New Gold Towns Overnight


The Western Gold Fields

One of the most fascinating aspects Gold Rush history, not only the with California Gold Rush, but also of mining camps in the old west in general was the speed at which a new town was “made into a town“. There were many gold rushes in the west and each was quite similar in many respects.

angels camp california

Historic Angels Hotel in Angels Camp California

Some of the most notable states where this rapid building occurred were California, Nevada, Arizona and South Dakota. The first settlement that appeared near a new ore strike would be the simple mining camp. This was essentially what the name implies…a camp with tents.

Gold rush history books tell us that this was simply a group of prospectors, many of whom had all their worldly possessions with them, who chose this particular spot as a base to search for high grade ore. Once the ore find proved itself to be more substantial more people would flood in. They would come day and night. The camp would grow and take on a more permanent atmosphere.

From Tents to Towns

The next thing to happen would be the tents exchanged for more sturdy yet still primitive structures. Wood was the product and it was in abundance. With this growth the types of people who drifted in would change as well. During the 1800’s anywhere that money was expected to be, and bustling and growing mining camps were considered to be just such a place, characters of all sorts appeared. Some were honest but often they were not. Gamblers and swindlers would pop up out of the woodwork. Prospectors enjoyed gambling. Their very occupation, that of being a prospector, was essentially a big gamble in itself and gold rush history is filled with gambling.

national hotel nevada city california

Today's famous National Hotel in the old gold mining town of Nevada City California

The point where a mining camp would turn into what one would consider a town usually was when the ore strike proved large enough to last for a considerable time. This is when the big money appeared. Claims would be bought from prospectors by the big money men, often from the east, and would be consolidated with other purchased claims.

Gold rush history books will point out that many, if not most, prospectors would favor selling their claim rather than actually mining it. The reason was simply money. It cost quite a lot of money to work a claim.

If it was hard rock mining where underground tunneling was required, the costs were enormous. Too much for many individual prospectors. Why not cash out on their find and move on to discover another? This describes the rationale of many prospectors.

An interesting side note about mining claims was that when they were recorded, usually at the nearest courthouse many miles away. The documents were entered not only with the date but also the time to the minute. There were so many claims filed that some would be for the same piece of earth thus the exact time of their filing was important.

sutters fort california

Sutters Fort in Sacramento California near where the first gold was found in California

The Next Phase

One of the unique things about these mining towns would be the desolate locations they would be at. Four towns that are excellent examples of this are Deadwood South Dakota, Virginia City Nevada, Rhyolite Nevada and Bisbee Arizona.

None of these were near to any transportation links or supply depots. Deadwood was in the Black Hills, still an Indian worship site. Virginia City Nevada was on the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountains and a far and difficult trek from supplies sitting to the west in California. Bisbee Arizona is about 8 miles north of the Mexican border. Rhyolite Nevada could have been the most remote being on the eastern edge of Death Valley. In spite of this remoteness, Rhyolite had the distinction of being the only one of these four where the automobile was seen among the mules and horses.

deadwood gem theater

The old Gem Theater in Deadwood South Dakota

The Boom Years

Regardless of the remoteness, people and big money found their way there.

Railroads built lines there to compensate for the lack of transportation. Once the transportation problem was remedied the supplies and people flowed in like never before.

The California Gold Rush and the Virginia City silver strike happened before the Pony Express and the telegraph. Still news of it spread like wildfire. Deadwood’s boom was in the late 1870’s, Bisbee’s at the turn of the 20th century and Rhyolite Nevada was during the first decade of the 20th century. In their cases word spread even more rapidly.

Soon permanent buildings were erected. Saloons and gambling parlors by the dozen sprang up. Hotels, banks general merchandise stores and newspapers were begun and something always a part of old mining towns, the red light district, did a booming business. In the case of newspapers, much of the earlier publications printed as much town gossip as they did real news.

