california gold rush town
California Gold Rush Town

Those early California Gold camps with their boardwalks, muddy streets, false-front buildings and tent houses were as vivacious as their names implied. Towns with picturesquely whimsical names like Whiskey Bar, Hangtown, Devil’s Retreat, Flapjack Canyon, Red Dog, You Bet, Gouge Eye, Gomorrah, and Rough And Ready beckoned the modern-day Argonauts much like the Sirens of mythology beckoned the Greek sailors.

In the days before the mints began turning out gold coins for currency, purchases for such things as dry goods and whiskey were made by the “pinch” method whereby the shopkeeper or bartender simply reached into a miners poke sack with his thumb and forefinger and took out as much gold dust as he could squeeze between the two. The amount taken for a drink was usually between six bits and a dollar, depending on the size of the fingers doing the plucking. It goes without saying that the saloon owners would prefer hiring ham-handed ones whenever possible. A story is told of one enterprising bartender who would “accidentally” spill small amounts of his pinch on the barroom floor during the course of transferring the gold dust from the poke sack to the cash drawer. Several times during his shift he would step out the back door to a mud hole where he would muddy the soles of his boots. Then he would re-enter the bar and walk back and forth, picking up the spilled gold dust. Next, he would scrape the mud off his boots on a conveniently placed bucket. It was said that on a good Saturday night he could pan out a hundred dollars worth of gold.

The women who followed the strikes brought a touch of class to a male-dominated society. In some of the more remote camps men might go months without seeing a “respectable” woman. One lonely miner ventured into a large town and chanced to meet a man escorting his wife along the sidewalk. She was well-dressed and covering her face was a thin veil. The miner approached the couple awkwardly and asked the husband if it would be considered impolite if he might, just for a moment, gaze upon the young woman’s face. The husband said he didn’t mind and the woman obligingly lifted her veil. The miner looked at her face and apparently satisfied that women did indeed still exist, gratefully thanked the couple and the two parties went on their separate ways.

Another time a group of miners were returning to their cabins after a long day’s work when they chanced to see fancy French lingerie hanging from a line outside a miner’s cabin. Not used to such finery’s they rushed over to the cabin and demanded to meet the woman who inhabited the abode. Much to their disappointment, the shack had no female occupant. Turns out the entrepreneurial miner had been to San Francisco where he’d purchased the lacy underwear and toted it back to the mining camp and hung it on the line as a lure to attract lonely men. He had more in the cabin and for an admission fee they could see the lacy undergarments up close. For an extra fee they were allowed to touch them.

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