Mines of the East Fork by John Robinson; or, Panning for Gold less than an Hour from Los Angeles

A "review" of Mines of the East Fork by the beloved regional mountain trailblazer, guide, and historian of Southern California's mountainous back country, John Robinson.   Mines of the East Fork inspired history hike with my daughter, a gorgeous summer day spent rambling alongside (and within) the gold flecked waters of the East Fork of the San Gabriel River.

Mines of the East Fork offers fascinating accounts of the many mini-gold rushes ("mini" compared to the California Gold Rush upon Sutter Mill five years previously 250 miles north in the Sierra Nevada foothills) that occurred along the East Fork of the San Gabriel River beginning in 1854 and continuing sporadically well into the 20th century. In fact, gold panning enthusiasts still ply their patient, rustic trade in the East Fork's waters today, extracting three dollars worth of gold dust after a full days labor of love -- if they're lucky. Los Angelenos are lucky indeed for their close proximity to mountains, and mountains filled not just with dry chaparral, seasonal wildfires and mudslides (and hordes of buried bodies & covert marijuana "plantations" too) but with so much history and, if you know where to bushwhack off trail, surprising mining artifacts and related detritus.

On a recent hike up the East Fork with my inquisitive daughter, she stopped, knee deep in the East Fork's refreshing flow, pointed upward to a mountain slope and asked, "what's that pipe doing way up there?" I replied, as if I were an expert myself and had never even heard of John Robinson's "Mines of the East Fork," that there were once goldmines galore up here, and that the pipes she saw were once used to transport water for the hydraulic mining they did, where they'd basically aim the end of a piece of pipe at a mountainside, and blast water at the mountain with the hopes of finding the mother lode beneath.

"Why?" She asked, apparently not getting what I meant by "mother lode".

"So they could find gold and get rich."


Did anyone get rich from the East Fork back during its 1850s heyday of glory and excitement? Not especially. According to Robinson, even though the total historical yield from the canyon was estimated by the Los Angeles Star at $4 to $13 million, back in the 1850s & 60s, the average person took out only between $2 and $10 per day. Good money back then, true, but since the canyon was regularly flooded each winter, in particular the winters of 1859 and 1862 being extreme inundations (the latter, in fact, completely destroyed and left no evidence that the sprung-up-overnight-mining town of Eldoradoville ever existed) the cost of reconstructing flume lines and replacing & hauling mining materials back up the fifteen miles from the town of Azusa, ultimately proved insurmountable. Gold mining continued, floods or no floods, but even the invention of "mini, more easily transported hydraulics" in the 1890s, met with negligible profit and inevitable failure.

What John Muir meant a century ago to the mighty Sierra Nevada mountain range, John Robinson means to the San Gabriels and the East Fork. Robinson has researched the history and written more authoritatively on the mountains of Southern California than any person past or present and most likely to come. It's unfortunate that so few people besides avid hikers such as yours truly appreciate the mountains near Los Angeles and her swarming suburbs (besides arsonists of course); otherwise, John Robinson, in my book, would be as revered a figure, say, as an Edward Abbey or just mentioned John Muir.

If you ever visit LA, instead of Disneyland, Hollywood-and-Vine, or the beach, find an old out-of-print copy of John Robinson's, "Mines of the East Fork" (or borrow mine!) and explore one of Southern California's uncrowded jewels; one of its best kept historical secrets (I didn't even mention "The Bridge To Nowhere" did I?) and, who knows, grab a pan, sift through river sludge, and you just might strike it rich!