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Fun on Friday: The Story of the Mormon Island Gold Rush

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Falling lake levels due to drought in California have revealed the ruins of an old gold mining town. The story behind Mormon Island is pretty interesting.

Early in March 1848, W. Sidney, S. Willis, and Wilford Hudson set off from their fort to hunt deer. When they stopped along the south fork of the American River, they found gold.

This was just two months into the California gold rush.

Sidney, Willis and Hudson were members of the Mormon Battalion. That’s an interesting story in and of itself. The Mormon Batallion was the only military unit made up solely of people from one religion. It was formed during the Mexican-American War. The volunteer unit made a grueling 2,000-plus mile march from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to San Diego, California. Their cross-country slog opened up a southern wagon route to California.

Anyway, Sidney, Willis and Hudson went back to the fort and told their cohorts about their gold discovery. It didn’t take long before more than 150 miners poured into the area. As was often the case, a town quickly sprung up to support the mining operation. At its peak in 1853, Mormon Island had over 2,500 residents, four hotels, three dry-goods stores, five general merchandise stores, an express office, numerous small shops and seven saloons. Apparently, Mormon religious scruples didn’t stop the miners from tipping a bottle now and then – or quite often given that a town of 2,500 support seven bars. Also, I’m pretty certain there was probably a whore house. I mean, think about it.

At any rate, we know there were some women around and people in the area weren’t opposed to some dancing. Mormon Island hosted Sacramento County’s first ball.

Sadly, the town burned in 1856 and it was never rebuilt. I’m going to guess the gold was probably running out by then. Keep in mind, this was a town built on gold.

By the 1940s, there were only a few people left around Mormon Island. What was left of the town was raised before the Folsom Dam project flooded the area. The remains are now mostly under Folsom Lake. But when drought pulls the water level down, you can still see some of the building foundations and other ruins.

That’s what happened recently. An article on pointed out that some of the ruins are visible today, calling it “a canary in a coal mine signaling the severity of drought in California.”
The reporter wasn’t particularly clever. I would have called it a “canary in a gold mine.”

On another side note, I always find it amusing when people act shocked that California experiences frequent droughts. It’s basically a freaking desert. It’s arid. Arid places have droughts. The last time Mormon Island ruins were visible was in 2014.

Anyway, the story shows the power of gold. The quest for the yellow metal made towns and broke towns – and a lot of men and women along with them.

Fun on Friday is a weekly SchiffGold feature. I dig up some of the off-the-wall and off-beat stories relating to precious metals and share them with you – with tongue firmly planted in cheek. The opinions expressed are my own. They are 100% correct – but not necessarily shared by anybody else here – including Peter Schiff. Click here to read other posts in this series.

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