James Bickford – Michigan Bluff Miner – Oct 14th, 2020

½ Million in a 40 x 100 ft room

Daily to work and back – 9 miles of walking

By Don Robinson

In the late 1860’s Michigan Bluff was a center for many of the nearby mines. Going north, within a walking distance of five miles, were mines named the Daniel Webster, Manhattan, Turkey, Drummond Pit, Franklin Pit, Bower, the Oro, Gas Hill, Herman, Cameron, and the Ayres, not even to mention all the mine sites at Michigan Bluff itself. The miners who worked at these nearby northerly mines, particularly those who had families, chose to live in town making life much simpler and acceptable for family conditions. Walking three or four miles to work each day was not considered a hardship, even though it might mean getting up at the crack of dawn, and leaving the mine site just in time to get home at dark.

Such was the case for J. S. Bickford, who, at 24 years old, had decided to file a claim on a abandoned mine north of Michigan Bluff. The Ayres mine site was about 4 ½ miles from town, and he had been exploring the site for some time now. The underground placer mine had a brief, glorious run and then they lost the pay, and finally went off to better pastures.

Today there is very little history available about the Ayres. The best information found so far is taken from “The Auriferous Gravels of the Sierra Nevada of California,” by J. D. Whitney and was written in 1880. To quote: “At the Ayres Claim, on the east side of the ridge facing El Dorado Canyon, north of Michigan Bluff from a space, near the mouth of the tunnel, about a hundred feet long and from thirty to forty feet wide, about $30,000 was taken out, and after that nothing further was found.”  (This mine started as an open pit placer, since Eldorado Canyon had cut through the buried channel.)

Now, with the gold selling at $16.00 per ounce at the time the Ayres was operating, this total gold recovery would have represented 1875 ounces of gold. At today’s price of about $270.00 per ounce, the gold would have a value of just over ½ million dollars. So what happened?

 Why did they run out of gold? J.S. Bickford didn’t understand it, and he was determined to find out why. It initially appeared to him they had lost the pay streak and had considered the channel barren after this one pocket was cleaned out. He had studied the old workings, took samples, observed the bedrock profile and had a hunch about the real problem. To him it looked like the Ayres miners had been working a high bench deposit, and that this intervolcanic channel had actually cut a lot deeper before it had been buried again by later volcanic flows.

James had studied these channels all over the Divide, and the boulders in this ancient river were mostly volcanic in nature, rather than the quartz rock that he had observed in some of the other flows. The geologists of the time knew the quartz channel was pre-volcanic because of the river gravel composition, and had already determined that at least three volcanic periods occurred over millions of years after that. For a brief review, consider the first channels were the quartz gravel channels, then getting buried in deep mud and lava flows. This was the first volcanic period. After this first volcanic episode had subsided, new river channels started cutting their paths, this time carrying volcanic boulders from the eruption process. These channels ran for millions of years, sometimes cutting through and deeper than the original pre-volcanic rivers.

Then the Second period of volcanic action started, now burying the channels of the First volcanic period, and once this subsided, new channels started flowing again. These new channels sometimes cut through the volcanic flows and the rivers of the First period and the pre-volcanic rivers before the First period.

The Third period of volcanism set in, burying the Second period channels and once this subsided, new rivers started again. As before, some cut previous buried rivers, making this whole process complicated and very difficult to piece together. It was relatively easy to determine the pre-volcanic river gravels, but almost impossible to determine in which period the intervolcanic channels actually occurred.

James knew this was intervolcanic, and that from observing the bedrock formations, he concluded there was a deeper flow and just maybe this deeper flow would contain even more gold than the Ayres mine had originally found.

He drove some exploratory tunnels and indeed found deeper gravels, and based upon this, and finding the new bedrock level, decided to come around lower on the mountainside and drive a new drift through the bedrock rim, and directly into the bottom of the new flow. This was risky business, because he might be wrong in his evaluation, and even if he was right about the elevation levels, maybe there wouldn’t be the gold he hoped for.

Every morning at dawn he was up and hiking. Four and ½ miles to the mine site, and then a full hard day of single jacking his two foot drill holes, shooting, and mucking out every round. This cycle took him about four days each time and, as he advanced further and further underground, the cycle took longer because he had to move the waste material a greater distance to the portal.

Four hundred and forty feet later he popped through the underground bedrock rim right into the ancient river channel. The gold was there! – and he had calculated the entry point into the channel almost perfectly. He was about three feet low, which was just fine because the water flowed out the portal just as he had hoped, and the ore car grade were perfect for moving ore to the outside for processing.

He named the mine the Bickford Mine and later changed the name to the Swift Shore. He worked this mine for forty years, driving over 2000 more feet of drifts, with considerable breasting inside the mine, and raised his family in Michigan Bluff. He was considered one of the leading men in the county. The “History of Placer and Nevada Counties” by Lardner and Brock, 1924, has a full page picture dated 1917, showing James Bickford, then age 81, with H.L. Eman, age 84, L. Remier, age 80, and Jake Welker, then age 82. They were standing in front of Governor Stanford’s old house, which was built in 1853. All four men were considered pioneers of the time, each contributing to our great history that has made this area a mining legend.

James Bickford was not going to let this mine come to an abrupt end, even at the age of 81. He insisted that his family continue to maintain the mining rights to the mine and indeed they worked it during the great depression years. The mine has stayed in the family since that time, and today is now in the process of being re-opened.