image: The Portsmouth Square section of the Barbary Coast, near the harbor, 1851
We Americans are not especially devoted readers, but we do love our TV historical dramas. We want our history charged with drama, delivered episode by exciting episode. How could we resist following the fortunes of Machiavellian Nucky Thompson (portrayed by Steve Buscemi), and his reign over Atlantic City’s Prohibition Era bootlegging gang in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire? And once you become involved with the Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin characters in Showtime’s Homeland, only then will you be persuaded you understand the CIA’s true problems with terrorist groups that threaten America.
Soon TV will again be teasing our imaginations with another historical drama, The Barbary Coast. Starring Kurt Russell, his stepdaughter Kate Hudson and Mel Gibson, who is also billed as co-writer, director and producer, it’s based on the 1933 book of the same name by Herbert Asbury, author of Gangs of New York. The series depicts California’s 1849 Gold Rush, and the wild, lawless society it fostered – one that lasted seventy years. That’s not entirely surprising when you consider prospectors actually extracted two billion dollars’ worth of gold from the ground during the bustling gold mining years, which peaked in 1852, and the fact that Wikipedia characterizes the real Barbary Coast first and foremost as a red-light district.
Executive Producer Mark Gordon (Grey’s Anatomy, Criminal Minds, Ray Donovan) says the series will reveal the dangers and criminal elements of the Barbary Coast, “Most people don’t know the scandalous history behind San Francisco, and The Barbary Coast offers a rich portrayal of a period when success was often attained through illicit and brutal means.” Yeah, gold can bring that out in some people…
Truth be told, some positive social developments came out of the 1849 California gold rush. San Francisco became the last stop for the Transcontinental Railroad, and California gained accelerated admission to the Union. That said, Gordon had me at “scandalous.”
I’m sure it’ll be difficult to watch the series and not wonder whether there are hidden treasures of gold nuggets or coins still buried or abandoned in the legendary section of California on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada known as the Gold Country. Could it be that each and every prospector successfully slipped away with his stash back then?
Every now and then, you read about a find to make you think otherwise. In 2013, a couple was walking their dog on their Sierra Nevada property. They noticed an old canister sticking out of the ground, so they dug it up and took it home. When they opened it, they discovered it was full of twenty-dollar gold coins with Liberty heads on the front, dating back to the 1890s.
They quickly ran back to the site, dug some more, and found a total of eight cans with a total of fourteen hundred and twenty-seven gold coins. The couple consulted experts who estimated their discovery to be worth about ten million dollars. In 2013, it was believed to be the biggest hoard of gold coins unearthed in the United States.
Does physical gold retain its value over the long haul? I’ll bet the person who originally went to the trouble of burying eight cans of coins on that site thought so. And the lucky couple? Well, we can guess what they think of the enduring value of gold coins.
As for you and me – we can sit in front of the TV and dream, while we catch episodes of The Barbary Coast. We can also start cultivating our own investment in physical gold. One thing we know for sure about this fortune-finding couple, who wisely kept their names and address private, is that they certainly aren’t worried about the security of their retirement anymore.