worth of new strike-it-rich gear, rolled up the garden hoses and hiked back up to the house, my two sons were deeply immersed in basketball. One had the Bulls, the other the Nicks, and the competition both on screen and off was fierce. Then the buzzer announced half time.

“Come on boys,” I said, “let’s go get some lunch at the Willows.”

The Willows Steakhouse is on the far north end of Main Street in Jamestown. Out front there’s a weatherworn plaque that recounts the old clapboard structure’s history. In continual operation since 1851 as a hotel-boarding house-bar-restaurant-brothel, alternating uses depending on the shifting periods of lawlessness and peaceability. Once inside the foyer, you can go left into the dining room or right into the bar. We went right. The room was dimly lit and furnished in 19th century saloon. Several large framed collections of news clippings hung on the walls, each telling a story about the Willows from some distant time. We sa
Posted:  12/12/2003

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