‘Gold in them thar hills!” The cry, attributed to Sam Brannan on San Francisco’s “Barbary Coast,” proclaiming the discovery of the precious metal at Sutter’s Mill in early 1848, started the Gold Rush. The Sierra Nevada’s Mother Lode did indeed bear large quantities of gold for those who were able to get at the mineral.
The rising price of gold has rekindled questions concerning gold discoveries in the Central Coast. There is no real evidence that the Franciscan padres ever had gold mines.
There was a short-lived gold rush in the La Panza district of eastern San Luis Obispo County during the late 1870s and early 1880s. You can still find traces of gold in the stream beds of the rugged mountains surrounding the region.
The remoteness of the La Panza mining district made the cost of removing and processing the ore prohibitive. And so the La Panza gold rush petered out.
There was a “rush” of seekers for another mineral used in refining gold and silver.
Quicksilver or mercury was the principal method used to amalgamate and thereby extract gold and silver from crushed ore.
Until the development of the cyanide process, there was a heavy demand for quicksilver to meet the needs of the gold mines in California’s Mother Lode and the silver mines in Nevada’s Comstock Lode.
Mercury ore is called cinnabar. The Chumash used the ore to produce an orange and red-hued powder for painting rocks and portions of their bodies. Cinnabar was readily found in the Franciscan layer of sandstone, a brownish stone that was known to be the matrix for cinnabar ore. The layer runs the length of the Santa Lucia Range. Both the Chumash and Salinan Indians used cinnabar for facial paint. The floor and a wall at Mission San Luis Obispo became famous for their red color, which was derived from cinnabar. Today, the floor of the mission church is painted with nonmercuric red paint commemorating the floor laid down about 1815.
During the Civil War, 1861-65, the price of mercury soared. It was needed to process the Nevada silver, which helped pay the costs of the Union forces. Mercury was also used in the manufacture of detonating devices, most especially for the percussion caps, which were being used by the millions on the rifles of both the Union and the Confederate armies. The principal source of cinnabar was the New Almaden Mine on the southwestern side of the Santa Clara Valley. The New Almaden’s supply couldn’t begin to meet the demand for the slippery metal.
In 1862, a party of Mexicans discovered an outcropping of cinnabar near the origins of Cambria’s Santa Rosa Creek in the Santa Lucia mountain range. This was the beginning of the Josephine Mine, the first important mining operation along the Central Coast.
Several hundred miners arrived from other parts of the West. They quickly staked out claims in adjoining locations. Barron & Co. of San Francisco, former part owner of the New Almaden, purchased the Josephine.
Nothing will confirm rumors of a big strike so much as a highly successful mining company buying up a claim. The “Quicksilver Rush” of the Santa Lucias was on. A further sense of urgency developed in 1865: George Hearst, whose fabulously successful Ophir Mine had “made” the Comstock Lode, purchased the available 30,000 acres of the Piedra Blanca Rancho, a Mexican land grant once owned by Don José de Jesús “Totoi” Pico. Portions of that rancho in the Santa Lucia mountain range were rich in layers of Franciscan sandstone bearing cinnabar.
Hearst, according to mining folklore, was called “the man to whom the earth speaks” by Native Americans because of his incredible good fortune in finding mineral wealth.
When Hearst purchased land, other miners and investors stood up and took interest. Cambria quickly became the second largest town in San Luis Obispo County.