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Santa Barbarans Strike It Rich

There’s Gold in Them Thar Hills


San Francisco wasn’t the only city to have gold discovered in its nearby hills. Santa Barbara had its own mini rush when the precious metal was found in the Santa Ynez River, and then later at the river mouth between Point Sal and Point Pedernales. The following excerpt from the book Yankee Barbare±os by historian and writer Walker A. Tompkins tells of the brief but profitable Santa Ynez Valley “gold rush.”

Mariano Lopez was the majordomo of Dr. Richard S. Den’s Rancho San Marcos. One Sunday in 1855, while returning from Mass at the Santa Ines Mission, Lopez paused to water his horse at the edge of the river. A yellow glint under the ripples caught his eye, reminding Lopez of stories his father had told him about the Mission padres working a secret gold mine farther up the canyon beyond Los Prietos y Najalayegua. According to local legend, this long-lost gold mine (every mission in Mexico and California had its story of a lost mine) was purported to be “30 miles by mule trail north of Santa Barbara.” All traces of the rich outcrop had been thoroughly obliterated by the Spaniards at the time of the Mexican Revolution.

Could this yellow stuff in the river gravel, Lopez wondered, be gloat ore from a mother lode up stream? Placing the bright grains in the hollow quill of a buzzard’s wing feather, Lopez took his find to Santa Barbara and turned it over for Benigno Gutierrez, the druggist, to analyze. Gutierrez made some aqua regia out of nitric and hydrochloric acids and tested the yellow dust. He also gave it a malleability test and found that each tiny grain could be stamped as thin as a butterfly’s wing. There was no question, Gutierrez determined, but that this was oro fino, pure gold, worth at current exchange up to 19 United States dollars per troy ounce.

Lopez attempted to keep his find secret, but news of gold discoveries has a way of leaking out, and within a few days the brushy path over San Marcos Pass was thronged with gold hunters rushing to the new Santa Ynez River “diggings.” Merchant John Kays, who had been through the big gold rush up north in ‘49, reported that prospectors were panning out $4.50 worth of gold per day on their Santa Ynez River placer claims, which was more than the average daily take of the Sierra Nevada Argonauts.

So much traffic was routed across San Marcos Ranch that Mariano Lopez, angered by the fact that he had been unable to locate a profitable claim, in spite of being the discoverer, posted signs in Spanish and English at the borders of the ranch:

NOTICE!

To all persons trafficking by the road to or by San Marcos, if they do not present and report themselves to the dwelling house, and if I shall meet or find them within the limits of said Rancho, I shall treat them as suspicious persons, and shall have them taken prisoners and hold them responsible for the consequences.

A copy of this order was published in the Gazette. While the majordomo was doing his duty, public opinion was offended by the brusque and threatening language Lopez had used in his ultimatum. As a result, owner Den deemed it wise to publish an apology explaining that Lopez had posted the signs while he, Dr. Den, was absent in San Francisco and that since no material damage had been done to his ranch property by the trespassing gold hunters, the Lopez restrictions were unwarranted and did not apply.

Within a few weeks, the Santa Ynez Valley “gold rush” petered out. No further gold panning was done along that river until the Depression of the 1930s, at which time a few men, spurred to desperation by lack of employment, found that they could make up to two dollars a day panning for gold in the river sands.

In 1889, Santa Barbara County experienced a brief flurry of gold excitement. : This time, the gold hunters sought their fortunes in the beach sands north and south of the Santa Ynez River mouth between Point Sal and Point Pedernales.

Prospectors discovered that the beach sands yielded gold worth $6 for every ton of sand worked. Two mining companies, the Heller and the Launer, went into commercial production creating a great stir of excitement in Lompoc. The average daily yield of gold amounted to $22.50, or $2 per miner.

A “Lompoc Mining District” was created to protect property rights on the strip of beach between the river and Point Pedernales. Each claim was 300 feet wide and extended from mean high tide to half a mile inland. The same sand was worked over and over, incoming tides apparently replenishing the gold.

Rockers and sluice boxes were too primitive for such low-grade ore, so W.W. McKay brought in steam power, hoping to raise water from Bear Creek to a flume, so that his plant could treat 75 tons of beach sand per day. It soon became obvious to the most enthusiastic promoter that production costs exceeded the value of the gold harvested, so Lompoc’s 1889 gold rush did not survive the year of its birth. Desultory gold panning continued up the beach as far as Rancho Casmalia, but discouraged prospectors reported finding “more clams than gold.”

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The Yankee Barbare±os: The Americanization of Santa Barbara County, California, 1796-1925, by Walker A. Tompkins. Published by Movini Press, Ventura, California; 527 pages; $79.95. Available at area bookstores or online at yankeebarbarenos.com.

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