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Gold 'n' History

Autry Museum of Western Heritage marks the state's discovery of the rich mineral 150 years ago.

September 17, 1998|LAURIE K. SCHENDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Gold fever is coming to Southern California, but don't break out the picks and shovels yet. The precious metal can't be mined this time around, but be prepared to ogle the nuggets of history--as well as real gold--at the largest exhibit ever mounted at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage.

Taking up three galleries, "Gold Fever! The Lure and Legacy of the California Gold Rush" will examine the discovery of gold 150 years ago, on Jan. 24, 1848, in Coloma, Calif. The exhibit explores the impact that the find had on Native Californians, immigration, transportation and just about every aspect of life in the state. The discovery provided, for instance, a compelling reason for regular east-to-west stagecoach runs and, more significantly, for the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.

The exhibition, organized and originated at the Oakland Museum of California, includes an audio tour that follows a chronological journey, from the first traces of gold found in southern California (in 1842, when California still belonged to Mexico) to the discovery at Sutter's Mill and the changes--good and bad--that resulted.

Where did all the miners come from? How did people get here? What kept claim jumpers from killing the miners? What were Los Angeles and San Francisco like before the Gold Rush? These are just some of the questions that are answered in the ambitious show, which attracted about 150,000 visitors to Oakland, a record for that museum.

Eye-opening displays include a glass case full of nuggets and hunks of flaky "wired gold," many resembling works of art in their natural formations. Nearby, a 50-pound hunk of gold has a case (and alarm system) all to itself. Gold-plated guns, jewelry boxes and other keepsakes from the period fill yet another case.

Among the most intriguing displays is the copper-plated stern of the Niantic, the first ship to sail from New England when word of gold sent prospectors west. In 1979, construction workers discovered the ship buried beneath San Francisco.

Part of a miner's cabin built by an early prospector, George Washington Arbaugh, was disassembled from its original spot in Gold Country and reassembled for the exhibit. Built circa 1853-55, it represents a period when miners finally put down "semi-permanent roots," said Tom Frye, curator at Oakland Museum. Until that time, most lived in tents or under the stars.

The Autry Museum is the only Southern California stop for "Gold Fever!" (the next--and last--stop is Sacramento). It's the second in a series of four exhibits in observance of the sesquicentennial (the next two cover Chinese settlement and the citrus industry). Lectures, workshops and special programs run through January. Visitors can pan for real gold each day; pay $1 and keep what you find. This weekend, two lectures examine the effects of the Gold Rush, Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.

On Sept. 26, children can pan for gold and learn what the "rush" was about in a program from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Pre-registration required. Afternoon Story Time for pre-schoolers on up begin in October. On Oct. 3, a living history presentation will include prospectors, performers and other Gold Rush characters participating in "Strike It Rich! Life in the Goldfields," from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free that day, in conjunction with the L.A. County-Wide Open House.

Southern California's role in the Gold Rush had to do with feeding the thousands of miners and entrepreneurs who flocked to Northern California. A huge market opened up for Southland ranchers, who struck it rich, Frye said, raising beef cattle and growing citrus crops.

San Francisco, a mere farm town before the Gold Rush, turned into a fashionable city and an enclave of high-society practically overnight. Those who didn't trudge into the hills in search of their fortune made a business out of "mining the miners," said Michael Fox, program manager at the Autry.

One merchant success story includes a name that even young children may recognize: Levi Strauss.

Strauss headed west with miles of canvas, planning to use the fabric to make miners' tents. When he arrived, however, he realized that the miners didn't need tents. Strauss discovered a little gold mine of his own when he turned his sturdy tent material into trousers. One exhibit case devoted to the pant pioneer has an early pair of Levi jeans, a shirt and a woman's jacket, among other Strauss memorabilia.

Many of the items in the "Gold Fever" exhibit come from private collections. A chandelier, portraits and even place settings from the elegant Palace Hotel, the "premiere hotel on the West Coast," according to Fox, are on loan by descendants of the owners and other collectors.

By the late 1850s, most of the gold that could be obtained by panning or other human-powered methods had been exhausted. What was left remained buried in huge mounds of dirt and rock. That led to the deployment of machinery, explained in a section of "Gold Fever!" called "Giant Mining Machines."

With advanced mining techniques came concern over environmental damage. Huge mounds of residue littered river banks from the dredge mining (still visible), while pools of arsenic and mercury contaminated ground water from methods used to separate the gold from the quartz dug out of mine shafts.

Gold mining lost its luster not only because of environmental concerns but also because it became more expensive to extract the deeply buried gold than it was worth, Fox said. Besides, Californians became preoccupied with the new "gold" surfacing in the agriculture and citrus industries.

What this means, of course, is that there's still gold--someplace--in them thar hills.

BE THERE

"Gold Fever! The Lure and Legacy of the California Gold Rush," Saturday--Jan. 24. Autry Museum of Western Heritage, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles. Admission, $10.50; seniors and students with ID, $8; ages 2-12, $9. Daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; closed Mondays. (323) 667-2000.

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