A hard-rock life was more than most men could bear. Stooping over streams to pan for gold was far less treacherous than drilling directly into the precious metal’s hardened veins. That didn’t stop Matthew Fleming Stephenson from imploring those new to the state of Georgia, where he served as the assayer of the Dahlonega Mint, to stay put. In 1849, as thousands of men fled west, he proclaimed on the town square to the hundreds of men gathered there, “Why go to California? In that ridge lies more gold than man ever dreamt of. There’s millions in it.” Stephenson’s admonitions would later be famously altered by Mark Twain’s pen as, “There’s gold in them thar hills.” But that didn’t stop the exodus westward.
In the decade to 1860, California’s population exploded by 310%, to 379,995 from 92,597. It was the original “Forty Niners,” the early entrants to the state after word leaked that gold had been struck in 1848, who fared best. Estimates are that 12 million troy ounces were mined in the first five years of the gold rush, which peaked in 1852. Compare that to the estimated total of 870,000 mined in Georgia between 1828 and the mid-19th century when operations ceased. Panning also proved to be relatively short-lived. By the time environmental concerns overtook the political will to continue mining, an estimated 120 million troy ounces had been mined. The identity with the precious metal stuck. Since September 9, 1850, when it was admitted as the 31st state, migrants have flocked to the “California Dream” of striking it rich in the Golden State.
The next big leap in growth came with the First Transcontinental Railroad, which made it to California in 1869. With this opening came more people yet, and commerce. The decades of the 1880s and 1890s, which featured refrigerated cars to transport oranges and other produce to the rest of the country, operated by the Southern Pacific Railroad, drove the continued development of California as an agricultural center. While the output of the nation’s largest agricultural producer has changed over the years – by value, cannabis tops today’s list – the state remains a mainstay provider of dairy, nuts, grapes and berries. And, of course, there’s the wine country which boasts nearly a half million acres and 1,200 wineries which supply three of every five bottles that Americans consume. Before suffering a pandemic setback, California wine retail sales hit $43.6 billion in 2019.
As lucrative as agriculture has been for the state, the glitter of the gold rush, but in tinsel form this time, was not to make a comeback until the turn of the 20th century. In 1902, banker and real estate mogul H.J. Whitley was drawn to Prospect Avenue, a dusty, unpaved road in what had been Cahuenga Valley. A handful of upscale developers had built homes there and he shared their vision, albeit on a grander scale. Enter stage left Daeida Wilcox, whose husband Harvey had two decades earlier purchased 120 nearby acres with the intent to ranch the land. By late 1887, with those plans dashed, the Wilcox’s filed the name “Hollywood” with the Los Angeles County Recorder’s office on a deed and parcel map of the property. After hearing of an Illinois estate with the same name, Daeida adopted it, “simply because it sounds nice and because I’m superstitious and holly brings good luck.” She was definitely onto something with her hunch.