Imagine you’re a Willamette Valley gold digger en route to the gold fields of California in the first year of the 1848 Gold Rush.
You’re a little late for the party, and you’ve chosen to try to reach the goldfields in a somewhat unusual way: through the Coast Range to the beach and traveling south along the side.
Heading south through the great ocean, you reach a wide expanse of black sand. And when the sun just hits it, you can see it actually sparkles…with tiny flakes and specks of gold.
You are all alone on the beach. There aren’t even any other prints. Apparently no one else was crazy enough to try to get to the gold fields via Coos Bay. Everyone in the area, as there are, has decamped inland to the gold fields.
It’s just you, on the uninhabited edge of a continent, cracking a trillion dollars worth of gold under your feet.
THIS WAS THE situation in which the Grouleaux brothers, Charles and Peter, found themselves in the spring of 1849, near the mouth of the Coquille River in present-day Douglas County.
(By the way, the Grouleaux brothers are referred to as “John and Peter Groslius” in some sources.)
Naturally, the brothers have given up on going to California now. They settled down and took care of separating the yellow gold from the black sand – books and books from it.
They had brought plenty of provisions with them for the journey, and the hunt was good; they were therefore able to live all summer without leaving their excavations. As their flour sacks were emptied of food, they were quickly filled with “flour gold” from the beach. And at the end of the summer, they returned home to the Willamette Valley, their pack animals creaking under the weight of hundreds of pounds of pure gold. They were both rich men now.
Many miners had returned from California with gold, so the brothers’ sudden wealth did not attract much attention. Their calculated vagueness when telling their friends and neighbors where they had spent their summer did not arouse suspicion either. All the miners were like that. Nobody wanted to tell a group of potential riders where they had planted their stakes. Possession was nine-tenths of the law, and anyway many people in 1849 were perfectly willing to commit secret murder on an isolated stretch of trail to gain control of a lucrative claim.
So when the following spring arrived, the brothers could easily escape all prying eyes and hurry back to the beach to spend another season getting rich.
And the same thing happened the following year. In fact, it wasn’t until 1853 that someone became wise and understood where the brothers were going.
Whoever had understood that was much less discreet than the Grouleaux brothers had been. Word got out almost immediately and a colossal gold rush ensued as miners flocked to the beaches.
“Soon a thousand men were moving across the black sand, staking claims for miles along the beach,” writes Ruby El Hult in her book. “Shacks, shops, saloons and gambling houses were hastily erected, becoming the boom town of Randolph. The whiskey flowed so freely that the creek along which the best digs were found became known as the name of Whiskey Run.
Very quickly thereafter, the Grouleaux brothers sold their titles to two of the newcomers, the McNamara brothers. They happily noticed that they made enough money on the beach in their first four quiet years to last a lifetime.
(They didn’t mention any numbers, but the McNamara brothers pulled in $80,000 the first year after buying the claims, and that was after the Grouleaux boys had spent five years skimming the cream.)
THE BROTHERS packed up their animals and headed north on the Randolph Trail, a beaten track along the foothills of the Coast Range to Coos Bay that followed much the same route as Seven Devils Road today.
But they had $40,000 in gold in their satchels, and both of them were almost celebrities at Randolph. Both were very nervous about being robbed on the trail. Highway robberies were common there, as the bad guys knew that successful miners had to use the trail to transport their gold.
So the boys spotted a good spot they thought they could find and hid the gold in two powder canisters under a cedar stump.
Then they continued on their way.
Well, you probably already guessed what happened next. In elaborate buried treasure style, they lost track of where they had hidden the two cans. None of them returned for many years – they already had five years to live, and it just didn’t seem worth it.
It was not until 20 years later, in 1873, that Peter, then the only surviving brother (Charles died in England), returned to La Coquille to “withdraw” his gold.
Peter found the entire landscape so completely changed that he had no idea where to begin to look for the cedar stump under which he had hidden the cans. There were places where the Randolph Trail had completely changed, with old sections overgrown and barely noticeable; there were other parts that had been burned by a forest fire, which had destroyed all the snags, stumps and other dry wood in its path.
Peter asked friends for help, promising to share the gold with them, but their efforts were in vain. Other members of the Randolph community also joined us. But, no one struck the gold, and after a decade, it all turned into one of those little bits of local legend.
FIFTY MORE YEARS have passed. Then, in 1922, Peter Grouleaux’s granddaughter, Lillie Tully, came to town. She also tried to strike gold, using a local lumber cruiser. But after about a year of hunting, they too were disappointed.
A few years later, in 1931, a rumor began to circulate – a very credible rumor, later reinforced by an article in the Portland Oregonian newspaper – that the treasure had been found. Rumor has it that a young prospecting couple spotted a rusty gun barrel sticking out from under an old stump and investigated. They had found two old gunpowder canisters containing 150 pounds of fine gold. After that the two had left the area as quickly as possible because the gold was on private land and they were afraid that if anyone knew where they had gotten it, the landowner and possibly Lillie Tully would try to claim it.
So, was this rumor true? Perhaps. The amount of gold found doesn’t quite match – 150 pounds of gold at 1853 prices was worth $51,000, not $40,000. But even if the rumor was true, it probably wasn’t the same gold. Painted metal cans of the gunpowder type were sold in not last 75 years in the Coast Range; the containers would have rusted in just a few decades.
In any case, it remains possible, if not particularly likely, that the contents of the original powder canisters are still there, buried under the forest humus in a random spot in the middle of the forest – a golden cache of flour fine that would be worth $3.7 million today.
But rather than scour the forest for that boon, modern-day gold diggers would probably be better off heading to the beach where it originally came from. The black sands of Oregon’s beaches are still teeming with fine flour gold, especially in places away from the streams and creeks that supply the water needed to sweep or sluice them. It is hard work and poorly remunerated; but you can still mine gold from the layers of black sand all along the south coast today, especially at the more southerly and isolated beaches near Ophir, Pistol River, Port Orford and of course from Gold Beach.
(Sources: Lost Mines and Treasures, a book by Ruby El Hult published in 1957 by Binford and Mort; “Beach Gold Diggings”, an article by Cain Allen published on the Oregon Historical Society website in 2006)
Finn JD John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd bits of Oregon history. His book, Heroes and Rascals of Old Oregon, was recently published by Hurricane House Publishers. To contact him or suggest a topic: firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-357-2222.