Monday, October 31, 2011

A Halloween Tale: The Sluice Box Ghost

American and Chinese Miners at a Sluice Box 
By Tom Correa

It was an extremely cold night in late October of 1875. The wind whipped through the small valley with a chill that went right to the bone.

With the exception of a few bigger older oaks, many of the trees in Mosquito Gulch had been all but cleared away. Folks used the wood for everything from building shacks and cabins and barns, to making wheel-barrels, keeping warm, and of course constructing sluice boxes.

Sluice boxes are one of the most practical methods of gold prospecting. Many were built with heavy wood planks and logs, and often times a river's current was diverted through the sluices so that gravel bearing gold could be processed far quicker than using the laborious "hand panning" method.

Sluice boxes were lined with raised obstructions that were placed in a vertical position to the flow of the current. These obstructions were referred to as riffles. When the gold-laden gavel is dumped into the upper end of the sluice, the flow of water carries the material down the length of the box. The lighter gavels, the tailings, would be carried in suspension down the entire length of the sluice and then discharged.

The heavier material, such as gold, would quickly drop to the bottom of the box, where they became trapped by the riffles. Once the riffles collected a large quantity of concentrated black sand and hopefully gold, a "cleanup" was implemented.

The flow of water through the sluice would be slowed down using a water gate. Then the riffles would be removed, allowing access to the heavier materials which had collected during the "run." That remaining material often contains gold nuggets and flakes, the stuff that dreams were made of.

The sluice boxes in the days of the 1849ers were very similar to the one Raymond Spencer used on his claim. Sluice boxes were built of heavy wood planks because lumber was cheap and easily obtainable. It wasn't shipped in. Instead, it was milled locally.

During the Gold Rush sluice box were first used to work the extremely rich bench deposits "terrace gavels" which lined the banks of many Mother Lode Rivers. As time passed it became clear that sluice boxes could be used for working other types of gold-bearing materials, this included ancient river channel deposits located hundreds of feet above the existing stream beds. Raymond Spencer was lucky in that his claim was on a creek.

"California isn't supposed to get this cold," Raymond thought while loading his new mail-order Winchester Model 1873 rifle.

Knowing the night was cold didn't help Raymond's disposition that night. He was already angry over the fact that sluice boxes were being robbed all through Mosquito Gulch. His own sluice box was hit twice in the last month.

He wasn't a happy man indeed. The whole situation concerning his claim bothered him. He was not happy and asked himself the question, how could he work so hard and then have it taken away from him by those who haven't put in an once of sweat into it.

He'd been working his claim all day, and now his anger at someone wanting to take what was his was even worse because he'd have to stay up all night guarding his sluice. He was tired and cold.

His wife was sewing in the light of an oil lamp, even with the help of a mirror the light wasn't that bright. Their two children were fast asleep on the far side of their cabin.

As he dropped the last .44-40 round into his new Winchester, he hoped tonight would be the night. While he knew what had to be done, he hoped it would be someone else who would call out across the dark valley. He hoped it would be someone else that got the robber who had been stealing so much of their gold. He hoped it would end so he would be able to sleep a full night.

Granted he was used to hearing a mountain lion scream as they stepped through the manzanita. Granted he saw many step soft through the tall pine as they made their way over Alabama Hill and down into Mosquito Gulch. Granted that a bear at the window or scratching at the door of their cabin wasn't pleasant, but it wasn't so much of a surprise either.

Black bears were bad enough, but Raymond hated the California Grizzly that roamed these hills. Black bears seemed easy to scare off compared to a Grizzly. Grizzlies aren't scared of anything, he thought warming his hands near his wife's lamp. They are definitely not afraid of man, he thought. Grizzlies see man as something small, slow running, without a growl or claws. They see man as another animal on the menu.

Part of Raymond's concern about his sitting out in the bushes waiting for the Sluice Box Robber, as he became known, was that instead of the thief in the dark -- that it might be a grizzly in the middle of the night.

He kissed his wife, then placed the Winchester by her and reminded her how to use it. She looked at him knowing he was tired. And yes, while maybe thinking, "Thank you dear, but I already know how to use a rifle" -- she did not say it.

He then picked up his father's shotgun which he had loaded for bear - literally. He knew that at night, in the dark, that he'd have a better chance of hitting something with his shotgun then he would if he were using his new rifle.

He figured that even if he were off a little bit with a shotgun, at least a few of the shot may find their mark and bring down the robber. Raymond Spencer knew he put it off long enough and pulled up is collar on his heavy red woolen coat and closed the door behind him.

After closing the door behind him, he stood still in the night. He did this trying to get his eyes adjusted to the darkness. He then moved over to where he was thinking about building a lean-to for a hog or two. There was a stump that he'd been using to sit up against as a back-rest.

He'd been using this spot for the last few weeks ever since the robber has struck Mosquito Gulch. It was a spot where he could see the road to his cabin and his sluice pretty clearly.

Tonight wasn't a full moon, but more than a half moon really, he thought as he sat in the darkness. But yes, he knew it gave just enough light to see figures come and go. While it wasn't enough light for him to see faces, in fact he really couldn't see his own hand, it was enough to make out a deer over by his sluice.

Yes, Raymand Spencer was comfortable knowing that he could make out a person in the night if he needed to. He was out there for a few hours when he heard something that caught his attention more than just a few deer stepping through the fallen leaves. He waited and strained his eyes to see.

Yes, he thought, it's a boy. Then he saw another, there were two. 

