November 2003 Issue Explore Historic California - Magazine for Enthusiasts




by Cecile Page Vargo


            Highgrading!  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 would.  Highgrading, 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 California were actually the Mormons.


            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 home in 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 ore. 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  under Butte Avenue 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.      


            Muleskinner Jim Barnes, of Grass Valley ,  supported himself with ore the mules had been helping him highgrade for many  years.  Jim  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 them. 

            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 Grass Valley. His nickname was Mule Droppings Jim.  One can only imagine the other names that he was called during his day.


            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 Amador County . 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 Amador County for New York, taking a sight seeing stops in such places as Hong Kong, Suez, Paris and London, along the way.


             It’s a good bet that the majority of miners coming to California 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.”


Thanks to the authors of the following books for allowing me to “highgrade” from the stories:

Bodie Bonanza

by Warren Loose

Exposition Press, 1971


California Gold and the Highgraders

by F. D. Calhoon


Deep Enough

by Frank Crampton

University of Oklahoma Press


GOLD:  The Saga of the Empire Mine 1850-1956

by F.W. McQuiston, Jr.

Empire Mine Association


Handbook For Prospectors, Fifth Edition

by Richard M. Pearl

McGraw-Hill Book Company

Western Mining

by Otis E. Young, Jr.

University of Oklahoma Press


For some lighter reading true and farce:

Roughing It

by Mark Twain 

The High Graders

by Louis L’Amour

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