The discovery of gold in 1848 put California on the map and helped inspire its glamorous nickname — "The Golden State. " But today, more...

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FRESNO, Calif. — The discovery of gold in 1848 put California on the map and helped inspire its glamorous nickname — “The Golden State.”

But today, more than 47,000 abandoned mines are a treacherous legacy of the search for gold and other minerals and metals. Thousands of holes burrow into the Sierra foothills and around the six-county region.

Federal and state officials say many 19th-century mines have tunnels and shafts that pose dangers ranging from bad air, contaminated water and rotting timbers to rats, rattlesnakes and bats. They’re working to close off the most hazardous places — a task that could take decades.

Last month, three men died of carbon-monoxide poisoning in an old Madera County mine where they hoped to find gold. Officials said David Alison, Matthew Alison and Brannon Scharf, all in their 20s, were using a gas-powered pump to drain water from the mine.

Some worry that more mine tragedies could result from an emerging trend. With the price of gold soaring, and the economy lagging, California may see a fresh wave of gold fever.

“Every day, people come in and ask us: ‘Where can I find the gold and get rich?’ ” said Gregg Wilkerson, senior mining geologist in the Bakersfield office of the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Rise in price

Industry sources and government officials say there is renewed interest in gold. One reason is the price, now approaching $900 an ounce and nearly double what it was a few years ago.

Harrigan McGregor, owner of GoldFeverProspecting.com, said his sales of mining equipment have tripled in the past year. While it “used to be just a hobby for people,” he said, many now believe they can make big money.

McGregor’s customers generally start as recreational prospectors who may become more serious. The major players in the industry are large mining companies that now are engaged in new drilling programs or working to reopen closed gold mines.

Authorities say professional mining generally involves experts and an array of safety regulations. They’re most concerned about novices who, either for cash or adventure, may be drawn to long-dormant mines.

According to the state, about two-thirds of California’s abandoned mines exist on public property. State and federal authorities are working to close hazardous mines but annually seal off fewer than 100 tunnels, pits or shafts.

In fact, state officials estimate it could be 20 years before they can simply inventory and catalog California’s abandoned mines — at least the ones they know about.

Gold mines constitute more than half the abandoned mines around the state.

Early prospectors panned for gold along rivers and creeks, quickly clearing out the most obvious nuggets. As mining grew more expensive and complex, partnerships and businesses formed to coax gold from the ground.

Many companies followed quartz veins — long associated with gold — deep into the earth, sometimes using explosives to open up holes. Unproductive or failed exploratory shafts and tunnels were quickly abandoned.

During the Great Depression, people driven by desperation sometimes returned to abandoned mines in hopes of scratching out enough gold to make a living.

Gold mining virtually stopped during World War II because the government considered it a nonessential industry. The price of gold also began to drop, just as the cost of mining continued to escalate.

Today, only a handful of mines produce gold in California — a $13 million industry last year.

But many of those abandoned mines still exist.

“Stay Out, Stay Alive”

Cy Oggins, acting assistant director of California’s Office of Mine Reclamation and manager of its abandoned mines land unit, said people are anxious to explore mines but don’t recognize the potential danger.

And, with more residential development in formerly remote areas where mines exist, shafts and tunnels often are more easily noticed.

Both the state and federal government have adopted campaigns — “Stay Out, Stay Alive” — to warn people of the hazards of old mines.

Since 2006, nine accidents at abandoned mines have been reported in California. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, nearly 150 people have died over the past five years in accidents associated with both active and abandoned mines.

The danger isn’t always obvious. For example, mines may hold deadly gases, unseen or unexpectedly deep shafts, illegal drug labs and even unused explosives. Animals ranging from bats to rattlesnakes may make their homes in tunnels and shafts.

State and federal officials maintain priority closure lists of dangerous mines. Sites climb higher on the list mainly because of accidents or proximity to parks, campgrounds or other population centers.

Wilkerson, the senior mining geologist in Bakersfield, said he knows of hundreds of abandoned mines on bureau land within a region that includes Kern, Fresno, Madera, Tulare and several other counties. His region’s closure budget can be about $15,000 annually, which is only enough to close a few mines each year.

Last year, state officials spent roughly $325,000 in gold and silver mine fees to close abandoned mines. The abandoned mines unit also works in partnership with other agencies, including the bureau.

Mine closure costs are influenced by the number of features — such as shafts or adits, which are vertical or horizontal openings — at a single mine. Authorities also must conduct a variety of environmental studies.

“We have a huge amount of holes in the ground, but we can’t fix all the problems,” Wilkerson said. “We can only fix the most serious ones.”

Last year, state and federal officials teamed up to close tunnels and shafts at Quartz Mountain in Madera County. The acreage sits in the Coarsegold area — so named for the nuggets that put it on the map.

The federally owned Quartz Mountain property includes a mine developed during the Gold Rush; it later became a popular hunting ground for quartz crystals. Authorities closed it because the Yosemite Unified School District has an option to buy the acreage for a school site.

Kevyn Moberly, the district’s director of maintenance, operations and transportation, said there are no immediate plans to build. But officials recognized the hazards, along with the educational opportunities, the mine offered.

Hidden holes

Today, old shafts and tunnels are easily overlooked amid pockets of manzanita and poison oak. Some holes are covered with dirt; others are blocked with metal grates that preserve access for bats and other small wildlife.

Several holes bored into the hillside are surprisingly small. Wilkerson described them as a suitable for Bilbo Baggins, one of the hobbits in J.R.R. Tolkien’s books.

He pointed out pick marks on tunnel walls, a sign the hole was hollowed out by hand likely in the mid-1800s. As he talked, crews about 100 yards away worked on construction of a new home.

In O’Neals, the three men killed in the accident last month were working with permission in an old mine. Tim Roche, a family friend, said the mine was abandoned long ago because it kept filling with water.

A nearby gold vein had produced roughly $800,000 in gold in the 1800s, he said. The Alisons and Scharf hoped they could come up with a little extra cash through a bit of “weekend mining,” Roche said.

When the trio didn’t appear for a family outing, Roche and his wife, Faustina Washburn, went to the mine to look for them. They discovered the bodies about 20 feet from the entrance, water already lapping against them.

Erica Stuart, a spokeswoman for the Madera County Sheriff’s Department, said most local mines are on private property. Authorities only hear about them when there is an accident, she said.

But the lure of gold draws people to the foothills, and especially to places with promising names such as Coarsegold. People are more interested in old mines, she said, “either for the romance of it or they really think they can refurbish it.”

Jim Medina, president of the Coarsegold Gold Prospectors, said the club has grown from a few members to nearly 100 over the past decade. But its focus is family.

“Nobody’s getting rich, but we’re having a good time,” he said.

Medina said he doesn’t have much to show from backbreaking hours in water: “I haven’t found anything big enough to put on a necklace.”