As you can imagine, the larger the town grew the more varied were it’s citizenry. In addition to the ample supply of gamblers and swindlers there would appear the common outlaw. The outlaw favored the mining towns, especially during their earlier years, because of their minimal to non-existent law enforcement and the abundant presence of money.

rhyolite nevada

Old Rhyolite Nevada train station

American Culture and the Old Mining Town

When you have thousands of people and lots of money in one place it doesn’t take long for legitimate entertainers, land speculators, hucksters of all sorts to emerge. Towns like Bisbee, Rhyolite and Virginia City had opera houses.

Miners and prospectors enjoyed entertainment after a long day of work and they usually had the money to pay for it. Musicians, dancing troupes, circuses and actors could be found. Even though the towns were remote there was a desire to have the entertainment venues one might find in San Francisco or St. Louis. The newly laid rail tracks made much of this a reality. The day of the lonely miner had passed.

Companies of first rate actors were taking the opportunity to go on tour to these remote camps and towns. Due mostly to the nature and temperament of miners, an angry crowd of men expecting a bit more for their money were known to storm the box office to get their money back and then run the promoter out of town. The towns in California’s Sierra Nevada foothills had easier access to entertainment even in the early 1850’s because of it’s relative closeness to San Francisco.

Links to three photo articles you’ll enjoy on our Western Trips site and one on our Trips Into History site include;

The Amazing Story of the Gold Rush Forty-Eighters

Sutters Fort and Sacramento California

Rhyolite and Goldfield Nevada

Historic Gold Mining Town of Grass Valley California


mining water cannon

Old water cannon used for gold mining in the Sierra Nevada foothills

The Decline of the Mining Town

Many old mining towns simply declined when the gold started to pan out. Miners and prospectors had a habit of moving out quickly when rumor spread of another rich mineral find.

Some towns declined but stayed popular modern day tourist attractions. Three good examples, and there are more, were Deadwood, Virginia City Nevada and Angels Camp California. All of these today bring thousands of tourists each year exploring it’s old mines, hotels, saloons and other landmarks that have been preserved and restored.

Some others disappeared about as fast as they appeared. Rhyolite Nevada near Death Valley is today but a ghost town. Rhyolite was abandoned about as fast as it sprang up. All happened within just a few years. Goldfield Nevada to it’s north is essentially a very small art community but has several interesting landmarks for the Nevada tourist. The old high school and Goldfield Hotel are two examples. Bisbee Arizona and the surrounding area is still worked for it’s copper deposits. Bisbee is also a popular Arizona tourist destination with lots to see. Hotels and restaurants there are excellent. The Bisbee Museum offers a good glimpse regarding the many immigrant groups who traveled there from Europe in search of jobs.  Lot’s of displays and artifacts from the period.

gold panning

Statue of miner panning for gold in Auburn California

Angels Camp California in the Sierra Nevada foothills east of San Francisco as well as surrounding old mining towns like Sonora and Murphys are popular weekend road trip destinations for northern Californians. Sutters Fort where the California Gold Rush began is now a popular California State Historic Park.

The old mining towns today still offer the western U.S. tourist a great place to learn about our past as well as offering some very unique photo opportunities.

(Photos of National Hotel, water cannon and statue of gold miner from author’s collection. Remaining photos and images from the public domain)

The Stolen Boat

An Incredible Journey

While researching the subject of steamboats and the people who piloted them, I came across a very strange, amusing and unique story. The story of the Stolen Boat actually has it’s tragic elements while at the same time is somewhat comical.

new york harbor

New York Harbor painting by George McCord

It’s the story of a steamboat company whose owners and captain eluded eastern creditors and a sheriff and then managed to relocate the stolen boat to California where it had an illustrious life on the busy Sacramento River. Obviously, a steamboat is not the easiest thing to make off with and certainly not easy to hide.  How was this new vessel able to sneak out of New York harbor without being stopped by the sheriff who just happened to be one of the boat’s financial partners and creditors? 

