California's heavy rains cause a mild case of gold fever Prospectors hope erosion will reveal new deposits


JAMESTOWN, Calif. -- For John Evans, who makes most of his living putting up drywall not far from this old mining outpost in the Sierra foothills, the secret of finding gold lies in seizing nature's fleeting clues.

After 20 years of trying, Evans has yet to hit the mother lode. But he and hundreds of other weekend prospectors say the record rains that fell on California in the winter may provide them with the clues of a lifetime.

He has been joined by serious miners and first-timers who are flocking to the rivers and streams of this area, about 100 miles east of San Francisco, on the theory that erosion may have revealed rich deposits.

Drew C. Reeves, who owns Columbia Mining and Supply in this Old West tourist town, is one witness to the small-scale gold rush. "This has been an unbelievable year," Reeves said. "Little nuggets are everywhere."

Reeves paused to refer a customer to another store, because he had only one $100 sluice box, which is used to wash earth and gravel away from the heavier gold. The other store, he said, had simpler models at $30.

It is no surprise that the people most loudly proclaiming a new gold rush are merchants. By and large, it was not prospectors who made the real money from 1849 on, but the shopkeepers who sold blankets for $100 and eggs for $12 a dozen.

Few people dispute that there's gold in these hills, but most of it lies far underground. It would take something more like a glacier than a flood to bring it forth. Yet even a little erosion is appreciated.

"The amount of rain probably does influence the amount of gold washed down into the rivers," said George H. Brimhall, a geology professor at the University of California at Berkeley. But Brimhall added that the odds of a miner's striking it rich were still minuscule.

The men and women who spend their time combing riverbeds say their pursuit is not about money but about nature, adventure and the romance of the West.

"As soon as you go out and look for gold and you actually find it, you feel it -- you get gold fever," Evans said.

Evans and other miners report an abundance of flood gold. But what about "paystreaks," as miners call big veins of gold?

"Miners are very, very secretive," said Ralph E. Shock, 65, the owner of Gold Prospecting Expeditions here. "It's like asking a fisherman to tell you where he's fishing."

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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