Wall Street crisis puts a gleam in miner's eye

Times Staff Writer

High up a steep Sierra hillside that rises behind this Mother Lode town, past where the paved road runs out, tucked into a shadowy gulch covered with pines and cedars -- and far, far away from the financial calamities rocking Wall Street -- this was where Perry Cottingham could be found last week, engaged in that most seminal of California enterprises, mining for gold.

Here was a man happy in his work.

A few days earlier, Cottingham had been following the dire financial bulletins on early morning television, tracking the price of gold on the ticker at the bottom of the screen. As the stock market tumbled, gold was bounding upward toward a magical price of nearly $1,000 an ounce.

Cottingham has worked his one-man gold mine full-time for three decades now, surviving all sorts of economic gyrations. As the price peaked, Cottingham, a 65-year-old former stock car racer, gathered up his stockpile and headed down the hill to meet with the storefront gold buyers who still operate in towns scattered through Gold Country.

"I sold all my gold," Cottingham said. "I sold most of it when the price was up above $910 and some of it close to $1,000."

How much did he sell?

The miner only grinned.

Certain questions, apparently, should not be asked in these parts.

"Let's just say 'enough,' " Cottingham said at last.

"Let's just say 'a substantial amount.' "

The latest climb in gold prices began about a year ago, just as the economy started to wobble. As a result, weekend hobbyists and novices have been pouring into the fabled California Mother Lode, which extends roughly from the Sierra foothills outside Sacramento south to Coarsegold, above Fresno.

"Sheer lunacy," is how Brent Shock of Gold Prospecting Adventures, a mining outfitter on the main street of Jamestown, describes the current scene -- fortune seekers who arrive by the carload with newly purchased pans and dreams of walnut-sized nuggets.

It's not that there isn't gold to be found. The state estimates $13 million worth was commercially mined in California last calendar year. It's just that easy finds were picked clean more than a century ago.

With Cottingham, gold is less the product of eureka moments than it is of sweat equity. He periodically burrows into the mine and blasts down tons of quartz. He runs the rocks through a series of homemade crushers and grinders, sifters and separators, patiently working through hundreds of tons of rock to extract flakes of gold and, on better days, maybe some raisin-sized nuggets.

By now, Cottingham can eyeball a pile of quartz rocks and pretty much calculate just how much gold it will yield. He pointed to one 6-foot-high mound of quartz boulders: It should cough up maybe $7,500 in gold, he figured, enough to take him through a winter.

"You see," he explained, "it's like a regular business to me. It's work. I've seen a lot of guys buy a lot of equipment in times like these. I see it now, and I saw it back in the '80s," another boom time for gold. "They'd buy all this stuff to go mining, but they just couldn't do the work."

Cottingham cannot afford expensive equipment. He built his mill and keeps it cranking by continually scouring junkyards and farm sales for dilapidated equipment, which he either restores or cannibalizes for parts. Tomato harvesters, airplane wheels, auto springs -- all have been converted for use in his milling operation.

"We're pretty self-sufficient up here," said Mark, a neighbor who did not want to be identified by his full name. A retired trucker, Mark has reopened a mine on adjacent property and has become Cottingham's student in mining and partner in mechanical improvisation.

"We're about the only two doing any mining around here anymore," Cottingham said.

Cottingham, a wiry man covered in dust from his T-shirt to his sneakers, seems to have been born for this life. Raised on a ranch in South Dakota's Red River Valley, Cottingham trapped mink as a kid and hunted for arrowheads and buffalo bones -- a born scavenger. He served in the Air Force, where he honed his mechanical skills. When he came to California in the 1970s, he was pulling a stock car with him.

Cottingham enjoyed some success as a race car driver. He raced alongside the Pettys and the Yarboroughs. He also competed at a lot of county fairs. Still, he never could land a significant sponsor. And he grew tired of holding his ride together with parts scrounged from salvage yards.

"Driver Rummages Way Through Life," said a Times headline on a 1974 sports feature about Cottingham.

While living in Orange County, Cottingham bought a metal detector.

He spent long stretches in the desert, searching for gold. In the late 1970s, Cottingham said, he made his way to the Mother Lode and, taking clues from a book about lost treasure, turned up a cache of gold and coins worth $22,000 that had been buried in a creek.

He decided to stick around and buy property with an old gold mine on it -- a listing not hard to come by in this part of California, where backyards still occasionally cave in to forgotten mines and tunnels.

Cottingham knew what to look for in terms of topography, rock formations and the like. His father had bought the family's ranch with profits from a gold strike in Oregon. His uncle was the foreman of a big commercial mine in the Dakotas.

"I was raised with miners," Cottingham said.

So he settled on an eight-acre parcel that included the abandoned Rifle Mine.

The quartz mine was first claimed in 1853 -- a time when the 49ers, having pretty much picked clean the rivers and streams, were moving into the hills to take up hard rock mining. Cottingham cleared an old tunnel into the hill and went to work where the early miners had left off.

"I got my money back in a week or two of buying this place," he said. A few years later, he hit another rich pocket and "well, again, let's just say I took out a 'substantial amount.' "

It was enough for Cottingham to take two years off and build a two-story cabin, where he raised two children.

In the years since, he said, he's managed to make a living at mining, answering to no one but himself, the government agencies that monitor his explosives, and, of course, the vagaries of the market.

"But gold is always worth something," he said. "You can never go wrong with it. You just have to be willing to wait for the price to go up before you sell it off. What they call this catastrophe actually has been good for gold and oil and commodities."

Although he can make his operation sound like a glorified auto shop, all nuts and bolts, Cottingham is not blind to the romance of gold mining.

He pointed to a ravine that the bandit Joaquin Murrieta was said to have used as a hide-out.

He recited the names of the mines that once dotted this hill, and some of the old-timers who worked them.

"It's exciting," he said, holding a plastic kitchen container to the sunlight to show a visitor some gold flecks. "It's something you have brought into the world that nobody else has. New money. Plus, you are not working for the Man."

Still, Cottingham will turn 66 soon, and his back has begun to bark at him. He talked vaguely about retiring and moving back to South Dakota. "You know anybody who would want to buy a gold mine?" he asked.

A short time later, he was waffling.

"Maybe I'll sell. Maybe not. It's hard to walk away from. The gold's there, and you want to go drill. You never know what you will find in the next four feet. . . . "

On such wisps of possibility was California born.

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peter.king@latimes.com

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