What did the sheriff, who also just happened to be on the boat, think when the boilers were suddenly fired up? When asked…the skipper simply replied to the sheriff…”To wear the rust off the bearings and see that the engine worked well”. After riding around in the New York harbor for awhile, the crew then forced the outnumbered sheriff and his deputies off the vessel and headed out to the open sea. Thus the story of the stolen steamboat began.

This is one of those strange but true tales that just needs sharing. Here’s how the adventure began.

The Voyage of the “New World”

The steamboat “New World” was a 530 ton, 320 foot long sidewheeler. A fairly large vessel, the New World was actually built to steam from New York to San Francisco via Cape Horn. As I mentioned in other articles, several of the steamboats on the western rivers were originally from New York and since there was no Panama Canal in 1851, going around the tip of South America was how a boat sailed from New York to California. In the year 1850, at the beginning of the great California Gold Rush, there were some twenty-eight steamboats operating on the Sacramento River. In future years this would only increase.

cape horn

Cape Horn

A Close Call in Rio

The first leg of the trip of the stolen steamboat began after the hasty departure of the New World from New York was Rio de Janiero.

Like many of her sister steamers, the New World endured her share of Atlantic storms. Weather forecasting was non existent and the ocean storms were expected.The storms however were not her major problem on the first leg down to South America. While on the way, the crew and passengers picked up yellow fever. The story down to Rio de Janiero gets even better. While approaching Rio the New World was chased into the harbor by a British frigate since she had no legal paperwork. Apparently, the paperwork was with the boat’s creditors who allegedly were owed a lot of money by it’s owner, William A. Brown. The creditors and the harbor police would not find out until after the fact that the vessel was steaming to California.

The skipper of the New World was a man by the name of Ed Wakeman. Wakeman worked for William Brown. It was under Brown’s instructions that Ed Wakeman was to take the vessel to San Francisco. With a British vessel in pursuit and no papers to show the authorities at Rio de Janeiro, Wakeman came up with an idea to fall overboard. When he was retrieved from the sea soaking wet he explained to the authorities that the papers had been with him in the water and were lost. He convinced the American consul of this tale in Rio and was given the clearance to depart.

Also, see our Trips Into History articles on the Steamboat Natchez and The King of the Steam Boat Men on the Columbia River.

The Much Shortened Quarantine in Valparaiso

Ed Wakeman departed Rio de Janeiro but with eighteen less crewmen who died from the yellow fever. All went well however and the New World successfully rounded Cape Horn and steamed up to Valparaiso Chile. When he reached the coastal city the authorities there demanded that the vessel be quarantined for twenty days. This of course didn’t suit Wakeman. The story is that the captain argued continuously with the authorities and many believe he was pretty liberal in handing out cash to the right people. It’s not sure which did the trick, the arguing or the cash, but nevertheless, he departed from Valparaiso after only eight days.

valparaiso harbor

Valparaiso Bay, 1830

Captain Ed Wakeman also picked up some useful information while handing out money in Chile. He learned that New York authorities, on behalf of the vessel creditors, were waiting for him in Panama hoping to make an arrest. They also had extradition papers already signed. All they needed was Wakeman in person along with the vessel. A man who had already thrown himself overboard to escape trouble in Rio was not going to steam all the way up to Panama just to get himself arrested and transported back to New York. Ed Wakeman had another plan.

