The Glint of Gold

Jimmy Spaulding 13, of Oakdale looks for "color" in his pan with help from Kim Rita at the Hidden Treasure gold mining concession at Columbia State Park. Rita's son , Brandon, 13, of Toulumne practices placer panning. Modesto Bee

COLUMBIA -- The price of gold has shot past $900 an ounce, but that's not what prompted visitors to try their hand at panning Saturday.

They just wanted to experience the thrill of picking out a speck of the yellow metal amid the gravel and mud.

And to work on their technique, as taught by the people who manage the panning troughs in Columbia State Historic Park.

"We just dip and move it back and forth and try to get all the gravel out," said Jimmy Spaulding, 13, of Oakdale after practicing for a few minutes with his pan.

Gold prices, more than triple what they were in 2000, have caused a stir in financial markets and bumped up retail prices for jewelry.

Some of the visitors to Columbia were not aware of the run-up. It would not matter much anyway, because it would take many hours of panning to find just a few dollars' worth of gold.

The enrichment is of the educational kind at the panning troughs, run by Hidden Treasure Gold Mine, one of several businesses in the park.

The troughs -- wooden boxes lined with metal -- are "salted" with tiny pieces of gold before the panners get to work, co-owner Gil Morrison said.

He has a real gold mine about four miles north of Columbia, and he can tell visitors what mining is really like.

'It's hard work'

"There's nothing easy about gold," he said. "It's hard work. I don't care if you pan for it, dredge for it or hard-rock it."

Hard-rock mining is what emerged a few decades after the Gold Rush of 1849. With the easier pickings gone, miners took to drilling and hammering deep into rock. This is what Morrison does at his mine, which dates to 1879.

Like other business people in the park, he dresses in 19th- century clothing when dealing with the public. A 3.2-ounce gold nugget hangs from a neck chain, below his gray beard and tattered hat.

Morrison, a 66-year-old Jamestown native, used to own a garbage collection service in the Columbia area. He started mining when gold prices spiked in the late 1970s.

"There's definitely more than just trying to make money," he said. "It kind of gets under your skin, in your blood."

Visitors on Saturday seemed to have a touch of that gold fever, too. They dipped their pans and shook the contents, then turned them to the sun to see what they had. The troughs contained not just gold but quartz, garnet and other shiny stuff.

"It's fun finding all the different colors of rocks and stones and stuff," said Brandon Rita, 13, of Tuolumne. "I think I can find more if I get a little better at this."

Melissa Magud, visiting from Manteca, had the technique down.

"It's called the 'shake and dip,' " she said. "You just have to swirl the water around."

For Magud, like other visitors, the high price of gold was not a consideration.

"I'm aware of the price of gasoline," she said. "That's a better question, I think."

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or 578-2385.