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dave obee Gold-seekers expected to find great riches

By Dave Obee

"There was considerable excitement and stir about the Northern steamers, Columbia and Commodore, at Folsom and Pacific street wharves to-day as about eight hundred adventurers were embarking for El Dorado of the North," the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin reported on April 20, 1858, a century and a half ago today.

"The wharves were filled with miners and other persons, eager to see and hear all that could be seen and heard about the new gold mines.

"A number of old Californian miners were to be seen, threading their way among the crowds, with pickaxes, shovels and huge plans slung over their shoulders, and the fires of anticipation brightly lighted in their eyes. Here and there groups earnestly discussed the topography of the Frazer river country.

"Now and then some bearded old miner with horny hands could be seen drawing out of his pocket a well-thumbed map, and exhibiting and expounding the new placers to his less enlightened or more modest comrades.

"The scenes on the wharves were of great interest. The principal freightage of both steamers consist of mining tools and spirits."

The Columbia was bound for Puget Sound, while the Commodore was heading to Victoria. Another steamer used on the runs north of San Francisco was the Panama.

These steamers would normally complete a round trip every couple of weeks, spending a few days in San Francisco between sailings to give crew members a chance to spend all their money.

Suddenly, all of the vessels were in high demand. Men were keen to get to the mines as quickly as they could, and the steamer captains were keen for their business.

Other vessels were prepared for the route. The Alta California newspaper reported on April 23 that the clipper schooner Golden State, the ship California, and the steamers Sierra Nevada and Orizaba were being readied to take miners to the gold rush.

The owners of the Panama changed to steamer's schedule, eliminating intermediate stops to ensure that miners would get to the gold fields more quickly.

The steamer would go directly to Port Townsend, then on the Bellingham Bay to drop off the miners. The miners would then be able to head overland to Fort Langley and up the Fraser.

That went against the wishes of Gov. James Douglas, who was trying to control the rush by having the new arrivals come through Victoria.

Many did take the Victoria route -- by some estimates, the little community of about 500 people saw about 25,000 new arrivals that year, with many heading on to the Fraser as soon as they could.

Many others took alternative routes, from Bellingham or even north from Oregon using the Columbia River to get to the Okanagan Valley.

Outfitters on the various routes promoted the benefits of each one, telling miners that their routes were the quickest and easiest possible. California's miners had heard many stories about great finds in the past, and caution was urged.

The day before the two steamers left San Francisco, the Bulletin tried to curb the enthusiasm.

"With the remembrance of the Gold Bluffs, the Kern river and other gold fables and exaggerations of former days, whoever is doing well in California should let that well alone, and stay where he is," the newspaper said.

"To such as are perforce idle, and who are young, strong and adventurous, a trip to the North may do no harm, while it may possibly end in good fortune."

The Bulletin admitted that glowing reports from the Fraser would surely cause a stampede.

"The exciting nature of gold-seeking is such that miners are proverbially a restless lot ever apt to desert the moderate certain good, for the uncertain better.

"The prudent will do well to wait awhile before bundling up their traps, and starting, as it may be, on a fool's errand," it reported.

That said, the Bulletin then spoke of the finds in a way that could only encourage potential miners to get on the next boat.

"The diggings there are very rich and easily worked, the bed-rock being only some 10 or 12 inches below the surface.

"When the news of these discoveries reaches the eastern states and Europe, it is likely that a strong impetus will be given to emigration to California and the countries farther north."

The Bulletin noted that the Fraser gold rush might result in a depopulation of the state, but added that if that happened, it would create more room for others.

In another story on the same day, the newspaper's editor said he had been shown specimens of the Fraser River gold.

"It was composed of particles about the size of cucumber seeds, but shaped more like beans. Their colour is light, and it was evident that the gold was mixed with silver," he said. "It was said to be worth about $16 to the ounce. The extent of the new gold region must be very large."

Encouraged by those words, it was not surprising that 800 men rushed to the wharves for the voyage to certain riches.

Posted April 20, 2008


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