In 1816, Santa Cruz missionary Jayme Escude was fording a stream in the Santa Cruz Mountains, when one of the American Indians discovered the first evidence of gold in Alta California.
Escude told the Spanish authorities, who were distressed at the news. California was on the alert against coastal attacks by Argentine pirates, who were pillaging Pacific Coast towns in Latin America. News of gold would only lure them north, so the discovery was kept secret. Yet pirates attempted a Santa Cruz landing in 1818, stopped only by rough surf.
The California Gold Rush commenced in 1848 as a West Coast event, before news reached East to bring the ’49ers. County towns were emptied of most men since it was thought Santa Cruz contained no gold. Then in 1853-54, John B. Trask’s geological survey of the Santa Cruz Mountains found evidence of gold from the Soquel River to Point Ano Nuevo, an area described as 18-miles long and 3-miles wide. The report resulted in a single filed claim, but made little impact at first. Then in the summer of 1855, 40 people began gold washing in a San Lorenzo River tributary 6 miles north of Santa Cruz, and 1 mile south of Felton. They made from $3-to-$10 a day, and the site was named Gold Gulch.
Then in the unexplored headwaters of Gold Gulch Creek, off Empire Grade’s “Quarry Bend Road,” a miner discovered a bed of decomposed quartz under the roots of a redwood tree. He formed the Independent Mining Company, and erected a lucrative crushing mill. Further study showed this bed of gold-bearing quartz was 12 miles long, and the mountain from today’s University to Felton-Empire Road was named Golden Hill, recalling the Chinese name for California: “Gam Saan” or “Gold Mountain.” In 1856 more than 30 companies employing more than 200 men staked claims in the Gold Gulch area, forcing the county to establish a Mining District Recorders Office. The Independent Mining Company made $10,000 before its vein petered out in 1857.
Some literate Black people led a “large and influential African population” of miners at Gold Gulch. Two Black miners who arrived in Santa Cruz from the Sierra gold fields in 1857 were Samuel Padmore and George A. Chester, both with wives, and Chester with three children. Padmore had a British accent, born in Barbedos in 1807, then freed when Britain banned slavery in 1843. So he earned the money to move his family to Boston, the hotbed of abolitionism, married Adaline and became a tailor. Gold Rush tales fired the imagination, so in the summer of 1853, he and his wife took a six-month voyage round the horn to California. Arriving in mid-winter, they went to the mines in El Dorado County, where Black people banded together to protect their claims. Chester was literate and had a northern accent, being free-born in Philadelphia and an accomplished chef.
Having little success, the Padmores and Chesters headed to Santa Cruz, where the diggings were closer to civilized towns. No overcharging for remote services or scarce goods. Padmore split his time between a steady income for his family at Sam Bird’s Soquel tailor shop, while working a claim at Gold Gulch for four years. One of the Black miners with a cabin at the gulch was Mr. Robins, who evicted a belligerent Black lodger named Louis on March 11, 1861. Padmore happened to see the outcome of this action, when Louis shot Robins in the face with buckshot. This only made Robins mad, and Louis went to jail for attempted murder. The Sentinel wrote that Mr. Robins “…is doing as well as could be expected, and owing to his excellent constitution and firmness of head, will soon be convalescent.”
At age 54, Padmore’s strenuous two-job schedule was taking its toll due to respiratory decline. So he quit both jobs, to be a saloon sweeper in downtown Santa Cruz, until his death in 1863 of pulmonary tuberculosis. He was buried in London Nelson’s plot at Evergreen Cemetery.
The Golden Boulder
Pioneer lumberman Isaac Graham, cousin of Daniel Boon, recalled having seen a vein of quartz near the Gulch while hunting in 1836, so he tracked it down in 1857. In 1860 he discovered a silver vein, marked by a giant boulder bearing the same metal. Graham named the site “Boulder Gulch,” formed the San Lorenzo Company with local lumberman F.A. Hihn, and shipped two tons of ore to San Francisco for verification.
The report came back that what he thought was silver was mostly gold mixed with silver. It was learned the Gulch often hid its gold veins under a layer of silver. Sales in Graham’s mining stock increased to such an extent, he decided for the moment publicity was more lucrative than gold. He brought his boulder to display in his company’s San Francisco offices, causing a sensation as throngs crowded the office to see the Golden Boulder. The boulder itself proved a bonanza rendering $33,000 in gold, sending stock sales skyrocketing.
