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Gold in them thar hills: Precious metal mined in Imperial County before "49er" explosion

June 23, 2001|By KEVIN MARTY, Staff Photographer

Loaded boys. Muchachos cargados.

According to legend two Hispanic boys, imitating their prospecting fathers, returned to their family's camp in the Sierra de San Pablo Mountains one night with their shirts full of gold. This was in the 1890s. Their discovery renamed a mountain range.

The Sierra de San Pablo Mountains became the Cargo Muchacho Mountains. They jut abruptly from the desert floor of eastern Imperial County and have been there for millions of years. They are immersed in mining history including the Tumco Mining District, American Girl Mine and Jackson Gulch at the southern end of the range.

Jackson Gulch? About 100 years prior to the "loaded boys" discovery, gold was found in Jackson Gulch. During the 1770s Spanish explorer Father Francisco Garcia recorded rich-appearing deposits in the Jackson Gulch area. These deposits were first worked by Hispanic miners and their work may still exist, as vertical and horizontal mine shafts or prospects that pock mark the canyon walls and sediments of Jackson Gulch.

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Was California's first gold discovery, a state rich in mining history and gold rush lore, in Imperial County's back yard? Historical accounts show gold was first discovered at a place called San Francisquito, about 30 miles northwest of Los Angeles, in 1842. Several years later, in 1848, gold was discovered in Coloma that triggered the famous "49er" gold rush.

Garcia's discovery at Jackson Gulch didn't initiate a stampede to Imperial Valley. It may have been overlooked. But this is mining history, where any prospector would tell you he was the first to find paydirt and has the story and nuggets to prove it.

Gold placer mining and Jackson Gulch seem synonymous, as the gulch placer deposits have been worked for centuries and are still mined today. The techniques change through time, from hand-digging vertical shafts and separating paydirt by hand to bulldozing gulch sediments and separating paydirt by large mechanical plants. However, the goal is always the same: to find the precious yellow metal with properties that seem to defy nature.

Gold is virtually indestructible. It is malleable: an ounce of gold can be drawn into a thin wire that would stretch from El Centro to Heber. It is ductile: 5 ounces of gold could be pounded into a thin plate that would cover Cal Jones Field; and it is sectile: it can be cut into slices and it is non-corrosive. It is a good heat and electrical conductor and it is heavy. Its beauty has been sought since time began.

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