’Twas Gold that Made ’Em Do It
“Enchanting visions of the good to be accomplished,” an unnamed author wrote in Hutchings’ California Magazine (1857), “of pleasures to be enjoyed, turned [a miner’s] footsteps toward the Land of Gold.”
Noble thoughts, but for the vast majority, mining had as much luster as hard time in prison. Swinging an eight-pound hammer, mucking a ton of quartz every half hour into a bucket, or running tunnels in the “deep dark” by candlelight, the job could break a man’s back as it broke his heart — and prompted behavior in the extreme.
The Good Doctor
Lured by the prospect of pay dirt, Dr. J. Bruen Wells, a San Diego minister, followed the stampede to Julian City early in 1870. A generous man, Wells envisioned humanitarian benefits from his score.
At that time, most prospectors worked within sight, often within reach, of established claims. One day, Wells decided to wander up the eastern slope behind the camp, away from the swarm.
Eureka! He ran down the hill to proclaim his great find, which he decided to call the President Mine.
“That night,” writes Dan Forrest Taylor, “while sleeping beside his claim, some adventurers squatted on his ledge, thumbed their noses at him when he awoke, and reminded him that he had neglected to record it.”
But the laughingstock of Julian City got the last laugh. Just a few hundred yards above the mining camp, Dr. Wells, Henry C. Bickers, and J.T. Gower discovered the first important strike in the region on Sunday, February 21, 1870. Since God-fearing men didn’t do such earthly things on the Sabbath, Dr. Wells refused to look at the gold. The next day, they called their claim the George Washington Mine, in honor of the president’s birthday. Leland Fetzer: “This is where Julian mining began.”
For decades, Julian City and Banner of the mining days had an image problem: it was too clean. Compared to the 49ers up north, where “three years were equal to a century,” the camps were comparatively placid. Given the picture many painted, you’d think the miners were jocund Johnny Appleseeds who moonlighted for the occasional flake.
Part of the portrait was culled, literally. James A. Jaspar, editor of the Julian Sentinel, wrote a hard-nosed history of the region. For years after he died, no one would publish the bulky manuscript: too much honesty, too many threatened lawsuits. A version finally found a publisher with “numerous painful pages” removed, writes Helen Ellsberg. People seem determined “to have Julian go down in history as a mining town somewhat naughty but nice; its murders neatly catalogued at seven, and all reference to shady ladies and a red-light district missing.”
Over the years, a fuller portrait has emerged. “A wild town in a wild age,” wrote Alice Price Hoskings, “and 16 saloons — indeed a dubious distinction.” As an example, Hoskings recalls legendary Father Antonio Ubach asking a neighbor girl how old George Hoskings, age four, was. “I don’t know, Father,” she replied, “but he’s just learning to swear.”
Many now believe there were at least twice as many murders. And no brothels? “Ask old timers about the Queen,” an old timer recalled in the 1950s. “She didn’t keep no hotel for traveling salesmen!”
Fights were commonplace: up to six daily, many estimate, and twice that on Sundays. Rival mines had one rule: strike one of ours and expect broken bones and windows and street brawls amid clouds of dust.
Few miners were armed. “Men who carried guns were considered the biggest cowards,” writes Taylor. “Ability to use his fists gained a man more respect here than being a fast draw.”
Miners spent their earnings — up to three-fourths, claims Horace Fenton Wilcox — in local rum mills, where ten-cent glasses of firewater could wash troubles away, for a spell. They called the beverage “40 Rod Whiskey”: one swig could make you leap 40 rods — or at least consider the possibility.
The concoction “tastes like the wrath to come,” they liked to quote Irving S. Cobb. “A sudden, violent jolt has been known to stop the victim’s watch, snap his suspenders, and crack his glass eye right across.”
Entrepreneurs purchased bottles of whiskey in San Diego — allegedly of better quality (tasting a little less like sugared turpentine) — and sold it for a profit in the mountains.
One marker escaped the editor’s blue pencil. They called the first graves at Banner Cemetery “Whiskey Row,” since all seven men died from alcohol poisoning. Wilcox, a teetotaler who arrived in 1872, said at least 75 more made “the solemn change” that year.
Just Didn’t Like Those Poles
Mining crews worked in confined, dangerous spaces, where accidents and miner’s consumption were ever present — and where at least 25 earthquakes shook the depths over a ten-year period. Plus, just off the property, 10 to 20 unemployed men stood eager for your job. As a result, workers often cracked. Two got shipped in straightjackets to an asylum in Stockton.
When sober, John Evans, 33, was everyone’s friend. Drunk, he was a menace. When the Ready Relief mine fired him, he tried to dismantle everything in his path. It took a mob to corral him.
Same with S.S. Harner, 43. Bound hand and foot, he stood before Judge Bush at a hearing. The work for such a pittance, the constant stress, then a sudden lay-off, made him snap. In a heartbeat, he told the judge, he became “opposed to telegraph poles.” The “humming of the wind through the wires was very annoying.” And that’s why he decided to chop them down.
Dutch Bill Finds a Paying Profession
Like many miners, Dutch Bill probably prayed to Billiken and Hathor, a prospector’s god and goddess. To cover all bases, he may have added an occasional Orison to Santa Barbara, patron saint of engineers, miners, and those who work with explosives.
Didn’t help. Dutch Bill couldn’t make a dime. Of course, he didn’t much like crushing rock with a hand mortar or wading up to his knees for glitter in ice-cold streams. The grunts of ore-grinding arrastras and the incessant, pile-driving shonk-shonk-shonk of stamp mills annoyed his sensitive ears. Somebody was making tons of money, but it sure wasn’t Dutch. So he sought to profit not from gold, but gold seekers.