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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:
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.