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See Vivid Vintage Photos of California Gold Rush Territory

LIFE's Herbert Gehr visited gold-mining towns in the Sierra Nevada foothills just before the 100th anniversary of the discovery of gold there on Jan. 24, 1848

One of the great ironies of the California gold rush is that the first man to discover gold in the region, James W. Marshall, ended up dying “penniless and alone,” not far from the place of his discovery. When LIFE recounted his story on Jan. 24, 1948—one hundred years to the day after Marshall saw that first glistening speck on the American River—the magazine was following up on the legacy left behind by the legions of hopefuls who flocked to the area once word of Marshall’s find got out. What photographer Herbert Gehr found in the towns of Jackson, Downieville, Columbia and Volcano was a still-beautiful landscape, if worse for the wear, populated by next-generation forty-niners still searching for treasure.

Alongside photographs of the men’s leathery faces and the quiet rivers that once held fortunes, LIFE described the current scenery:

…the once clamorous and swarming boom towns are in ruins, except for a few like Columbia and Volcano, where a handful of oldtimers still play poker, repeat their timeworn stories and hunt for gold. In the summer they are joined by optimistic tourists who wander along the riverbanks to try their luck with picks and pans. But the oldtimers and the tourists seldom find more than random traces of color in the gravel, which has been picked clean both by hand and by the great dredges that snuffle along the river bottoms with the efficiency of vacuum cleaners.

By the late 1940s, miners in the region had been largely supplanted by loggers, and those miners who still worked the land did so a mile beneath the earth’s surface, eking out just $10 per ton (close to $100 in today’s dollars) and relying on company machinery to get the job done. But for those who kept up the hobby for leisure, there was little pleasure greater than an afternoon on the riverbank. Said one: “I would rather have the gold that’s left here than all they took out in the last hundred years.”

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

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