The California gold rush is still on, maybe not as heady as it was 150 years ago, but still on – especially since the discovery last spring of a giant among gold nuggets, which will soon go up for auction.
The tale of the so-called Washington nugget – so named because it was discovered near the famous northern California Mother Lode Gold Rush mining camp of Washington – is a story made for retelling around the campfire. The nugget was found by an amateur miner who was out sleuthing on his own property, using a metal detector. When the man brought the nugget to the offices of geologist Fred Holabrid in Reno, Nev., for verification, Mr. Holabrid knew it was "one in a trillion."
The Washington nugget weighed in at 100 ounces and is about the size of a small loaf of bread. By way of comparison, the largest California nugget still in existence, which is on display at the Smithsonian Museum, weighs 80 ounces.
Upon seeing the whopper, “I just screamed and everyone thought something was wrong,” says Holabrid in a phone interview. Of all the gold panned or mined since the Forty-niner rush, no more than 100 nuggets of that size have ever been plucked from California gold fields. “They were melted down purely for their monetary value,” he adds.
The nugget will be sold to the highest bidder at private auction on March 15. Holabrid, who is handling the auction, says he hopes it will not be used simply for market value. With gold selling at about $1,400 an ounce, the nugget would bring in some $140,000. But its artifact value is much higher, he says, noting that he wouldn’t be surprised to see the piece sell for more than twice as much.
Would he recommend that others try their hand at finding such “pennies from heaven?” Absolutely not, he says with a laugh. But knowing that advice has never stopped those who dream of the big gold find, he recommends that prospectors-to-be do their homework. Check environmental laws before disturbing geological formations, he notes. And, of course, respect public and private property laws. “A lot of gold seekers just think an open lot is available and they can go wherever they want,” he says.
While the big score is rare, there is still gold to be found – including by the happy amateur, says US Geological Survey geologist Richard Goldfarb. The best time for such sluicing is after a big storm, he says. That’s because heavy water movement washes out the treasures buried deep in the mountains. “You are breaking down the mountains during the big storms,” he says, “and those mountains have ancient stream beds in them. When you break those down, you will find those nuggets.”
High gold prices are also fueling the current spate of mining activity. As prices have continued to rise, sales of metal detectors have been brisk.
“Higher prices always bring out the people who want to find gold,” says Margaret Schellang, on the phone from Kellyco Metal Detectors in Winter Springs, Fla. Gold detection requires detectors with a different circuitry than regular metal detectors, she notes.
But for people who live too far from the mine fields of yore, there's good news if they fancy a bit of weekend gold mining. “The gold in people’s jewelry, like bracelets and rings, is not pure gold,” she says, and can actually be located using a regular metal detector.