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N CALIFORNIA: Essays from the Golden State

Wall Street crisis puts a gleam in California miner's eye

42601591.jpgEmail PictureRick Loomis / Los Angeles TimesMark, a retired truck driver who prefers not to give his last name, walks into the gold mine that he works on his property near Columbia, Calif.. As stocks tumbled, gold approached the magical price of $1,000 an ounce.>>> Audio SlideshowPerry Cottingham's shoestring gold operation in the Sierra has seen him through 30 years of market gyrations.By Peter H. King, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

September 29, 2008 COLUMBIA, CALIF. -- High up a steep Sierra hillside that rises behind this Mother Lode town, past where the paved road runs out, tucked into a shadowy gulch covered with pines and cedars -- and far, far away from the financial calamities rocking Wall Street -- this was where Perry Cottingham could be found last week, engaged in that most seminal of California enterprises, mining for gold.

Here was a man happy in his work.

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A few days earlier, Cottingham had been following the dire financial bulletins on early morning television, tracking the price of gold on the ticker at the bottom of the screen. As the stock market tumbled, gold was bounding upward toward a magical price of nearly $1,000 an ounce.

Cottingham has worked his one-man gold mine full-time for three decades now, surviving all sorts of economic gyrations. As the price peaked, Cottingham, a 65-year-old former stock car racer, gathered up his stockpile and headed down the hill to meet with the storefront gold buyers who still operate in towns scattered through Gold Country.

"I sold all my gold," Cottingham said. "I sold most of it when the price was up above $910 and some of it close to $1,000."

How much did he sell?

The miner only grinned.

Certain questions, apparently, should not be asked in these parts.

"Let's just say 'enough,' " Cottingham said at last.

"Let's just say 'a substantial amount.' "

The latest climb in gold prices began about a year ago, just as the economy started to wobble. As a result, weekend hobbyists and novices have been pouring into the fabled California Mother Lode, which extends roughly from the Sierra foothills outside Sacramento south to Coarsegold, above Fresno.

"Sheer lunacy," is how Brent Shock of Gold Prospecting Adventures, a mining outfitter on the main street of Jamestown, describes the current scene -- fortune seekers who arrive by the carload with newly purchased pans and dreams of walnut-sized nuggets.

It's not that there isn't gold to be found. The state estimates $13 million worth was commercially mined in California last calendar year. It's just that easy finds were picked clean more than a century ago.

With Cottingham, gold is less the product of eureka moments than it is of sweat equity. He periodically burrows into the mine and blasts down tons of quartz. He runs the rocks through a series of homemade crushers and grinders, sifters and separators, patiently working through hundreds of tons of rock to extract flakes of gold and, on better days, maybe some raisin-sized nuggets.

By now, Cottingham can eyeball a pile of quartz rocks and pretty much calculate just how much gold it will yield. He pointed to one 6-foot-high mound of quartz boulders: It should cough up maybe $7,500 in gold, he figured, enough to take him through a winter.

"You see," he explained, "it's like a regular business to me. It's work. I've seen a lot of guys buy a lot of equipment in times like these. I see it now, and I saw it back in the '80s," another boom time for gold. "They'd buy all this stuff to go mining, but they just couldn't do the work."

Cottingham cannot afford expensive equipment. He built his mill and keeps it cranking by continually scouring junkyards and farm sales for dilapidated equipment, which he either restores or cannibalizes for parts. Tomato harvesters, airplane wheels, auto springs -- all have been converted for use in his milling operation.

"We're pretty self-sufficient up here," said Mark, a neighbor who did not want to be identified by his full name. A retired trucker, Mark has reopened a mine on adjacent property and has become Cottingham's student in mining and partner in mechanical improvisation.

"We're about the only two doing any mining around here anymore," Cottingham said.

Cottingham, a wiry man covered in dust from his T-shirt to his sneakers, seems to have been born for this life. Raised on a ranch in South Dakota's Red River Valley, Cottingham trapped mink as a kid and hunted for arrowheads and buffalo bones -- a born scavenger. He served in the Air Force, where he honed his mechanical skills. When he came to California in the 1970s, he was pulling a stock car with him.

Cottingham enjoyed some success as a race car driver. He raced alongside the Pettys and the Yarboroughs. He also competed at a lot of county fairs. Still, he never could land a significant sponsor. And he grew tired of holding his ride together with parts scrounged from salvage yards.

