Four cities born out of the gold rush of the nineteenth century. Today in each of these, one can run a marathon. Two centuries ago, prospectors went there in search of a different gold.
On 24th January 1848, James Marshall found a few tiny gold nuggets on the banks of the American River at Coloma near Sacramento. Thus began one of the largest human migrations in history as half a million people from around the world descended upon California in search of instant wealth. Dubbed the “Forty-niners” (they set sail in 1849), the gold hopefuls from the Americas, Europe, Australia and China, panned every inch of the streams and riverbeds in California. Gold worth billions of today’s dollars was recovered, which led to great wealth for a few. However, the majority returned home with little more than they had started with. Many more, didn’t.
On 19 October, 1872, the Holtermann’s nugget was found in Australia. It is the largest specimen of gold ever found, measuring 150 x 66 cm, weighing 286 kg and with an estimated gold content of 5000 ounces (57 kg). Entire shiploads of prospectors bound for California took a U-turn to rush down under. The resultant infrastructure and population boom shaped Victoria and especially Melbourne city. Bernhardt Otto Holtermann invested his wealth wisely, building a magnificent mansion in Sydney, complete with a stained glass window depicting himself and the nugget.
On a Sunday in March 1886, George Harrison stumbled upon a rocky outcrop in South Africa. He had indeed hit a reef of gold. But Harrison was a lot less lucky than Holtermann. Out of force or foolishness, he sold his claim for 10 Pounds, and was probably killed on his way back home. Undeterred, fortune-seekers from all over the world flocked to the area, and soon the dusty mining village of Ferreira’s Camp bloomed into modern Johannesburg. The “Golden Arc” stretching from Johannesburg to Welkom was once a massive inland lake, whose alluvial silt had formed massive gold deposits. Till date, it is the largest discovery of the yellow metal, ever.
In 1896, discovery of gold along the banks of Klondike river led to a major gold rush to Alaska. Miners of all shapes and sizes, called “stampeders”, were on their way to the gold fields, some of them not even knowing where they are going. Within six months, around 100,000 gold-seekers set off for the Yukon. Only 30,000 completed the trip. They were men from all walks of life from as far away as New York, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Not just paupers or wild prospectors, but even teachers, doctors and a mayor or two who ditched their jobs to hitch on to the bandwagon. One such stampeder was William Howard Taft, who went on to become the27th President and later the 10th Chief Justice of the United States, the only person to have served in both offices.
Weighing over 300 pounds (140 kg) on average, Taft was physically the heaviest American president ever elected. Amply mustachioed, he was the last president sporting facial hair. As Governor-General of the Philippines, Taft once wired Washington, D.C:
“Went on a horse ride today; feeling good.”
Concerned, Secretary of War Elihu Root enquired: “How’s the horse?”
Out of the Alaskan gold rush was born Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska.
Fortune and tragedy are the two facets of gold rush. Wealth was bestowed upon a few. Death on many – by rowdy violence, scarlet fever, lung disease, mine collapse. Their shadows still roam those places, for spirits never die. The eerie, paint-worn, crumbling edifices of Bodie near Nevada desert host the hissing gold rush ghosts making nocturnal visits, the creepy silence broken only by their rustling white robes. Come morning, the sun peeps to scurry a hasty look at the dusty tables, flaccid armchairs and dangling portraits.
In the Fallon Hotel in Columbia, lights turn on and off in Room Nine.
In the Coloma graveyard that ‘lady in burgundy’ still beckons visitors.
Check into Windsor Hotel in Melbourne, only to spend a spooky night with banshee guests.
Dare not carry a loaded wallet anywhere near the robber’s grave outside Johannesburg.
For, as folk lyricist Robert Service said, “There are strange things done in the midnight sun: By the men who <i>moil<i> for gold.”