Almost everyone enjoys a good Gold Rush story, and Calaveras County is full of them.
Have you heard the tale of Charles Lane, who was assured by a San Francisco psychic that he would find a fortune at the Utica Mine in Angels Camp, leading to one of the richest discoveries in the county’s history?
What about the legend of Ben Buster, a former slave who struck it rich in the goldfields, reportedly burying a fortune that brought treasure hunters to the county for years afterwards?
And who doesn’t enjoy hearing about the exploits of famous bandits like Joaquin Murrieta and Black Bart?
These stories and over 100 more from all around the Gold Country can be found within the pages of Ort J. Lofthus’ new book, “Igniting the Spark: the Pursuit of Gold in California.”
Lofthus’ book was almost 40 years in the making. In 1980, Bob Eberhardt, then the president of the Bank of Stockton, and Lofthus, then the co-owner and general manager of the KJOY and KJAX radio stations in Stockton, came together to compile a series of Gold Rush stories celebrating the region’s history. The stories were researched and written by Maury and Hope Kane and broadcast over Lofthus’ radio station in one-minute segments underwritten by the Bank of Stockton.
“Since then, I have entertained the vision of consolidating and editing some of these tales – plus a few new ones for good measure – into a single manuscript,” Lofthus wrote in the preface to the book. “My wish was to give readers a glimpse of the past, bringing the landscape of the era and the lives of the Forty-Niners into vivid perspective.”
Last year, Lofthus approached Douglass M. Eberhardt II, the current president of the Bank of Stockton and a nephew of Bob Eberhardt, about partnering with the Bank of Stockton to turn the stories into a book.
“In early 2019, when Ort reached out to me to see if I had any interest in helping him produce this book, I was more than happy to help,” Eberhardt II wrote in the foreword. “Uncle Bob passed away in 1994, but he would be so pleased to see that Ort had brought these stories back to life.”
The book uses historical images from the Bank of Stockton Archives, which were established under the leadership of Bob Eberhardt in 1990.
“Bob, like Ort, would have wanted people to remember the fascinating history that created the community we call home,” Eberhardt II wrote. “We hope you enjoy this culmination of friendship, business, and a love of history that inspired the creation of ‘Igniting the Spark.’”
Lofthus said over the phone on Monday that he enjoyed renewing his partnership with the Bank of Stockton.
“The bank is totally dedicated to the history of this area,” he said. “They have spent a ton of money on pictures, and their library is very extensive. They also were anxious to do it with me, because mine is the written word, and theirs is the photographic word, and so together we are making this kind of fun.”
Lofthus said that the format of the book makes local history easily accessible to readers.
“These are preserved in a different way than anything,” he said. “They’re very, very short, but there are many stories – about 100 stories. It gives people, in a quick read, a chance to brush with history.”
Lofthus said that he was excited to have the book hit the shelves.
“It’s my first book,” he said, with a laugh. “It’s really cool.”
At 95 years young, Lofthus can look back at a life full of accomplishments. Born in Minnesota in 1925, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy at the age of 20, serving as the radioman on a bomber in the Pacific theater during WWII. After attending the University of Washington and starting a career in journalism, Lofthus moved to California with his wife, Sylvia, eventually becoming a radio station manager in Stockton for 30 years.
“Ort has been exceedingly involved in the community,” a press release reads. “He spearheaded the completion of Interstate 5 between Stockton and Sacramento; the creation of Highway 4 between Interstate 5 and Highway 99, which is named for him; and the expansion of Interstate 205 in the Tracy corridor.
“Throughout his life, he has given generously of his time: helping to create scholarships, serving on the board of trustees of Humphreys University for more than 50 years, and enriching countless organizations with his dynamic and energetic personality. Perhaps one of his proudest moments was when he achieved the extraordinary triumph of flying his glider above 25,000 feet. Another accomplishment close to Ort’s heart was the completion of ‘Igniting the Spark.’”
“Igniting the Spark: the Pursuit of Gold in California” is available on Amazon.com.