Cory’s Historical Corner

By Cory Peterman

Arrastra Stone

The following image comes from the UC Davis Department of Special Collections and dates from 1947. It depicts an object that has probably been seen by most people who have visited the Sierra County courthouse in Downieville or have walked by the building – but what is this large stone “wheel” and what is the history behind it and how did it end up in Downieville?

This large “wheel” is what’s known as an arrastra stone. A plaque, dedicated by E Clampus Vitus, which can be found next to the one-to-six scale model of an arrastra in front of the Downieville museum, states “Arrastras were used to crush and grind gold ore and to grind even more finely the tailings from stamp mills. Some Arrastras consisted of huge wheel-shaped stones which rolled over the ore to crush and grind it.

The Miners’ Own Book, published by Hutchings and Rosenfeld in 1858, described various modes of early California mining. They wrote “One of the first used, as well as one of the most useful and most important, is the Mexican Rastra, which is commonly spelled Arastra. Though rude in its construction and simple in its working, it is one of the most effectual methods of saving the gold which has yet been discovered. The Mexican method of constructing these is to lay a circular track of stone tolerably level, with a low wall around the outside of the track; and in the center a post made of a tree cut off at the required height, and generally just above a crotch or arm; another small tree is then cut in the shape required, for making a horizontal shaft; to this is attached one or more large stones; and these being drawn around by donkey or mule-power, grind the quartz to powder. Of course, as gold is the heaviest it naturally seeks the lowest places, and as quicksilver is always put in with the quartz the gold becomes amalgamated with it.

So what about the arrastra stone in Downieville? In the 1970s, historian James J. Sinnott wrote that “Roy Post, who was born in La Porte in 1890 and continues to make his home there during the summers, worked in several of the mines of the area including the Bellevue. He carried the mail on snowshoes between La Porte and Nelson Point during the two winters of 1917-18 and 1918-19 traveling a total of about 3,500 miles. In the 1930’s he did hauling with a Chevrolet truck he had, and delivered the huge arrastra stone of naturally-fused quartz to Downieville which was mounted on the grounds of the Courthouse Square, the arrangements being made by Court Supervisor, Andrew J. Modglin. The great and magnificent stone came from diggings a short distance below the site of the early mining settlement of Pine Grove.

I have been told that the diggings the stone came from may have been the Susquehanna Mine. A correspondent for The Mountain Messenger of February 13, 1864 wrote “Distant from Howland Flat about half a mile, and situated upon the South Fork of Slate Creek, is the Susquehanna Quartz Ledge. I was very much surprised to see a double track incline, sunk to a depth of forty feet, showing an extensive ledge some three feet in thickness and widening as they go down. There was a large pile of quartz at the dump of the Company, and I was informed by one of the shareholders that they had taken out some forty or fifty tons of rock, and that they had picked up specimens enough while working the same to defray all the actual expenses of the Company. They have erected a small arrastra which is run by water power to crush the rock. I am informed that it assays some three hundred dollars per ton in gold with strong indications of silver. The prospects of the shareholders in this ledge are very flattering indeed.” Perhaps this is the same arrastra.

Historic arrastra stones can still be found hidden deep in the forests of Sierra County – but I won’t be telling anyone where they are!

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