"Driver Rummages Way Through Life," said a Times headline on a 1974 sports feature about Cottingham.

While living in Orange County, Cottingham bought a metal detector.

He spent long stretches in the desert, searching for gold. In the late 1970s, Cottingham said, he made his way to the Mother Lode and, taking clues from a book about lost treasure, turned up a cache of gold and coins worth $22,000 that had been buried in a creek.

He decided to stick around and buy property with an old gold mine on it -- a listing not hard to come by in this part of California, where backyards still occasionally cave in to forgotten mines and tunnels.

Cottingham knew what to look for in terms of topography, rock formations and the like. His father had bought the family's ranch with profits from a gold strike in Oregon. His uncle was the foreman of a big commercial mine in the Dakotas.

"I was raised with miners," Cottingham said.

So he settled on an eight-acre parcel that included the abandoned Rifle Mine.

The quartz mine was first claimed in 1853 -- a time when the 49ers, having pretty much picked clean the rivers and streams, were moving into the hills to take up hard rock mining. Cottingham cleared an old tunnel into the hill and went to work where the early miners had left off.

"I got my money back in a week or two of buying this place," he said. A few years later, he hit another rich pocket and "well, again, let's just say I took out a 'substantial amount.' "

It was enough for Cottingham to take two years off and build a two-story cabin, where he raised two children.

In the years since, he said, he's managed to make a living at mining, answering to no one but himself, the government agencies that monitor his explosives, and, of course, the vagaries of the market.

"But gold is always worth something," he said. "You can never go wrong with it. You just have to be willing to wait for the price to go up before you sell it off. What they call this catastrophe actually has been good for gold and oil and commodities."

Although he can make his operation sound like a glorified auto shop, all nuts and bolts, Cottingham is not blind to the romance of gold mining.

He pointed to a ravine that the bandit Joaquin Murrieta was said to have used as a hide-out.

He recited the names of the mines that once dotted this hill, and some of the old-timers who worked them.

"It's exciting," he said, holding a plastic kitchen container to the sunlight to show a visitor some gold flecks. "It's something you have brought into the world that nobody else has. New money. Plus, you are not working for the Man."

Still, Cottingham will turn 66 soon, and his back has begun to bark at him. He talked vaguely about retiring and moving back to South Dakota. "You know anybody who would want to buy a gold mine?" he asked.

A short time later, he was waffling.

"Maybe I'll sell. Maybe not. It's hard to walk away from. The gold's there, and you want to go drill. You never know what you will find in the next four feet. . . . "

On such wisps of possibility was California born.

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Hello WhatsforSupper,

Thanks for posting that, I really enjoyed seeing and hearing someone making a living on what they love to do. It's always been a dream of mine, at least the last 15 years or so to have a gold placer operation. It might never happen, but I'm always keeping my eye open on promising areas.

Take care,

Rob Allison

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That was an excellent slide show....Living the dream of many....

I take it... that is you Whats4supper?

Great Post !

eeeh, not quite. but the example is not lost. here is this guy tinkering, building, mining, and fixing stuff that breaks, and all, that brings some exercise, goals, mental and physical health, accomplishments, to a man that would otherwise decay. in many ways, the quest for gold is also a quest for life and longevity, for you have this quest to get up, get out, and get going. Gold, for some, is the payoff, but it's not the only payoff that carries great value.

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now it's Cripple Creek that wants to expand the mine but the town folk don't want it:

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David Zalubowski / Associated PressResidents of Cripple Creek, Colo., are proud of their mining heritage, but many don't want a strip mining operation to mar an aspen-covered ridge above the town.DISPATCH FROM CRIPPLE CREEK, COLO.

Mining towns not entirely happy with latest boom

David Zalubowski / Associated PressResidents of Cripple Creek, Colo., are proud of their mining heritage, but many don't want a strip mining operation to mar an aspen-covered ridge above the town.Some communities welcome the jobs and cash created by the skyrocketing prices of metals, but in other areas, the surge has generated battles with the tourism business and environmental groups.By Nicholas Riccardi, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

October 1, 2008 CRIPPLE CREEK, COLO. -- THIS tiny community nestled on the backside of Pike's Peak revels in its mining heritage.

Tourists are invited to tour underground tunnels, gamble in the Gold Rush and Gold Diggers casinos or view a video at a museum entitled, "The Timeless Art of Gold Extraction." They can shop for trinkets in the stores set up in Victorian houses built during Cripple Creek's mining heyday.

