In 1842, Francisco Lopez was inspecting cattle and hunting for game with two men in the lower end of what is now called Placerita Canyon in the Santa Clarita Valley. They stopped for lunch under a large, oddly shaped tree next to a river bank, the story goes, where Lopez napped and dreamed he was floating in a pool of liquid gold.
When he woke up, Lopez began digging at some nearby wild onions with his sheath knife and he spotted a bit of gold.
This time it wasn’t a dream. Lopez’s discovery sparked California’s first gold rush, six years before the far more famous discovery of the metal at Sutter’s Mill, 400 miles north.
Hundreds of prospectors streamed into the Santa Clarita area to try their luck. During the boom years--from the discovery in 1842 until 1847 when the area seemed almost mined out--an average of about 260 pounds of the metal annually was taken from the valley.
Gold mining is now prohibited in the canyon and experts say they believe there isn’t much left anyway. But the tree where Lopez reportedly had his golden nap is still there. Now called “The Oak of The Golden Dream,” it’s at the site of the Placerita Canyon Nature Center.
Newhall Hardware in Santa Clarita sells about 100 pans a year to modern-day, recreational gold prospectors.
More serious prospectors looking to extract what gold might be left in dry creek beds and hillsides invest in a dry washer, a contraption that looks like a giant vacuum with two bins attached above.
A hand-cranked dry washer about four-feet high costs $350 at Keene Engineering Co. in Northridge; with motor it costs $495.
Gold in its molten form exists 100 to 150 miles below the surface of the Earth. It rises, usually because of plate tectonic activity, with other elements and hardens. Some bits of gold make it all the way to the surface.
That’s where the prospectors found it, mostly by panning in riverbeds.
No productive commercial gold mines operate in the area today, according to Russell Miller, a senior geologist with the California Department of Conservation’s division of mines and geology. But there was commercial mining in the Santa Clarita Valley until the 1930s. In the nearby Acton/Agua Dulce area, there were also commercial operations at the Red Rover and New York mines.
Most modern day prospectors are lucky to find even small pieces of gold. But a Mojave resident who took to gold mining last year as a way to kill time while recovering from a lung infection, showed that while you might not get rich off local mining, you can still find a nice hunk of the metal.
Kent Gates uncovered a 12.8-ounce, 23-carat nugget in mid-June, 1993, after three months of mining at a random spot on public land near Acton. He used a shovel and an $800 hot-air dry washer to uncover the nugget, valued at $6,500.
Sources: Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society; Cal State Northridge; California Department of Conservation, division of mines and geology; Keene Engineering Co.; Researched by MARK SABBATINI / For The Los Angeles Times