The Golden Boulder brought serious gold companies like “Hinds & Fords,” “Wide Awake,” “Pacific” and “Bay of Monterey,” the first to finance expensive tunnels into the mountain. Graham’s 100 foot tunnel dug in 1863 discovered another rich gold vein, and the site was named Tunnel Gulch. Once again interest grew in the Gold Gulch area, to such an extent, mining by-laws were drafted, and the Rincon Forest company proposed a mining town near today’s Roaring Camp site, giving town lots and 5 acres for every 10 shares of stock.
While the town didn’t materialize, Graham’s lumber camp for his Fall Creek Mill on the San Lorenzo was the closest thing to a miners’ town. Graham died the winter of 1863, and his lawyer Edward Stanley acquired Graham’s land for the town of Felton, named in 1868 for Stanley’s father-in-law, first president of Toland Medical College in 1864, which became U.C. San Francisco in 1873. A “Golden Boulder” saloon and dance hall remained popular after the boom ended.
Graham’s tunnel was abandoned at 1,300 feet, finding no further load. But the boulder made Hihn rich, and he built his three-story mansion in 1873, which after his death was donated for the new Santa Cruz City Hall in 1920. The Golden Boulder’s crater was long a tourist attraction, 25-feet in diameter and 20 feet deep.
The more enduring mines continued without the fanfare. Gold was discovered in Bonny Doon in 1870, at the headwaters of Laguna Creek. To reach it, Empire Grade Road was constructed in 1872, named for the Empire Gold Mining Company. A silver mine was discovered that year above Fall Creek near the San Lorenzo. In October 1875, Chinese workers grading a railroad bed beyond Gold Gulch, hit pay dirt, and in the sudden excitement, abandoned the railroad to mine gold, only to be enticed back to rail work with much difficulty. However, Chinese gold camps continued there for many years, making another strike in 1878.
Santa Cruz was an ideal mining area, with cheap labor, abundant fuel and construction materials, 5 miles to a town and major shipping port, with a rail line to Gold Gulch by 1876. Yet to reach the Empire Grade area called Golden Hill, pack-mules were harnessed together in downtown Santa Cruz to form supply trains.
In 1882, Phil Stribling planted a vast orchard in Cave Gulch (now the northwest corner of the University). His “gold” was in pears, peaches, apples, apricots, oranges and lemons he planted as part of the Cave Gulch farming community. That year, R.H. Majors and T.C. George discovered gold in the area on the headwaters of Majors Creek. They collected 5.5 ounces of gold in seven days, which sold for $100. Later a 2 ounce nugget was found in the creek measuring over 1 inch across, worth $5. Ironically, it was on land leased from I.L. Thurber, director of a gold company in Amador County for Santa Cruz investors.
In 1889 Stribling was digging a well in Cave Gulch and found gold instead of water. He excavated a 165 foot tunnel, and built a five-stamp crushing mill. The mine’s first yield was $710 in gold, and the mill produced $60 in gold monthly thereafter. Flush with success, Stribling got married, had two children, and when they were school age, helped establish the Cave Gulch School in 1896. Stribling’s gold mine never made him rich, but gave him a thrill. Yet even as Stribling prospected for richer diggings outside the county in 1897, Carl Osterhus discovered gold on a neighboring orchard that year.
About 1910, two swimming instructors at the local Saltwater Baths, J.E. Armstrong and Jacob Leibbrandt, discovered gold at their Grizzly Mine in Trinity County. They let Stribling in as a partner to help in mining construction. He was there with his wife in 1913 when a derrick collapse killed him. Mrs. Stribling packed her husband onto a mule in a makeshift coffin, walking for two days 32 miles to the nearest town. She lost her taste for mining, but the same year, three men discovered gold near Cherryvale Avenue above Soquel. Porter C. Roberts reopened the Stribling Mine during the Great Depression, with gold mined at Pasatiempo in 1940, and near Olive Springs above Soquel Creek shortly after.
But as with most Gold Rushes, the majority didn’t make money, though the lure of gold mesmerized them to do heavy labor for little better than common wages. Some miners in Santa Cruz contracted with landowners to donate a third of their findings for the privilege to mine. The best money was in selling supplies to the miners. None-the-less, state reports suggest a minimum of $80,000 to $100,000 in gold was believed shipped from this county in the 19th Century, the equivalent of $2 million today. And nearly a third came from the Golden Boulder.
Ross Eric Gibson is a former history columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and Santa Cruz Sentinel.