Since the dawn of the Gold Rush, there have been countless tales of finding the “big one”, but one of the most intriguing stories of unearthing perhaps one of the largest gold nuggets ever discovered (221 pounds!) happened right above The Lure property, in Slate Castle Ravine in 1852. The following tale was printed in the Cincinnati Enquirer on September 8, 1882. Could it be true, or just a tale? Well, as Mark Twain said, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
An “Honest Miner” Tells How He Found a 221-Pound One in Sierra County
[Letter to Downieville Messenger]
In the early ties in this State, claims were small and road agents numerous, and men, if they found a nugget of extraordinary size, were afraid their ground might be jumped or themselves robbed and perhaps murdered going below, and thus kept the largest gold finds a secret until they could get out of the mountains and the State. The following facts, that have never before been in print, I came across in a most singular way, and I can rely on the word of the narrator. In 1851 and 1852 I mined with a man from Massachusetts named John Dage on several flats and places around Downieville and the Middle Yuba. In 1853 I lost sight of him but heard he had gone East. In 1858 I went with the rush to British Columbia and worked out a good claim, and then took a trip to Australia.
In going from Sydney up to the mines we camped on a creek by the roadside where a great many teams stopped on their up and down trip, as water supply in that dry climate was a long way apart. The great teams and American wagons arrived along toward evening on the creek in a perfect stream. As we were eating supper we heard a teamster’s voice that I thought was familiar, and driving into camp I strolled among the teams, and almost the first man I met was my old Downieville partner. He was most glad to see me, and I being so recent from Downieville, he requested me to call after he had fed his animals and eaten his own meal, to talk over old times in California. He owned the whole outfit that he was driving – was freighted up, buying hides, tallow and other Colonial products on his own account for back freight. He had married into the country and was doing a profitable business with his team.
After talking of old times here in California, the whereabouts of old friends and acquaintances, he said: “By the by, George, you never knew why or how I left California so suddenly?” I answered “No;” but he had not slipped from my memory; but many men in the mines like ourselves were missed, and often turned up thousands of miles away. He said, “I can give you the eventual story now.
Well, when we worked together in the summer of ’52, on the Middle Yuba, I heard you tell of the rich claim and coarse gold you found on Slate Castle Ravine, on the South Fork, one mile above Downieville. Myself and Bill Hopkins, together with a German partner, went quietly to work there in the summer of ’53, and occupied an old cabin that had been deserted and the ground abandoned. We stripped the claim in another direction, and came across the lead containing coarse gold, as you had described, and made for two weeks per day per man from one to three ounces. The ground was getting deeper and heavy to strip, and I started a small drift to see how wide the lead was before we stripped further ahead. It was Saturday, about noon. The ground continued still to pay, and we were down in a soft slate crevice, when I struck the pick into a bright lump of gold that seemed to run into the solid gravel. I tried to pry it out, but it was too firmly imbedded (sic). Then I worked carefully around it, and it appeared to grow larger as I dug the gravel away. We placed one on the lookout to see that no one surprised us, and I tell you we were excited; and after some time I got it loose, and by hard lifting, and there it lay, almost pure gold, nearly the shape of a heart, and it fitted exactly the bottom of the crevice.
The quartz attached to it was chrystallized (sic), and would not exceed three pounds in weight. We got it in the cabin as quick as possible, in a sack, and placed it under one of the bunks, intending to examine it more thoroughly at night. We stayed away from town on Saturday and Sunday, and brought it out at night to feast our eyes upon it again, and each guessed it would weigh at least two hundred pounds. We concluded not to take it to town to weigh, but divide it some way; for if it were known there would be intense excitement. We had gold scales, but they would only weigh one and a half pounds. After some time spent in consultation, Bill Haskins suggested a rough pair of original scales; we piled on rock and iron weighed by the gold scales till we got the balance, and the nugget brought down two hundred and thirty one pounds, gold weight. We burned the quartz, and thoroughly picked it out with the point of a knife; the pure gold then brought down two hundred and twenty-seven pounds, and the grand specimen looked more beautiful than ever. If we had taken it to Longton’s Express Office there would have been the wildest excitement.
On Monday we cleaned up the remainder of the crevice and it paid well, but to us the pay now seemed small in comparison. Now each had enough. We had at least $50,000 to divide, enough to make all three comfortably rich. No doubt we could have made more by exhibiting it, but we could not run the risk. We came to the conclusion to cut it up, divide it, roll each one’s share up in his own blankets and start for the steamer to Panama and the Atlantic States. I went to town on Monday evening, got a sharp cold-chisel made to cut and divide the prize in equal shares, and it took us about all night to cut and weigh it with our rude appliances.
It seemed like vandalism to destroy the grandeur of such a precious specimen of nature’s work, At the first blow of the chisel it sank deep into the pure yellow metal, it was so soft and yielding. Before daylight we had completed our singular dividend. We caved down the bank near the mouth of the drift, took a brief sleep, got breakfast, rolled up our blankets and passed through town early, not caring to bid any one good-by, and then no explanations were required. We left the cabin and every thing for the first lucky ones to possess. There was plenty more gold, no doubt, for the ground we left contained big pay; but we had $16,000 or $17,000 each, and were satisfied with our good fortune. We tried to appear like three prospectors, carrying our blankets past Goodyear Hill, and hurried to San Francisco, arrived in time to board the next seamer, and landed safe in New York. I have many a time regretted the way we destroyed that natural gold specimen, perhaps the largest ever found in the world, in ancient or modern times.
When I returned to Downieville after fourteen years’ absence I visited old Slate Castle Ravine and tried it once more, but twenty years had nearly exhausted its riches; still, I tried and made small wages, but its glory had departed. My old partner Dodge was an earnest, truthful man. I believe tons of gold were carried below in early times by the lucky ones, and all kinds of devices were adopted to evade the highwaymen and often large parties went below together well armed; and, perhaps, many a large nugget never again saw the light until it was safely deposited in the banks or mint of the Atlantic States.