Making New Friends in Panama

Panama was a must stop for any vessel heading up the Pacific coast to San Francisco. Ed Wakeman knew it and so did the New York authorities. But skipper Wakeman had a plan. Instead of steaming right into Panama he went to an island offshore and anchored the vessel on the far side of the island. He then was crafty enough to make his way onshore in Panama. Panama City was filled with gold seekers trying desperately to find passage to San Francisco and ultimately to the California gold fields. These were men who had spent days if not weeks trekking through the malaria filled Panama jungle to make it from the eastern shore to the western side. Being stranded in Panama City waiting for passage was not pleasant.

isthmus of panama map

Isthmus of Panama

After coming ashore in Panama, Ed Wakeman looked for several hundred Americans desiring to get themselves to San Francisco. They weren’t hard to find. Captain Wakeman offered them passage on the New World for $300 per man if, and this was a big if, they would intimidate the two deputies from New York and about a ten man guard unit assigned them. After spending a long time in Panama waiting to find a vessel heading north, it didn’t take much convincing. The New York deputies and the guards were threatened by the mob to such an extent that they tore up the extradition papers and fled the country. It was then that Wakeman could bring the New World into Panama and pick up his unexpected paying passengers. The ship left for San Francisco without incident.

san francisco harbor in 1851

San Francisco Harbor, 1851

The Luck of Captain Ed Wakeman

Three things that worked well in Wakeman’s favor was that in 1850-51, there was no railroad to California where New York authorities could simply send people directly there to retrieve the boat and Wakeman. Secondly, there would be no transcontinental telegraph system for over another ten years. Thirdly, Wakeman was lucky that a California Gold Rush had just begun where large groups of men were willing to do just about anything to gain passage. The route through the jungles of Panama, despite the hardships of the jungle, was more popular than the Cape Horn route or the overland Oregon Trail route. It wasn’t so many years since the ill fated Donner Party tragedy in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

A New Life on the West Coast

After reaching San Francisco, the New World steamboat found work on the booming Sacramento River. This was the river heading into the gold country from San Francisco. The stolen boat New World ended up spending fourteen years going up and down the Sacramento under the operations of the California Steam Navigation Company. There is no information as to what action, if any, the New York creditors took to get the vessel back. It appears that the boat was sold prior to any action they could have taken in later years.

The New World was sold in the 1860’s to the Oregon Steam Navigation Company which had a monopoly at the time on the northwest rivers. As fate would have it, the New World returned to California after several years and was put in service as the Vallejo Ferry on San Francisco Bay.

In regards to Captain Ed Wakeman, the only information I could uncover was that he apparently lived out his years as a resident of San Francisco. I think we can assume that he didn’t have the urge to visit back east. It’s unknown what money, if any, the vessel’s questionable owner, William A. Brown, received after the boat was sold in California.

There is a great deal of information about the Sacramento River steamboats, including the New World, at the Maritime Museum-San Francisco located at Fisherman’s Wharf.

Another excellent museum regarding the old steamboats of the Columbia River is the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria Oregon.

(Photos from the public domain)


Airships / California Gold Rush

While airships to California may sound adventuresome, one of the more interesting museums in New England in the town of Bridgeton Maine is directly connected to this idea. Bridgeton is located about twenty miles west of Interstate 95, about one hundred and forty miles southwest of Bangor and about 143 miles north of Boston, MA. A visit to the Rufus Porter Museum in Bridgeton is truly a Trip Into History and very interesting history indeed. While the name of Rufus Porter may not be a household name to many, Porter was a man of science who we might say thought outside of the box. While not necessarily noted for his scientific calculations and achievements, he was a man with a vision and a man with a will to pursue those visions, at least in writing. That vision was to fly people to the California gold fields in three days. Something I would say unheard of in the late 1840’s.

rufus porter airship

The Aerial Locomotive advertisement, 1849, Public Domain image

Rufus Porter was the founder and editor of the weekly Scientific American which printed it’s first issue in 1845. In addition to his literary pursuits, Porter was also an inventor. The early years of the Scientific American reported mostly on inventions and patent office news. It’s been said that Rufus Porter actually had an interest in airships as far back as the 1820’s. In the year 1849 however, he came out with a publication entitled, Aerial Navigation… The Practicability of Traveling Pleasantly and Safely to California in Three Days. Two things were certain. The idea of airship travel to the California Gold Rush was unique to say the least. The second thing was that in the year that Porter released his theory and plan in writing, getting to the California gold fields as fast as possible was on many an easterner’s mind. As a result, Porter’s idea had an instant and at least, early audience. Airships to California was truly a unique theory in 1849.

