Have a hankering to relive the history of the gold rush with thousands of visitors from all over the world?
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Then become a volunteer at the Gold Bug Park and join such notables as Black Bart, John Studebaker and Duffy the crazy Irishman.
Part of a crew of 25 volunteers, they are more than just history buffs. Some must have show biz in their blood as they have adopted a character of their own from the past — real or imagined — that they play when conducting tours complete with clothing, props and sometimes an accent.
Charlie Basham, who has been a volunteer at the park for a year and a half, plays the role of John Studebaker.
“I like to talk about how the miners didn’t get rich,” he said. “They got here poor and left poor. It was the shopkeepers who got rich by mining the miners. However, Studebaker helped improve the mining of gold by manufacturing wheelbarrows. Before then, miners had to carry out the rock in buckets.”
Basham said he also likes educating children about the minerals and geology of gold mining. Stepping into the mine, he used his flashlight to trace white veins of quartz as he discussed how the miners located gold by following the quartz. Pointing to dripping water that was forming small stalactites, he noted, “The rock is trying to heal itself.”
Another park volunteer is Keith Gibbs (aka Black Bart) who said he decided to take on that role after researching his persona.
“I was attracted to him because he did a lot of unusual things,” said Gibbs, who has been a volunteer at the park for two and a half years. “He robbed 28 Wells Fargo stages using an empty double barrel shotgun, but never fired a shot.”
Gibbs said Bart turned to robbery after a run in with employees of Wells Fargo in Montana where Bart owned a gold mine. One of the agents wanted his mine, so he sent others to turn off the water, which ended mining operations. Swearing revenge, Bart turned to robbing Wells Fargo stages. He was finally caught after a laundry mark on a handkerchief left behind at the scene of one of his robberies was traced back to him.
“What’s unique about Keith is he made fake gold bars and a Wells Fargo strong box to go with his character,” said Basham. “The kids and teachers really love it.”
Basham said visitors to the park come from all over but the most steady stream of customers are fourth grade students from throughout the state who tour the park as part of studying the gold rush in California.
On March 25, almost 100 fourth graders from Gerald Ford Elementary in Indian Wells were touring. Visiting the Priest Mine, Gene Duffy (aka Duffy the crazy Irishman) engaged the youngsters with humor and a deep brogue. Referring to his brood as “powder monkeys,” he showed one little girl how to double jack a hole in the mine wall and lit a fuse to a fake stick of dynamite while the kids excitedly screamed “fire in the hole.”
Another tour guide, Dean Reed, talked about the importance of communication in the mine. A volunteer at the park for 16 years, Reed showed the youngsters how a system of bells was used to signal information to those working in the mines.
Basham said the Priest Mine was built in 1850 and dug entirely by hand. The walls still show the scars from the pick marks. Frequently the quartz was mixed with iron, another indicator that gold was to be found — thus the origin of the saying, “Gold rides an iron horse.”
Another volunteer, Beverly DiSalvo, took the kids into the last open section of the Priest Mine where the shaft connecting the two mines is located. She showed the children how the miners were able to mine gold by lodging tree limbs crosswise into the walls and climbing them like a jungle gym. That was also how they carved out an air shaft for themselves.
A retired English teacher who moved to Placerville for the history, DiSalvo said she’s been volunteering for four years. “It’s the greatest place ever,” she exclaimed. “It’s so much fun being here, working with the kids and helping them see the hard work the miners had to do. It’s not like life today.”
While DiSalvo said she doesn’t play a particular character at present, she’s considering adopting the role of Hattie Craddock. “Her father, William Craddock, was the claimant of the Vulture Claim,” she said, “which includes the Priest Mine, Gold Bug Mine and Hattie Mine. There are five main mine claims that comprise Gold Bug Park, but Priest Mine is the most historical.”
Gold Bug Park, which is owned and operated by the city of Placerville, consists of 250 claims and mines on its 61.5 acres. However, only the Gold Bug and Priest Mine are open to the public.
In addition to exploring the mines, there are plenty of other things to do at the park such as gold panning, hiking, picnicking and visiting the museum and gift shop.
Another part of the park worth visiting is the Joshua Hendy Stampmill and blacksmith shop. Made in 1888 and still on its original site, the mill was initially run using water, then steam and later a Cadillac engine.
Miners would take their findings to the mill for processing. Unfortunately, many would go deaf a few days after working there as its giant pile drivers crushed the rock below. The gold would then be separated out with mercury, the mercury burned off, and the gold finally poured into molds.
With the samples constantly being tested throughout the process, that’s where the expression “it didn’t pan out” came from.
Basham said the gold rush continues to live because people get a kick out of seeing the real thing. But the park and all its fabulous historical treasures are dependent on volunteers to maintain it. Basham said last year volunteers gave 3,650 hours of time that was valued at $81,000 by one foundation.
“But we’re always looking for more volunteers,” Basham said. “People who have a love of history and can basically self-train.”
So if you’re interested in being a continuing part of this fascinating history, call Frank Jacobi who manages the park for the city of Placerville at 530-642-5207 or drop by the park to see him. People can also get additional information at the park’s Website at goldbugpark.org.
Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.