He tried to hear what they were saying but couldn't. It sounded like gibberish, none-sense, just sounds. Then as they came closer, he heard it clearly, it was Chinese that he was hearing. He had heard the Chinamen in the other camps talk to each other. While he did not understand a word of it, he knew what it was. He knew it just as clearly as if he himself could speak it.

"Closer! Closer!" he said to himself hoping he'd get one with each barrel of his old side-by-side.

He knew the Chinese could be tough ruthless people. He remembered hearing about the Tong War and what happened in Chinese Camp in 1856, less than 20 years ago.

He slowly unbuttoned his heavy coat so that he would be able to get to his knife - just in case it came to that. He watched as one finally made his way to his sluice box, the other close behind but more hesitant.

Raymond heard the scraping of the sluice box riffles, so he stood and yelled, "Stand where you are!" With that Raymond saw one turn and run while the other scrambled up the bank.

Raymond fired first at the Chinaman running and next at the one trying to get up the bank. The shoots echoed through Mosquito Gulch, then everything went quiet.

After firing, he moved a few yards to his left. Once there he stood very still.

Cloud cover seemed to move in and cast even more darkness out of the clear dark night, the darkness became black. Raymond couldn't see a thing, it was as if the robbers had vanished. Then from his cabin, his wife called out worriedly, "Are you alright?"

Not a moment later a neighbor called out, "Did someone get him?"

Another who was also guarding his claim also called out, "Who fired the shots?"

Another yelled out, "Was it a bear, or the Sluice Box Robber?"

And another called out, "I think it was Raymond Spencer!"

Raymond remained quiet and didn't move for what seemed like forever. He remembered his time in the Civil War when green sentries would shoot at just about anything that moved. He knew better than to give away his position in case they weren't dead, and were instead waiting for him to make his move so they'd be able to shoot him.

Waiting seemed eternal and Raymond knew that he had to move to get to his cabin. He knew that he needed to reassure his wife who sounded worried. He himself worried that she would come out with a lantern and give the Chinamen an easy target, if indeed they were still alive and armed. So ever so slowly he made his way to their cabin.

Once inside, he told her "not to worry that there were two what sounded like Chinamen."

He went on to tell her that he shot at them after telling them to stand where they were. He shot only when they made a run for it. He said, "it was dark and I was shooting at shadows. I don't know if I hit them or not."

He blew out the oil lamp and asked his wife to go to bed. She did, but first she checked on their children who were still fast asleep. He would sit up for a while in the dark -- a sentry guarding his family in case he missed the Chinamen and they now wanted revenge.

Then through their window small lights started to appear in the darkness, and he saw what looked like flames slowing moving along the road to his cabin. This time he grabbed his Winchester and opened the cabin door slowly. He saw that it was torches and they were headed to his sluice.

The torches made targets of those carrying them. The torches moved throughout his pasture and finally two stopped at one spot. Then a voice called out, "Here, here he is!" 

And soon, before you knew it, a few torches gather around the wounded Chinaman.

"Mr. Spencer, is your family unharmed?" a friendly voice asked. "We found him. You got the Sluice Box Robber!"

"We're fine, but there are two! Chinamen from what I could tell. One was in the creek. It was dark." Raymond answered.

Just then a neighbor said, "Here's the second one. This one's close to dead."

Then a voice called out, "This one's lame, but he'll live."

Another said, "Get a rope. They hit my claim too many times to let 'em live!"

Another man said, "Mine too! Get a rope!"

Someone brought out a rope and went over to an old oak tree at the edge of the road where the stage rumbles through the Gulch.  The rope was thrown over a limb. Soon a few miners picked up the wounded Chinaman and drug him over to the tree.

They stretched the rope until the Chinaman was well in the air. The rope creaked in the night as the Chinaman danced a hanged man's dance high in the air.

As the wind picked up, the cloud's moved and the moon shown on the Chinaman as the rope creaked in the night. It was a ghastly sight, but it did not stop some of the men returning to where the dying Chinaman was on the bank.
To their surprise, he was gone.

Many believed he crawled away somehow, so using their torches the miners searched the pasture, the brush, and the creek. But he couldn't be found. Fact is that he was never found.

The next morning anyone passing saw one of the thieves hanging there from that old oak. A note pinned on him said, "Sluice Box Robber!" The note was a warning to others wanting to do the same thing.

Over the years the legend of what happened that night has changed a bit here and there, but basically the story stays the same. Today some say the Old Spencer property is haunted. Some say they've seen old miners with torches searching that pasture and the dry creek still looking for the other half-dead Chinaman who crawled away.

The Spencer family stayed in Mosquito Gulch long after it was renamed Glencoe. In fact, the Spencer family can be traced down the family lines of many families that still live in this area.

Many folks love to talk about who all is related to who and how. They joke about the family tree of some families in our area is how their tree does not have so many branches. The one thing that most up here don't joke about is the Old Spencer place where that tree still sits on the side of what is now two lane state California State Highway 26.

Call it superstitious, or call it smart, but the fact is that no one up here wants to talk about the sight of a Chinaman hanging from that tree all bloody and blue face from the rope around his neck. Even though over a 135 years have passed, it is a sight that many up here have seen for themselves.

Yes indeed, driving down Highway 26, drivers have stopped their cars because they've seen the hanging robber. Many say they see him in their headlights yet once they stop and get out of their car to check -- the lynched Chinaman is gone.

Many around here know that the Chinaman doesn't rest and swings by a creaking rope from that old oak tree along the road. Many have seen him dance at the end of that rope. Some say they can still hear the rope creaking in the night.

It happens, especially on those extremely cold nights in late October when the wind whips through here with a chill that runs right to your bones. It happens on those cold dark nights when the moon throws shadows that bleed in the night.

The End

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