How the Early-Day Miners Sluiced for Gold

During the major gold rushes of the 1800s, the miners did not have the conveniences of modern design and technology like we have today. Things like the modern sluice box that we use today were not available to them, so generally it was much more labor-intensive to set up a placer mining operation. While today’s sluice boxes are very lightweight and portable, the old-timers often had to spend considerable time setting up their placer mining operations.

These methods were the primary ways that placer gold was recovered during the early gold rush, although in many parts of the world, artisanal miners are still using basic methods very similar to this today.

Sluice Box

The sluices that the early miners used were much different than what we have today. They generally built them using the only material that was available to them while they were in the field, which was wood. The would build long sluices that were anchored in place and would have some type of riffles, generally pieces of wood perpendicular to the flow of water to catch the gold.

Once an area was worked out, they may have salvaged the material and transported it to nearby placers, but often they would just abandon them in place. These old sluices are now rotted away, and have left behind thousands of square nails. Most metal detectorists have found plenty of square nails that indicate areas where an old sluice box has rotted away.

Ground Sluice

Ground sluices were troughs that were literally cut into the ground that would act as a sluice. A trough was cut into the ground and water was routed into it at high rates of speed. It took considerable quantity of water for them to operate effectively, and as such most of them were not particularly efficient at gold recover, especially fine gold.

Many ground sluices were used in conjunction with hydraulic mining, a mining method that has long been banned in the United States but is still being used with some regularity in some other countries around the world with less restrictive mining regulations.

Many of these sluices used nothing more than the bedrock to capture the gold that was washed through them, so their effectiveness was highly dependent on their location. Miners would also add large boulders, wood, and other debris in them to aid in the capture rates.

Since many of these were relatively inefficient at capturing gold, old ground sluicing locations can still be excellent places to search for gold. Using a metal detector around the old ground sluices can be quite effective in some areas.

Long Tom Sluice Box

Long Toms were a type of sluice box that was very common in the old mining areas. They were set at a steeper angle than the standard sluice box, so they were good for areas that had limited water. These were often very long and were used by multiple operators who would shovel material into the box.

Since they used less water, long toms were more labor intensive. Operators would have to manually break apart dirt and clays, remove rocks, and other debris. Similar to the other types of sluice boxes, these were often abandoned after the nearby gravels were considered “worked out.”

Also Read: 5 Tips to Capture More Gold in your Sluice Box

And: Evidence of Historic Mining Activity

Rocker Box

The old rocker box was a common throughout the gold country. They were particularly useful in areas that had limited quantities of water as they would use a rocking action to help process the gravel in addition to water flows.

Rockers, also sometimes called cradle boxes, were one of the first types of portable placer mining tools. They are basically a very short sluice box, where water is manually placed at the head of the rocker while the operator manually shakes the box from side to side.

Unlike the sluice boxes and long toms that were too big to effectively move around to different locations, rocker boxes could be packed around to different locations.

Rocker boxes were generally very inefficient and it took a very long time to process any appreciable amount of material. They are almost never used today because they are generally much better equipment to use, but during the early gold rushes throughout the U.S. they were very common.