Volume 14, Issue 4 ~ January 26 - February 1, 2006

Burton on the Bay

By Bill Burton

Gold Rush

I’ve felt the fever; now the world feels it.

And strong men rust, from the

gold and lust

That sears from the Northland soul...

Oh, tough as a steak was Yukon Jake

— Hard-boiled as a picnic egg.

Edward J. Paramore’s

The Ballad of Yukon Jake: 1921

I see by the daily press that the market price of gold has risen enough that once again it’s worth the hunt. The price of an ounce of the sparkling mineral is climbing toward $500.

You might say there’s more gold in gold than anything other than oil — except in the brains of the master computer geeks, who don’t even have to turn a shovel or spin a drill to become millionaires.

When I read that gold could be headed toward double its worth from lower than $350 an ounce in the ’90s, I started prospecting up here at the Burton homestead overlooking Stoney Creek in North County.

You won’t find any holes in the back yard — or me with a big metal dish scooping sand and muck from the creek. I’m prospecting inside the Burton shanty.

Not only is my search more environmentally friendly, my chances of making a strike, though not of San Francisco and Forty-Niners legend, are better indoors than outdoors. You see, my prospecting is for gold already panned and in my poke.

Only trouble is, thus far I’ve not been able to find the poke. And I made no map.

The Lore of the Poke

For you of the lower 48 states, a poke is a small sack in which those in Alaska keep their wealth before, or if ever, it gets to the bank. When I was newspapering in what was to later become the 49th state, miners and trappers came to Anchorage in winter to sow their wild oats with their poke in their pocket — and hoping they had enough within to last the long winter.

It wasn’t in the old gold rush days, it was the mid-’50s of the 20th century, but the traditions of yore persisted. Those with their pokes headed to a bar where they knew a trustworthy bartender or proprietor. To him they turned over their pokes, then began to tour the city.

It was a simple and effective monetary system that depended on trust. The trapper or miner would spend a good bit of time in the bar where he stashed his poke, partying into wee hours, and the house would withdraw the tab. When he wandered elsewhere, he would tell the proprietor where his poke was, run up a bill — and again it would be withdrawn, usually via telephone.

Handling a poke was a sacred trust, and rarely was the poke — whether it contained cash or gold flakes — raided. The trustees realized the consequences. Miners and trappers are a close-knit lot, and they know what it takes to keep the system honorable and working.

In my Alaskan days, on weekends I left Anchorage to drive several hours into the hinterlands to Resurrection Creek, the site of one of the biggest gold rushes of the Klondike country in the last years of the 19th century. More than 50 years later, everywhere, there were reminders of how the river was raped in the mad rush before it was no longer worthwhile for the big mining operations to continue.

But there was some gold left if one was willing to work, which I was, more out of curiosity and adventure than profit. Still, I had written the occasional piece about someone who had come across a nugget or flakes worth much more than I made in a month or two at the typewriter.

Grandfather’s Footsteps

Also prodding me on was my desire to resurrect family — shall I say — folklore. Before Grandfather Joel William Burton met my grandmother Clara Clark, he was a prospector. We know he worked for silver in the Silverton, Col., area. Family lore has it that he and his companions came upon a promising vein. But it wasn’t worth much unless a railroad was nearby, and one wasn’t.

It’s said that Grandpa and colleagues were told there were no plans for iron horse tracks near the mine they had staked a claim to, so they sold for a song — though Grandpa collected enough to buy a farm. For the rest of his life, he farmed in Virginia, Wisconsin and New England, eking out a living mining carrots and potatoes. Shortly after the mine was sold, the railroad moved in and the buyers became rich.

How much validity there is to all this my siblings and I cannot determine. Grandpa wasn’t the kind of guy to look back, and he died in the mid-’30s.

Missing My Poke

My gold mining adventures started (and ended) at the bottom of the process. I panned. I’d dig a shovel of muck from Resurrection Creek, deposit it in the pan, add water from the creek, swish it around, then carefully pour some water and anything else out.

Gold, being heavier, remained at the bottom. Once the pan was emptied, I was lucky to find a few gold flakes remaining. A good day turned up about $10 worth; a few times I did better. It was hard work, but fun, and my poke was a small tin film canister, which became about half-filled over the summer.

I declined to swap the cache for cash and kept it as a memento. Only trouble is, that tiny canister, worth several hundred dollars, is amidst the collection of my life’s myriad souvenirs. Rarely do I toss anything out, so you can imagine after nearly 80 years what’s cached in the Burton household. Please don’t remind wife Lois. I have to live here.

Bottom line: Despite my ferreting, I can’t locate my cache.

It’s not that I want to cash in the contents of the poke. I have a devilish streak. I’d like to meander into the Riviera Beach branch of M&T Bank at rush time, dump the flakes at the teller’s window and announce I’d dug them from the cliff beside the house that drops down to Stoney Creek.

Then I’d go home and wait for the highest bidder for the homestead — and lead the kind of life we all dream about. Pronto, Riviera Beach would be like San Francisco. That’s all (besides my missing poke) that’s holding me back. Gold mining is a dirty business, dirty enough to pollute our creek, the Patapsco and the Chesapeake.

Gold Fever’s a Toxic Disease

So much for pranks and daydreams. If we consider the impact of gold mining globally, including within some regions of the U.S. now that it’s profitable enough, it’s akin to drilling for black gold in Alaska. That well could come in our West, as well as in Asia, South America and Russia.

Gold fever is not restricted to little guys like my grandfather, me and you. It has become the business of conglomerates, and their interest in the environment is on par with that of their regard for fool’s gold. That’s cause for worry.

Enough said.

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