When he was ten miles from Placerville, in 1851, gold fever struck J.D. Borthwick hard. Five men slung heavy pickaxes by the roadside. They looked like “so many grave diggers,” but much more determined. Borthwick, who had traveled from New York, across the isthmus of Panama and up the Pacific Coast, realized he’d finally reached the California gold fields. But instead of elation, a “disagreeable consciousness” made him jittery: “We might be passing over huge masses of gold, only concealed from us by an inch or two of earth.”
Then he widened his view and wondered why the men still hacked away. Everywhere the earth had already been “uptorn” and sifted. “A confused mass of heaps of dirt and piles of stones” lay beside countless holes and filled-in ravines. Mounds rerouted a creek. Empty cabins crumbled as quickly as they’d been constructed. All heralded the passing of the glitter.
“The cream of such diggings had already been taken.” Borthwick feared he’d reached the land of instant prosperity too late.
The same depression gloomed George Valentine King when he came to Julian in late 1870. Even though gold had been discovered less than a year before, King swore he’d missed his eureka.
Late in 1869, A.E. “Fred” Coleman, a black man who lived on Volcan Mountain, watered his horse at a creek. Something shimmered beneath the trickle. He pulled a skillet from his pack, dipped in to the sandy bottom, and scooped up a few sparkling flakes. Unlike his neighbors, Coleman had worked in the gold fields up north and recognized what he saw.
Word spread. Men with no practical experience became miners. Some, inflamed by the promise of sudden riches, hiked the 60 miles from the coast to scoop silt from the creek, or “gopher” small holes on the shore.
“People here are positively wild,” wrote a miner. “Such a thing as a sober thought is unknown. The rumor comes that Tom, Dick, or Harry has ‘struck it’ and forthwith the whole camp rushes pell-mell for the ‘new diggings.’”
Clusters of tents and brush shanties grew into Julian City, a boom town Drue Bailey named after his cousin Mike (because it “was a better name than Bailey”). Similar to what Alonzo Horton was doing at the harbor, Bailey platted the area to include schools and churches.
When George King arrived, the mining camp at Gold Hill had over 1000 residents. Claims dotted the landscape in Julian and over the mountain in Banner, where mines like the Redman and Ready Relief produced tons of rich ore. Only a fierce, three-day storm in early February 1871 halted production.
King and three friends built a one-room cabin near Banner. Duncan McClelland, Joe Lang, and Jim Coyne did menial jobs so that King, a mining engineer, could prospect the wild mountains nearby. Amid tales of vast wealth — possibly tall, possibly true — the men were going broke. King became so destitute, he pawned his revolver. By February, even that money was running out.
Early one morning he treated himself to a fresh loaf of bread from Mrs. Bell’s boarding house. He filled his canteen and followed the creek south, up a steep canyon. His training had told him: flakes below, veins above. Small amounts of gold must trickle down from a higher source. But he’d combed the region many times and saw few signs of luster.
As he followed water indicators, cottonwoods, and willows, King figured this could be his last try. Occasionally he saw tiny glimmers, but these were just “color,” tinted teasers that never amounted to much. He searched the steep canyon walls, dark green bulges of manzanita, greasewood, tick bush, and sumac. Nothing.
Three miles from Banner, and a good two miles from the nearest mine, King decided to eat his humble meal on a boulder several hundred feet above the creek.
Under an iron-gray sky, he wondered how he’d feed himself in the coming days: chopping wood for $1.50 a cord or working at a mine, doing the back-breaking labor that made some lucky stiff rich.
As he ate, King idly tapped a steady rhythm on the rock with his pick. Just force of habit, the right hand punctuating his thoughts.
A piece of quartz dislodged. When he turned it over, King couldn’t believe his eyes: gold. GOLD!!! Sparkling like starlight, shining like the heavenly host!
King immediately marked his boundaries with piles of rocks. At that time, U.S. mining laws allowed only 200 feet for a claim, and another 200 for the discoverer. If a man made a big strike, this was enough. But, writes Myrtle Botts, “if the vein in its richness extended beyond the boundary line, [the discoverer] confided to a friend and had him locate the remaining open ground.”
After he set his location monuments, King took ore samples down to Banner. He showed his friends. On February 20, they formed a partnership and staked 200-by-200 foot, end-by-end claims next to King’s. They called their find the Golden Chariot Mine.
About a week later, when King showed samples at the new Banner store, Jim Duffy exclaimed, “Why, Mike Mulherron and me sat on that rock to eat our lunch last week!”
“The croppings,” wrote the Union in March, “indicate a heavy deposit of gold-bearing quartz; a great deal exceedingly rich.” Within days after the article appeared, hordes of prospectors climbed the precipitous slopes. Chinking picks echoed day and — by candlelight — night.
King and his partners scoured the surface where he made his discovery (which, when they dug down, became the 350 foot “Whitney Shaft”). They found an “ore zone.” But to crush the rock, they had to use cumbersome hand mortars, iron balls and bowls, and panned it with spoons made from a steer’s horn.
Unlike the diggings in Northern California, big nuggets were rare in the Cuyamacas. What the miners saw in abundance, writes Maurice Donnelly, was “flour” gold: “fine hair-like and plate-like particules of submicroscopic size up to nuggets measuring in fractions of inches.” The largest resembled “grains of wheat.”