There’s a New Breed of Forty-Niners Rushing to the Pacific
Nugget Alley is a fabled fork in the San Gabriel River just an hour outside Los Angeles. Gold prospectors with names like Backpack Dave, Recon John and the Bulldozer are again flocking there, and to California’s other strike-it-rich waterways. In previous lives they were movie lighting techs and Caribbean sport boat captains and penny-stock investors and soldiers. Now all day they hunt for color against gray river rocks.
Their ramshackle camps have, by some estimates, doubled over the past four years as the unemployment rate spiked and the precious metal skyrocketed to a record high of more than $1,500 an ounce. Scores of hard-core prospectors work the San Gabriel, and perhaps 50,000 people throughout the state prowl a few weekends a year with pans and metal detectors and dowsing rods. If they’re lucky, they find yellow powder as fine as flour, “clinkers” (big nuggets named for the pleasing sound they make on the bottom of a pan) or sculptural crystalline specimens that, stared at long enough, resemble lace doilies and dragons.
Occasionally, a five-ounce nugget comes to light, and a highly skilled and tenacious prospector might pull $1,000 out of the ground on a day fortune is with him. But most find just flecks, barely enough to keep them in groceries, for all their exertions. River miners crush fingers, toes and even teeth shoving aside huge boulders to reach the gleam beneath. “I’ve been buried under the water three times,” says Bernie McGrath, a prospector and former pipeline worker. “It’s a treacherous way to make money.” It’s also, in Nugget Alley (part of the Angeles National Forest), unauthorized.
Sarina Finkelstein, a photographer at work on a book about California’s “New 49ers,” as she calls them, wonders if something besides the dream of wealth has been driving them. “You can photograph the gold,” says Finkelstein, who previously documented street performers in New York City’s Central Park. “You can photograph the landscape. You can photograph the faces. But how do you photograph a motivation?”