I have been prospecting and mining for gold both as a hobby and as an
occupation for nearly 30 years and in my opinion it's a blast! From the deep
green forests to the rolling sagebrush hills, few people see as much of
America's wide open spaces as I do. I kick around kooky little old towns in the
middle of nowhere. I visit historic sites where the pioneers of the west toiled
for years to extract precious metals from the ground. As fun as that is
though, finding your own gold, either as a nugget or in solid hard rock is a
special experience that's hard to equal.
School kids in California learn how James Marshall accidentally discovered gold
nuggets while constructing a water powered sawmill in the Sierra foothills. The
excitement resulting from Marshall's discovery was a fire that ignited gold and
silver rushes all across the western US. Well known is the story of O'Reiley and
McLaughlin who accidentally discovered the Comstock Lode silver bonanza
while working a small deposit of placer gold, tossing away a blue-black waste
that later turned out to be rich silver ore.
A century ago, Jim Butler, while traveling from his ranch in central Nevada,
noticed some quartz vein material. Being a good prospector, he collected a
sample, but he thought so little of his find that it sat on his porch for months
before it was tested. That sample became the first of many rich discoveries at
Tonopah. I could write a whole book telling the stories of these individual
prospectors who, whether intentionally or by accident, found rich deposits of
gold and other valuable ores. These finds have had no small impact on the
development of our country - historically millions upon millions of ounces of
gold have been recovered from deposits found by individual prospectors.
The gold prospecting world is basically divided into two halves. They are placer
gold and hard rock gold. Hard rock is gold, which remains in the original solid
rock in which it formed. Northern Nevada is extremely rich in gold, mostly as
these primary hard rock type deposits. The hard rock, open pit mines of
Nevada have produced nearly 100 million ounces since their discovery in
1960. Although a few small operations still exist, hard rock mining is usually
done on a large scale.
The main problem for individuals interested in hard rock gold deposits is high
capital costs for the equipment to crush and process hard rock ore in order to
extract the gold from its solid rock enclosure. Because of this, many
prospectors who look for hard rock gold seek to sell their finds to large
companies that possess the resources to develop them.
Any gold that has weathered out of its original rock matrix, be it a quartz vein
or another source is called placer gold. Once it is freed from the vein, any
accumulation of that gold is called a placer deposit. There are several different
kinds of placers depending on how far the gold traveled, its origin, etc. The
four most common types of placer deposits are: 1) Residual - where the
original vein has weathered, but the placer gold remains more or less "in
place" and still within a few feet of the original source; 2) Eluvial - where the
gold has traveled a short distance down from the source, but has not made it
into streams and other drainages - these are often called hillside placers; 3)
Alluvial - Where the gold has made it into area streams and rivers. These
placers are sorted by running water and usually the gold lies mostly on or
near the bedrock; 4) Beach placers occur where small gold particles make it all
the way down river to the ocean. Wave action can concentrate the heavier
fraction of the sand, producing black sand layers containing fine gold.
Because of the comparative ease of recovering gold from placer deposits,
most individual prospectors start out seeking placer gold nuggets and flakes.
Some later progress to an interest in hard rock deposits, but most still start
out looking for flakes and nuggets of free placer gold. Once you find your first
gold, you won't have much trouble seeing what kept the old pioneer
prospectors going under such rugged conditions.
It's always great when you come up with your own gold, and the excitement
is real. There is no doubt in my mind that gold fever is a condition that
actually exists. In my experience, staring too closely at gold nuggets or
thinking too much about the quest to find them often causes it. Luckily, it's
an enjoyable condition with few, if any, harmful side effects. Prospecting for
gold is a hobby that's easy to fall into.
It doesn't necessarily cost a mint to get into prospecting. It can be as simple
as purchasing a gold pan for $10 and grabbing a bucket and the garden
spade from the garage. On the other hand, there are many great gold saving
products available to the modern prospector. Some allow the modern
prospector to accomplish things no old timer could ever dream of.
From metal detectors, to portable suction dredges, to dry placer machines
and other gold recovery devices of all types, many significant improvements
have been made in small scale prospecting equipment. There certainly is no
problem finding ways to spend as much money on good equipment as you
would like - lots of great stuff is available. Most individuals start off small and
purchase more advanced equipment as they get more involved in the hobby.
So whether its searching for the next million ounce ore deposit or just finding
a small gold nugget you can call your own, rest assured, it is still possible. For
those who enjoy hunting, hiking, fishing, off road exploring or any of the
other many outdoor hobbies so many folks participate in, prospecting may be
something you would be interested in. For just about any outdoor enthusiast,
it's worthwhile to know a little about gold deposits - because the next big find
may be yours!
For photos and more information about learning to pan for gold see the
authors web page on panning for gold at:
For basic information about how you can learn to prospect for gold, take a
look at the author's website at:
About the author:
Chris Ralph writes on small scale mining and prospecting for the ICMJ Mining
Journal and has a degree in Mining Engineering from the Mackay School of
Mines in Reno. After working in the mining industry, he has continued his
interest in mining as an individual prospector. His information page on
prospecting for gold can be viewed at:
Dig Your Own Gold:
The Fun of Prospecting
Author: Chris Ralph
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