The word conjures up images of
hardrock miners slipping a bit of ore in their pockets or lunch
pails hoping to slip past their supervisors at the end of the day.
Eventually companies got wise to this and built changing rooms
where the men would be observed as they took their uniforms off
and were forced to
shower before putting on
their civilian clothes. As
the companies got more creative in efforts to prevent highgrading,
the miners resorted to other methods to add to their $4 or
$5 a day wages.
In his book, California Gold and the Highgraders,
F. D. Calhoun takes a broader view of highgrading than most of us
according to Calhoun means: “The
taking of gold from another
man’s property without permission or payment.”
With this in mind, he tells us that the first highgraders in
were actually the Mormons.
UP & DOWN CALIFORNIA
When James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848
the Mormons that had been hired to help build the now famous sawmill,
watched as he picked flakes
of gold from the mill race. They
followed suit and did the same. Back
Salt Lake City
after the sawmill was built, the Mormons were required to tithe the
wages they had earned. They also tithed the gold they gathered from
Sutter’s Mill. It never
occurred to them that the gold they were taking was the property of
Captain John Sutter. The
rush of 49’ers that followed
as the word got out that gold had been found, technically, became
highgraders. John Sutter
never collected a penny from those who bombarded his property.
From the Eastern Sierra mining town of
Bodie, we find traditional
stories of double
bottom lunch pails, and miners pipes stuffed with chunks of
The sounds of one
stamp mills could often be heard running through the night, as miners
processed their highgrade in the privacy of their tiny
cabins. In July of 1880, an
entire high grading operation was uncovered when an
assayer was caught in
a rich level of the Bodie Mine. He
soon found himself confined in one of the drifts for 24 hours
while a search went on for his miner accomplices, and all were arrested
for their crimes.
In the Western Mojave, miners from Randsburg, Johannesburg, and Atolia, found creative ways to take home not only gold, but silver
and tungsten as well. One
saloon and boarding house owner found a small vein of gold
and began digging a shaft near the street.
When his efforts became less profitable than he expected, miners
from the Yellow Aster dumped their high grade into the mine, hoping to
boost the saloon owners wages to the Irish miners that worked for him.
During World War I agents scouting for tungsten for use in
armaments paid cash to highgraders, as they met them in secrecy in the
dark of night. Even
before prices had skyrocketed, Atolia miners
were bringing home fortunes in their dinner buckets, and shirt
pockets each day. One high
grader tripped over a cable as he came out of the skip.
He was so weighted down with ore that he could not get up.
Another limped with rheumatism for days before being examined by
the doctor. Fifty pounds of ore, worth $5.00 per pound
was discovered in his pants legs.. One hitch hiking
miner, not realizing it was the chauffer of one of the owners of
California Rand Silver, bragged about his high-grading efforts.
Companies were well aware of what was going on in their mines,
and accepted a certain amount of it, during good times.
THE MULESKINNER & HIS MULES
Muleskinner Jim Barnes, of
, supported himself with ore
the mules had been helping him highgrade for many
bought highgrade gold ore from the stopers,
paying them 1/3 the
mint value for the best pieces of ore they had saved for themselves.
These pieces would then be crushed and mixed with the manure from
his beloved mules. The
manure would eventually be cleaned up and loaded into a skip to be taken
away. Once the manure pile
came to surface, it was sold to a pear grower who would use it as
fertilizer back at his ranch. There
the manure was piled up near the barn, moistened, and let to decay for a
month or two. Jim would then come out to the pear orchard with his
sluice box. After running the mule manure through the sluice box, he
would scrape the highgrade from it.
The manure was then ready to be used as fertilizer on the pear
trees. Jim was then
able to take the ore he had acquired, grind it finer, and take it to the
owner of a small mine. This
man would mix Jim’s gold with his own and send it to the mint.
The check they received for their efforts was shared between
Muleskinner Jim found his animals
helpful to him with his highgrading career, in other ways as
well. When a mule died, he
would perform an autopsy, and insert as much as a hundred pounds of
crushed high grade ore into their stomach.
He would watch as the mule was buried, then come back a few days
later to rob the grave. When
he was done with this task, he always made sure that the grave looked as
if it had never been touched so no one would discover what he had done.
Like the ore taken from the manure of the live mules, Jim took
this ore to his friend who
owned the small but lucrative mine.
Jim Barnes retired a wealthy man, his story well known amongst
the miners of
Valley. His nickname was Mule
Droppings Jim. One can only
imagine the other names that he was called during his day.
THE SUPERINTENDENT & THE ACTRESS
Long before Jim Barnes story of his mules came out, a woman named
Miss Linda Lee, found an unusual way to highgrade ore from one of
the mines in
. In 1886, mine
superintendent Kurt Barr saw a beautiful woman riding an out of control
horse, and rescued her. Every
morning after that, Kurt would run into Linda Lee and they would rest
from their ride on the carpeted pine needles in a secluded glen.
