Rush for Riches: Gold Fever and the Making of California, by J.S. Holliday, Oakland Museum of California and University of California Press, Berkeley, 1999, $45 hardcover, $25 softcover.
In 1981, J.S. Holliday came out with the golden classic The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience, and now he has contributed another valuable nugget for any reader interested in the tumultuous days of the Forty-Niners. Holliday was perhaps the brightest star of Ken Burns’ documentary series The West and is also a former director of the Oakland Museum of California. That museum co-published Rush for Riches: Gold Fever and the Making of California in commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the gold rush. “Triumphs and successes beyond what anyone would have dared to dream are revealed in its chapters, along with the pain, suffering, and tragedies that were also its legacy,” writes L. Thomas Frye, director of the museum’s California Gold Rush Sesquicentennial Project, in the foreword.
Holliday’s intriguing story begins with Spain’s discovery of California in the 16th century and concludes with the January 24, 1898, 50th-anniversary celebration of the discovery of gold. By the 1890s, Holliday writes, gold mining was “more symbol of California’s past than contributor to its wealth,” but “California’s men of ambition and daring tackled new enterprises, with no evidence of despair or fear that the feast was over.” These men turned to producing fruit, “black gold” (oil) and motion pictures.
Gold mining in California was mostly an individual treasure hunt at first, but then it turned into big business, when hydraulic mining ruled (and ruined) the land. The evolution of gold mining is handled masterfully by Holliday, who writes as if he were experiencing it all firsthand. Some 250 illustrations accompany the enjoyable text. The gold rush sesquicentennial celebration is almost over, but the sesquicentennial of California statehood arrives in 2000, and the legacy of those “rushed” times will no doubt endure through the 21st century. And so should books such as Rush for Riches.