Paydirt! La Jolla Map Museum gets gold fever

La Jolla Map & Atlas Museum exhibit highlights gold rushes in California and beyond

If you go

What: Selection of 19th Century Gold Rush Maps

Where: Map and Atlas Museum of La Jolla, 7825 Fay Ave. (lower level)

Hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, and first and third Saturdays of the month through Sept. 2015

Admission: Free


A new exhibit at the Map and Atlas Museum of La Jolla is giving visitors a historic glimpse at the fever that drove hoards of prospectors west to settle what would rightfully become known as the ‘Golden State.’

Although the exhibit was initially conceived to highlight only maps from the California Gold Rush (1848-1855), museum director Richard Cloward said he and museum founder Mike Stone learned there were gold rushes in other parts of the world throughout the 19th Century, including those in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Colorado.

Gold rushes were marked by an exuberant belief that hearty, entrepreneurial individuals willing to travel and get their hands dirty could achieve income mobility virtually overnight. Rushes helped spur immigration that often led to permanent settlement of new regions and defined part of the culture of the Australian and North American frontiers. At a time when the world’s currency was based on gold, the newly mined gold provided widespread economic stimulus.

“Australians who came to the California Gold Rush turned around and went home for the Australian (gold rushes of 1851-1906),” Cloward said, adding that some prospecting Aussies lived long enough to return to northwestern Canada for the Yukon/Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-1899.

The main room of the exhibit features six maps of the California Gold Rush, some which could be folded up to fit in a prospector’s pocket. The exhibit also features scales used to weigh gold, an example of a stock certificate and five, privately-minted gold coins from the era (See Mint Condition, page A10).

“When the California Gold Rush hit, there was no mint in California, so these private coinage companies were set up and you would go to the assayer with your poke of gold dust or nuggets,” Cloward said. “The assayer would take a pinch for himself and melt the rest of the gold down and cast it into coins. … It was all done privately until the San Francisco Mint was set up (in 1854).”

The exhibit also features modern tourist maps, including one showing all the cities along state Route 49 (aka the “Mother Lode Highway”), where cities still promote their historic affiliations with the California Gold Rush, Cloward chimed.

“What we try to do is give a little education, a little entertainment,” he said, adding that though there was a minor gold rush in Julian, California (east of San Diego), there are largely only government survey maps showing the locations of the mines.

A sample claim from the Cornucopia Lode of Custer County, Colorado is also featured.

“If you wanted to set a claim, you would go to a United States General Land Office and you’d file your claim,” Cloward said. “When the railroad was going (through) they’d put offices nearby. Think about it. The government was selling land they didn’t own and making money at it.”

A map of the gold rush region of Klondike from 1897 on display was produced by well-known Canadian cartographer and mine manager J.B. Tyrrell.

“He was the person who surveyed Canada, literally,” Cloward said. “He didn’t make a lot of money at it, so on the side he published some maps of his own. This one is incredibly accurate, but it’s also pretty childlike in a way, with some pretty simple drawings.”

Mint Condition

There are believed to be more than 500 variations of fractional coins (gold tokens) minted during the early years of the California Gold Rush, which occasionally show up at The Coin Shop on Girard Avenue. The privately minted coins were produced in a variety of denominations.

“There was such a lack of coins for commerce, because coins hadn’t made it that far out west yet. They were having trouble just doing day-to-day business,” Coin Shop manager Jeff Martin said. “It was the private sector taking it upon itself to say, ‘Hey, we can’t rely on the government for money supply. We need to step in and make our own coins.’ … It’s really interesting to see the private sector step up and fill what really should have been a governmental role.”

A number of private mints were established during the early gold rush years. “Some of these only lasted for a few years and, therefore, their production was quite limited and they maybe only made a few hundred or a few thousand pieces,” Martin said.

“In coin terms, that’s pretty rare. Some of the smaller ones can be purchased in the $100-$200 range per coin, based on current gold value. As rarity increases, price increases. Some of them that are ultra rare, where there’s only five to 10 pieces known, can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Although the U.S. government continues to produce gold coins, they are mostly American Eagle bullions, bought and sold for their intrinsic gold value, Martin said.

“We’re really got two separate types (clients) with completely different motivations and different reasons for purchasing gold coins,” Martin said. “You have your strictly bullion purchaser, who wants to have a certain percentage of their liquid portfolio in physical gold. ... The second type is the collector … who’s coming in and looking for specific coins and specific conditions, particular dates and mint marks. Some people try to (collect) one from each year … or a coin from each mint in a particular denomination.”