In the book Anybody’s Gold by author Joseph Henry Jackson, the author describes the difficult ways in which easterners traveled to the California gold fields during the great Gold Rush. Overland travel in 1849 was a bit more than harsh. Between the Indians encountered along the way, mountain passes to cross and the diseases which were rampant over such a long journey, most opted for the steamers. This was a time twenty years before the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Long distance travel options were limited.

clipper ship advertisements

Clipper Ship to California advertisement, Public Domain image

Ship travel required one of two routes. Either the long way around Cape Horn and then up the west coasts of South America and then North America or the shorter but not less treacherous route through the Isthmus of Panama and then up the California coast.

Rufus Porter was a dreamer and his dream was to transport the gold seekers by airships over the plains and over the high Rocky Mountains. The proposal in his above mentioned publication was air travel in an era when there was no air travel. Porter’s design was an 800 foot long airship referred to as an “Aerial Locomotive“. The craft’s total weight was estimated at 14,000 pounds. The airship would be held aloft by a bag containing hydrogen gas that would require some 20,000 feet of spruce rods and 8,000 yards of cloth. About 12,000 feet of steel wire would suspend the passenger compartment that was made from wooden boards and painted cloth. Porter estimated that his craft could travel about 100 MPH with the help of steam engines. After all, this was the age of steam power. As far as the threat of a lightening strike, Rufus Porter suggested dragging a small copper wire from the airship that would touch the earth to discharge any electricity. The cost of Porter’s airship design was estimated to be $1,750.

Porter set the price of a ticket to California at $200. If this sounded a bit too high, the maiden trip, or actually trips, would cost a passenger only $50 with carrying no more than three-hundred people at that low price.

san francisco in 1850

Ships in San Francisco harbor, circa 1850-51, Public Domain image

The sad but true story regarding the Aerial Locomotive or Porter’s Locomotive is that it never, as a fact, got off the ground even though it was reported that about 200 people did sign up for the first flight. Author Jackson points out that there was never any record that the aircraft was ever actually built. Apparently, a journal at the time, called ” Sherwood’s Pocket Guide to California” , advised anyone of not opting for the air route. It’s also thought that perhaps a real scientist stepped forward and pointed out some of the glaring flaws to Porter’s design. Two problems with the Porter design had to do with air resistance itself which Rufus may not have figured into his equations. Wind direction was another matter altogether. The other problem had to do with pounds of weight per horse-power. In other words, it seems that most if not all of the early enthusiasts had a change of heart and opted for either the cross country route or the sea route of the steamers and sailing ships. To be certain, airships had been experimented with very early on in Europe as well as other places but the grand idea of Rufus Porter was decades ahead of itself. The type of air travel envisioned by Porter would actually occur almost a century later during the era of the mighty German airships such as the Hindenberg dirigible.

The Scientific American that was founded in 1845 by Rufus Porter still publishes to this very day. The first foreign publication went to the presses in 1890. Such world famous scientists as Albert Einstein contributed articles and the magazine is noted as being the oldest continuously published monthly magazine in America.

Rufus Porter passed away in 1884 and even though he actually sold his new magazine not long after it was founded remained an editor at the Scientific American until his death. In addition to his scientific experiments and his revolutionary airship idea, Porter was a well known New England artist. He was a very talented muralist and his works decorated over 150 inns and houses in New England. Some of his works were in monochrome and others in full color.

You will be interested in our related articles Nevada City California and Madame Mustache and the famous gold mining town of Bodie California.

The Rufus Porter Museum and Cultural Heritage Center showcases the contributions of Rufus Porter to American arts, literature, science, and industry. The museum building itself is quite historic, built in 1789 and is located at 67 N. High Street, Bridgton, Maine.