Mysterious Island: Catalina’s so-called ‘Gold Rush’

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By Jim Watson

A little tidbit in the news the other day—the piece about the guy in Australia finding an 11-pound gold nugget—caught my eye and got me thinking about the so-called Gold Rush Catalina experienced in the 19th century.

The words “California” and “gold” are virtually synonymous around the world.  

(In fact, the late Huell Howser put those two words together to create one of the most popular regional television shows in history).

By Jim Watson

A little tidbit in the news the other day—the piece about the guy in Australia finding an 11-pound gold nugget—caught my eye and got me thinking about the so-called Gold Rush Catalina experienced in the 19th century.

The words “California” and “gold” are virtually synonymous around the world.  

(In fact, the late Huell Howser put those two words together to create one of the most popular regional television shows in history).

The modern history of the Golden State is inextricably linked to this precious metal, so it is not surprising that a portion of early Catalina history revolves around it as well.  What is surprising, perhaps, is that as far as Catalina is concerned never was such a fuss made over this commodity when there was so little of it to be found.

Gold first makes its appearance in Catalina lore in the early 1830s when an early California settler named George C. Yount claimed to have discovered a “ledge of gold-bearing quartz” at low tide in an undisclosed location on Catalina.  

Historical “guessers” have generally put the location at the West End, possibly Arrow Point.

At the time of his reported discovery, Yount was part of an otter-hunting expedition and, despite the find, he apparently couldn’t be bothered with looking for more of the stuff.  

In fact, the one chunk of rock he did take with him was supposedly dropped overboard as he was climbing from the shore launch back onto his ship the “Refugio.”

Yount returned to the Island three more times in subsequent years to search once again for this elusive ledge of gold-bearing rock but to no avail.  

His last attempt was made in 1854, more than 20 years after his initial discovery.

In between visits to Catalina, he spent time in the Napa Valley (he was reportedly the first white man to settle there) and was prominent enough there to have the town of Yountville named after him, much as the town of Watsonville is named after me (just kidding).

Fast forward now to 1863, when Catalina’s real “gold rush” got started and ended nearly all in the same year.  

It was in April of that year when a gentleman named Daniel Way filed the first claim.  

The “Monmouth Claim,” as it was called, was located at the Isthmus and described a vein of gold and silver-bearing rock running north-northwest by south-southeast.  

Way himself received a “discoverer’s share” of 600 feet, while eight of his partners received 300 feet each.

As discoveries (mostly of silver ore) continued to grow, more and more miners began washing up on Catalina’s shores.  Various mines sprung up with colorful names such as “Shining Star Mine,” “Great Eastern Mine” (east of what, I wonder?) and the “Ben Franklin Lode.”

That same year of 1863 saw the attempted establishment of “Queen City,” a proposed 40-acre “metropolis of the mining district of Catalina” located on the lee side of the West End at Wilson Harbor.

The project never got past the planning stages, although various lots were physically staked out by the prospective residents.  One can just imagine these bearded wanderers, whiskey bottles in hand, arguing over who got which plot of land.

Unfortunately for these gentlemen of fortune, there was another major event going on in the nation at this time, namely the Civil War and it wasn’t long before a certain Captain B.R. West of the Union Army’s 4th California Infantry showed up telling the miners they had no business being there.  

The Union Army rightfully suspected that the Confederacy was eager to get its hands on a west coast port and, knowing that some of the miners on Catalina had Southern sympathies, was desirous of clearing the Island.  

The fact that the Island was also producing silver ore—and therefore potential capital for the Confederacy—further hastened their plans.

The miners, especially those who were aligned with the Confederacy, were loath to leave their new digs.   

They bristled at the notion of obeying the orders of the minions of that “scalawag” President Lincoln and in some cases outright accused Captain West of trying to steal their claims.

The Union Army eventually won, as those with cannon and musket are wont to do.  The Army did, however, relent a little and allow “established” miners and ranchers to stay on the Island.  Otherwise, the busy goings-on of the wannabee-boom town of Queen City came to an end.

A paper by the Historical Society of Southern California from 1914 put it best:  “In a little more than a year after the discovery, the camp was abandoned and Queen City, the prospective mining metropolis of Catalina, became a howling waste.

“The wild goats came down from the mountains and ate up the mining notices … the jewfish and shark gamboled in the placid waters of Wilson Harbor, unvexed by rudder or keel.  Quiet reigned on Catalina.”

I’ve never seen in any hard numbers indicating just how much gold has been found on Catalina.  Many historians suspect that Catalina’s “gold rush” was never really anything more than a scam to lure gullible investors into financing assorted local lifestyles.  It was the Island’s copious amounts of silver, lead and zinc that really kept the miners going.

The general consensus seems to be that only “traces” of gold have ever been found on Catalina, making me seriously wonder if the total amount of that precious metal found here has even exceeded the amount found in that 11-pound nugget discovered in Australia.

Jim Watson is the author of “Mysterious Island: Catalina,” available on Amazon, Kindle and in stores all over Avalon.

Mysterious Island: Catalina’s so-called ‘Gold Rush’