The town is proud of the miners who, starting in the 1890s, dug 10,000 miles of tunnels through the hillsides and extracted $19 million worth of gold.

But when a mining company proposed strip mining the most prominent ridge in the area, Cripple Creek's loyalty was tested.

"It's a very strange position to be in," Mayor Dan Baader said. "Our whole history for 150 years is mining. But look at it," he said, waving his hand at the aspen-covered ridge visible from his kitchen window.

Cripple Creek's dilemma is an increasingly common one in the West, which finds itself in the midst of its biggest mining boom in three decades. Driven by skyrocketing prices in metals, firms are reopening mines or digging in new terrain.

Since 2004, the number of claims filed on federal land has more than doubled. During that time, gold prices have risen from $400 to nearly $900 an ounce. Other minerals have climbed even faster -- copper and molybdenum, an alloy often mined in the Rocky Mountain region, have soared 600% in the last four years. Although no agency tracks mine activity nationwide, experts say the uptick has been remarkable.

"It's China plus India. What you have is one-third of the world's population that all of a sudden decided we want what the Western world has. . . . They've got this vociferous appetite for metals," said Laura Skaer, executive director of the Northwest Mining Assn. in Spokane.

Some communities welcome the jobs and cash the boom brings. The mountain city of Leadville, Colo., for example, has cheered the reopening of the long-shuttered Climax mine.

In other areas that have turned to tourism to fuel their economies, the boom has sparked conflict. Environmental groups and towns in northern Arizona stopped one company from digging for uranium near the Grand Canyon. In the mining town turned tourist mecca of Crested Butte, Colo., residents fly Tibetan prayer flags to protest a company's plan to mine a mountain basin that looms over downtown.

Last month, Cripple Creek officials reached a deal with the Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mining Co., which was planning to strip mine the ridge above town as part of a sizable expansion. The firm had agreed to reduce noise and traffic from the project, negotiate with the city for water and help expand the town recreation center.

Then in a surprise move, county commissioners banned the mining near Cripple Creek unless the company came up with a better way to shield the town from the scars of the project. They approved the vast majority of the expansion not near the town.

Spokeswoman Jane Mannon said the firm would submit a revised proposal in the coming months and that it was trying to minimize the impact of the mining on Cripple Creek. But she said it was inevitable that residents would see the mine.

"The surprising thing is the objection to mining being visible from Cripple Creek," she said. "The history of this community is mining."

In 1891, prospectors struck gold here, and the town abruptly became a major metropolitan center. It came close to being named the state capital. The mines made millionaires of more than 30 people, but gold prices eventually dropped and mining became less and less profitable.

By the mid-20th century, much of the city was struggling and only a handful of small mines remained open. Many were steadily bought out by the Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mining Co., which began strip mining in the basins east of town. Its operation now covers 5,800 acres.

It wasn't until gambling was legalized here in 1991 -- partly to make up for the loss of mining jobs -- that Cripple Creek was revived. Now, newcomers are less likely to be fortune hunters and more likely to be retirees like Carl and Nancy Poch.

They came from Illinois every summer for 32 years and decided to retire here in 2005. They lovingly restored a two-story Victorian just a few hundred yards from the eastern ridge that is scheduled to become an open pit mine.

The Pochs were jolted into activism after the mining company announced in February that rising gold prices made it economically feasible to mine to within 1,200 feet of town. Previously, the mine was hidden behind the aspen-covered ridge.

Opponents say they don't see the contradiction of living in a place that touts its mining history while trying to halt a mine.

"All the mining before was tunnel mining," said Paul Helit, 49, whose house at the eastern edge of town is downhill from the site. "It didn't destroy the natural beauty."

nicholas riccardi@

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If it was tunnel mining the chap would still object while riding his his composite Chinese made bicycle.Let him pull the fillings out of his teeth,take the rings off his wifes hand and recycle the little metal in his vehicle......but then no one really wants a large glory hole in their what's the answer?......Less and less public land for beef cows to graze on,public land withdrawn from recreational mining,vast ranches purchased by conservatory groups that only a few privaliged joggers,bikers and bird watchers will use.No wood burning stoves,if you can still cut wood or are allowed to get out of your truck without first taking off your boots..........No jobs?....go put in an application at Wal-0mart where 75% of everything is made in China.......and any toys or edibles might be poison......and as the sign says..No trespassing,No camping,No stopping,No Nothing...U.S. Code#5?????.............Dave

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