Thursday, May 14, 2015

Review of The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream by HW Brands

The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream follows our other California gold rush book reviews [1,2,3,4,5,6].

Unlike the other books that followed specific individuals like William T Sherman or the Grosch brothers, this is a more sweeping history of California from James Marshall's discovery of gold at Coloma in 1848 to the connection of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit, Utah. Those twenty years in California were probably one of the most interesting two decades one could have lived in history.

Initially about half of the "Argonauts" going to California went by sea and half overland by trail. Most of those going by sea - which was quicker but more costly - lived on or near the East Coast of the United States and were familiar with ships and shipping. Most of those going overland already lived in the midwest or near the Ohio, Mississippi, or Missouri Rivers and had working knowledge of overland trips.

Overland travelers could buy oxen, cows, and sheep, plus dense valuable tools like those of a blacksmith, in the midwest and herd the animals over the trail to sell upon arrival in the west for a significant markup. This profit opportunity required more capital upfront than a sea voyage to California but had a much lower (potentially negative) net cost. The more, the more.

Trading posts along the way were in the business of buying worn down teams at low prices, grazing them, and then reselling them as fresh to subsequent travelers. A group of wagon travelers mentioned in the book complains about prices of goods in St Joseph, Missouri (the "jumping off point to the west") compared to St Louis. It's a distance of 300 miles - maybe it would've been smart to arbitrage this with wagons full of goods, like the opportunities in the Pennsylvania oil boom?

At river crossings, wagon travelers' possessions like food usually had to be removed and carried across on a boat or raft to keep it dry—one of the reasons toll bridges or ferries were popular. Operating a ferry was another good business - $50 to cross the Missouri when bacon cost five cents a pound.

The technical advances in gold mining in California were also interesting, and not something discussed in the other two gold rush books. The amount of gold per ton of ore declined continually throughout the gold rush, meaning that more men and more capital were required for mining as time went on. Pressurized water hoses were used to erode entire hillsides and send the slurry coursing through sluces that would trap the gold.

Clipper ships operated during a brief period in history. Their speed came from being tall, long, and narrow; which meant they could not carry much cargo. They were for transport of dense, valuable things where speed was important (tea from China, opium, spices, people, and mail). They were displaced by the transcontinental railroad and by steam ships, which coincidentally happened at about the same time.


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