Alyssa Bentz, Wells Fargo Historian, gives this update “from the field.” (CR)
Being I recently had the chance to take a road trip up to Columbia State Historic Park, a preserved gold rush town nestled in the Sierra foothills. The “Gem of the Southern Mines” as it has since been called, Columbia was in the heart of gold mining country in the 1850s. From 1850-1870 miners found an estimated billion dollars of gold (at today’s values,) and much of that gold left town in a Wells Fargo treasure box.
Wells Fargo came to Columbia in 1853. A Prussian immigrant named William Daegener managed the Wells Fargo office from inside the American Hotel. Fires posed a constant threat to many mining towns filled with closely packed wooden buildings. The hotel (and Wells Fargo office) burned down in 1854 and 1857. Daegener wasn’t too thrilled with the idea of having to save the Wells Fargo records from fire again, so he set about building a two-story brick building with fire-proof iron shutters. The new Wells Fargo express office opened in 1858, and is still standing and open for visitors in Columbia today.
The office in Columbia acted as a business and social hub. Stagecoaches from the river city of Stockton stopped at the office, delivering the latest newspapers, letters, and packages. Customers came to the Wells Fargo office to make deposits into the company safe and send convenient bank drafts and checks to family and businesses far away.
Agent Daegener also bought gold dust from nearby miners, an important service as many could not go far from their claims to convert gold dust into gold coin. Not all gold dust was equal. Gold found from claims feet apart could vary greatly in quality. Daegener had to carefully value (or assay) customers’ dust and follow the instructions sent by Wells Fargo Superintendent J. M. Vansyckle to “Pay no more for dust than it is worth, nor make no arrangements with anyone to pay less than it is worth. This is the only true motto to do any kind of business on.” This standard of business stood in contrast to the practices of some assayers who would take advantage of their customers’ desperation to sell by paying less for gold dust than it was worth.
In 1860, Daegener expanded his assay operations by buying a furnace and other equipment. He began using the back of the Wells Fargo express office as his assay room. After a fire (possibly caused by his assay work) he built a separate space for his assay work outside of the Wells Fargo building that also served as his family home.
Most assay rooms have disappeared with time, but Daegener’s assay room still exists in Columbia.
Reading instructions on assaying are a bit like reading through the steps of a science experiment. The steps might not sound so exciting on paper, but in action it can be mesmerizing. Looking at the assay room in Columbia, I could almost imagine Daegener bending over the furnace or pouring acid in a crucible. All that difficult, complicated work so that in the end he could ensure that miners got a fair price for their gold.
For the curious, here are the simplified steps of assaying:
- Melt the miner’s gold dust into a bar. It takes a lot of heat to melt gold (1,948⁰ F, about 4 times hotter than your kitchen oven) so a good furnace is essential.
- Cut chips from the opposite corners and weigh on precision scales. The scales Wells Fargo sent Daegener in 1857 from Howard & Davis in Boston are still on display in Columbia.
- Heat these chips in a bone ash cupel (a small dish), which absorbs ordinary metals.
- Add nitric acid to dissolve silver and other impurities, leaving pure gold.
- Take that pure gold back to those precision scales and weigh again.
- Do math. Divide the final weight of the gold by the original weight to get the percentage of gold in the original. If you started with one ounce and after burning off the impurities you had ½ an ounce, then your original gold dust was 50% pure.