This went on for about 6 weeks, and they became intimate friends.
One day, Linda showed up a bit troubled.
Her brother, Ben, who was not in the best of health, had trouble
keeping a job. Upon hearing
this story, Kurt suggested that her brother could work in his mine
office. Ben came in from out
of state and took the job, but proved to be very poor at paperwork. It would take weeks for others to undo the mistakes he made.
Ben had a spot on his lung and could not work in the mine or
mill, and had no skills as a
machinist or blacksmith. He
was moved to the assay office where he could retort the mercury from the
amalgam and melt the sponge gold so it could be cast into bars of gold
bullion to be sent to the mint.
Linda Lee’s brother had been working in the assay office for 6
months when someone there began
noticing a shortage between the weight of the amalgam from the mill
clean-up crew, and the weight of the gold expected to be
reclaimed from it. $50,000
was missing, and the finger pointed at Linda Lee’s brother Ben.
Upon hearing this, Linda came to Kurt and asked him to overlook
the whole thing. Because he
was involved with Linda, he didn’t feel he could do this, and was
prepared to fire her brother without reporting him to his superiors, if
Ben would return the gold. In
response to this, Ben only laughed, and soon found himself arrested.
Meantime, Linda no longer showed up for their morning horse back
ride, but one day she showed
up at his mine office instead. Kurt
explained to Linda that he had no choice in the matter of her brother,
as Ben had actually been caught leaving the assay office with the
fraction of the gold bars left at the end of each melt instead of
putting them in the company safe. Linda
laughed at Kurt. “Mr.
Barr,” she said, “You had better drop your charges against Ben,
because you see, Ben is not my brother he is
my husband.” Kurt
Barr had no choice now but to drop the charges.
Kurt was a married
man himself, and would be ruined if the whole incident came out in
court. Miss Linda Lee and
her husband soon left
New York, taking a sight seeing stops in such places as
Hong Kong, Suez, Paris
and London, along the way.
“THOU SHALL NOT STEAL”
It’s a good bet that the majority of miners coming to
picked up a few pieces of gold to keep for themselves.
Some miners grew long fingernails that were kept well manicured,
then used to discreetly scrape along mercury tables beneath the stamp
mills. One man would walk
along the tables several times a day, cleaning his fingernails with a
small shingle nail in his pocket. At
the end of the day he was always seen chewing tobacco rich with amalgam.
Other miners used the fuel chambers of
their cigarette lighters, and
their tobacco pouches to hide their treasures.
Once they figured out a way to smuggle ore off of the mine
property without being caught, they would crush the hard quartz in a
steel mortar, pan the mixture of sand and gold, and take the gold to an
illegal buyer who would then pay him 80 to 90 per cent of
its value. Even the assayer managed to highgrade the highgrader.
For the most part, mine owners turned their heads the other way
over a little bit of highgrading. If
they fired a man for helping himself to a little bit of ore, chances are
the person to replace him would take more than just a little bit and
their losses would be worse. They
also knew the chances of successfully
convicting someone of highgrading would be rare. In one
particular case in 1906,
a man named Sam Chapman was caught with a lunch bucket full of
twenty pieces of very rich highgrade rock.
In court, as the District Attorney , presented the highgrade rock
to the jurors, they asked that it be passed around for a much closer
look. The bailiff gave the
bucket to the foreman, who examined each piece and passed on, until all
12 jurors had an opportunity to do the same.
The last juror took his turn at hefting and closely eyeballing
at the contents of the bucket, then closed it, nodded his head,
and handed it back to the bailiff. The
bailiff weighed the bucket, then called the judge for a conference.
As they opened the bucket, they found 12 pieces were gone.
The judge announced to the jury that he was going to pass the
bucket around once more, and all pieces had better reappear in the
bucket, or they all would find themselves in jail for 30 for contempt of
court. The verdict was that
Sam Chapman had been framed.
In the book, Deep Enough, author and miner Frank Crampton writes
of a church service he attended in the town of Goldfield, Nevada, where highgrading was becoming a severe problem. Following a fire and brimstone sermon based on the commandment
“Thou shall not steal”, Crampton was certain that highgrading would
become a problem of the past. The
congregation hung on every word in astonished surprise, as various
descriptions of the torments of hell were described to them, but sighed
in relief when the minister concluded with the words, “But gold
belongs to him wot finds it first.”
to the authors of the following books for allowing me to “highgrade”
from the stories:
Gold and the Highgraders
F. D. Calhoon
The Saga of the Empire Mine 1850-1956
F.W. McQuiston, Jr.
Handbook For Prospectors, Fifth Edition
Richard M. Pearl
Otis E. Young, Jr.
For some lighter reading true and
The High Graders