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Life during the Gold Rush could be harsh and unpredictable, with an ever-present risk of floods, earthquakes, shipwrecks, and other disasters.
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About the Images

The images in this group suggest that life during the Gold Rush could be harsh and unpredictable. But the ever-present risk of floods, earthquakes, shipwrecks, and other disasters did not deter determined would-be miners from continuing to seek their fortune in the Golden State.


The people who came to California in search of gold were faced with the threat of disaster in every step of their journey. Many came by ship, even though shipwrecks were commonplace — one set of lithographs depicts four shipwrecks that occurred within 60 days. Earthquakes were another fact of life in California. Sensational newspaper illustrations like "Earth Quakey Times," and photographs showing buildings in shambles, helped build the state's reputation as an "earthquake capital."

Earthquakes were not the only disasters. Several images show the city of Sacramento flooded and on fire, others show fires that destroyed parts of San Francisco and other cities. As the photograph of the firefighters at the Eureka firehouse show, some services were in place to deal with this constant threat.

The popular culture of the time reflected these recurring disasters. Artists drew pictures based on survivors’ accounts of train crashes and shipwrecks. Composers wrote music such as the "Flood Mazurka," about a flood in Sacramento, and songs such as "I Do Not Want to Be Drowned," dedicated to survivors of the shipwreck of the Golden Gate.

Despite the many potential dangers and risks of traveling to and living in California, new people kept flowing into the state. In many ways, this situation still holds true today.

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Definition: lithograph

Lithographs are prints made from drawings on stone or metal plates. They were a popular form of newspaper illustration in the 19th century.


"Disasters in the Gold Rush Era" was curated and written by the University of California in 2005.

Using this exhibition:

The text of this exhibition is available under a Creative Commons CC-BY license. You are free to share and adapt it however you like, provided you provide attribution as follows:

Disasters in the Gold Rush Era curated by University of California staff, available under a CC BY 4.0 license. © 2005, Regents of the University of California.