"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."
Darn Them Lowdown Highgraders!

by Don Baumgart

Men worked hard prying gold out of the ground and other men, looking to work less hard, stole it from them. "Throw down the box!" became the phrase stage coach drivers dreaded to hear.

One miner, listed in The Mountain Messenger newspaper as Colonel Mather (seems most men who made the papers back then had only last names) took to avoiding the highwaymen by sending his gold shipment down from an Alleghany mine to the Wells Fargo Express office in the town of Forest...in a bag full of dirty laundry.

"He had a man who carried the gold for him this way," reported The Messenger. "Just a man carrying laundry home to his wife to wash!" It worked so well no shipment was ever waylaid.

Far easier than toting a gun to collect somebody else's gold was just picking up a nugget or two. Highgrading.

The Gold Rush had moved from free-agents panning the streams to miners working for employers. And the pickins were good.

"As long as the miners and the mill men kept their highgrading down to a nip now and then, the owners did not press the issue," writes F.D. Calhoon in his book California Gold and the Highgraders. "They knew that if they fired a man for helping himself to a little amalgam from the mill, the man who replaced him might not be satisfied with only a nip."

Jim Marshall, no relation to the Marshall who found the first nugget, got a job with the Eagle Mining Company near French Corral. He was paid $2.50 a day to clear the bigger rocks out of the sluice boxes after streams of water flushed ore and gravel down to a more manageable elevation. It was more money than he had made in Chicago driving a public transportation horse car.

His next job at the Eagle Mining Company was on the swing bar of a hydraulic monitor, directing the powerful stream of water. His pay was raised to $5 a day.

When he was moved to the nighttime cleanup crew, Jim Marshall gave himself a raise. He began highgrading. Near midnight when the roar of the water cannons was silenced and the patrolling guards were elsewhere, he's take a double handful of sand and nuggets from each sluice box waiting to be cleaned.

Eventually the massively destructive monitors had their water shut off by court order and Marshall was out of a job. Fortunately he had provided well for his retirement. He bought the Blue Channel Mine near the little town of Washington, on the south wall of the South Yuba River canyon. And began laundering his highgraded gold.

His mine, the one friends had warned him not to buy, sent $10,000 worth of gold to the mint every year for five years. Gold he had lifted by moonlight from his former employer. His golden parachute, so to speak.

Marshall invested his money badly and in a fitting stroke of irony ended up back in public transportation working as a grip on the famous San Francisco cable cars.

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Copyright Don Baumgart, 2007


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