In the 1880s and 1890s, a reclusive man named Nelson Shoots dug deep mine shafts in search of gold in the rocky hills a half-mile west of Sunnyside, in Sutro’s forest of eucalyptus trees. He worked his claim for over seventeen years, the public learned, when his exploits came to light as he lay on his deathbed in the spring of 1898. The San Francisco Call devoted a whole page to the story, complete with illustrations.
The feature reveals that Shoots built a cabin in the woods and lived with a partner named James Demott. The San Francisco directory as early as 1880 lists Shoots’ address as north side of Ocean House Road, west of the Industrial School [later called the Ingleside Jail, now City College]. The men dug many shafts—even as long as 900 feet. No one interviewed for the piece had actually seen any gold, but the men appeared to support themselves, and sometimes splashed out at the sordid local dives, so the assumption was they must have got something out of their venture.
The mine came to the attention of the general public when Shoots was taken to the hospital mortally ill a few days before the final interview with the dying man.
Where Was the Mine?
Recently I happened upon a map at the California Historical Society archives that noted the locations of two of the mine shafts, giving some concrete reality to the feature in the Call.
The 1910 map shows the “Sunnyside Avenue Extension” (later called Monterey Blvd) in a slightly different location. Other streets are indicated on the map that would never be built. But there are plenty of other landmarks to create an overlay of the present streets.
The map places the two marked shafts in the 800 block of Darien Way in the Mt Davidson Manor neighborhood, just south of Monterey. These would have been dug into the notable rocky hill there.
The map also locates the cabin, marked with the word just to the south of the shafts. If accurate (and that might be a stretch) it would have stood in the middle of the 100 block of Upland Drive. The entire area was heavily wooded with the eucalyptus trees that Adolph Sutro planted about 1880.
Flooded Mine Shafts
The deathbed story was not the first time Nelson Shoots had been in the news. Five years before, The ‘Sunnyside Miner’, as he was called by the SF Call, got into trouble with Spring Valley Water Works, the private company that supplied water in SF. (In the 1890s, many things out beyond the Mission District were referred to as ‘Sunnyside’ — as in this 1896 story of the dairywoman of Sunnyside, who kept cows in what is now Mission Terrace.)
The Sutro Estate map also shows the location of Spring Valley’s 30-inch pipe bringing water up from the south to Laguna Honda reservoir. At about the location of the marked shafts, the pipe (dashed line) transitioned into an open flume, an above-ground wood conduit (solid line).
During his mining, Shoots apparently broke the Spring Valley pipe, flooding one of his shafts, although his story was that the pipe was leaking first. So he decided to sue Spring Valley, to the tune of $130,000 ($3.6M now), declaring his mine was seriously impinged upon by the presence of the water. The judge disagreed, and awarded Spring Valley $8000 ($170K now) damages. In the deathbed interview, Shoots states that he paid the judgment, another indication that there was something of worth coming out of his mine shafts.
The College-Educated Hermit
Nelson Hundley Shoots was born near Lexington, Kentucky, in 1825. He attended the Platteville Academy, at least in 1847, in Platteville Wisconsin. This educational institution later became the Wisconsin Institute of Technology, and then University of Wisconsin Platteville. The school was formed in the wake of prosperous lead-mining there in the mid-1800s. Unlike some mining towns in the West that were eventually deserted, the success of mining operations in Platteville gave rise to a well-organized thriving town as mining waned. Shoots seems to have gone to Wisconsin without other family members, the first of many moves he made—an ambitious, or perhaps restless, man. In any case, he studied in the English Department at the academy.
Shoots in his final interview says he married twice, and there is at least one marriage in the public record; in 1849 he was married to a woman named Susan in Wisconsin. But later he seems to have divested himself of her and his second wife as well. He came to Sacramento at least by 1866, working as a miner. That doesn’t quite qualify him as a “pioneer miner” as the SF Call article designates him, though he did arrive was before the transcontinental railway in 1869. Sometime in the late 1870s, he came to San Francisco.
He describes in the final interview that he was “out hunting along the Cliff House beach, where he struck a patch of black sand. He thought it looked as if it might contain gold, and he had some of it assayed….that solitary pocket yielded him a fortune….It then struck him that the gold must come from the hills beyond, and he began prospecting back until he struck his mine.”
Shoots picked a solitary and secreted location in Sutro’s forest. He may have begun by mining coal. He was not a squatter—he probably leased the land from Adolph Sutro, who himself mined coal at Land’s End (at least in 1891).
Black is the New Gold
Working sand for gold dust at Ocean Beach in San Francisco had a long persistent history. Men regularly set up operations along the beach to extract gold from the magnetic black sand. There were waves of interest in this pursuit – in 1878, 1884, 1894, 1900 – even as late as 1930.
Besides the laborious work of extracting gold from sand, there were other gold-mining operations besides Nelson Shoots’ in San Francisco over the years—though none that lasted as long as his efforts. Read an excellent account of these in this post on Evelyn Rose’s Tramps of San Francisco blog.
The Long Haul on a Lonely Hill
Gold can be found in many types of geological formations on earth, but the question is always whether it is worth the labor of getting it free from the rock or sand. But Nelson Shoots was playing a very long game with his mining—over seventeen years—so perhaps this was never a consideration for him. He built a cabin in 1880 and got to work, taking on his partner James Demott a year or two after that.
This life clearly suited Shoots, and the pair were known as hermits who “assumed the garb of poverty, snarled like wild beasts at any curious trespassers, and drove off interlopers with clubs.” One has to ask whether having a productive mine even mattered to Shoots. “In the course of his story he would say that he had not made a cent out of his mine….He said he just worked it so as to have something to do and have a home of his own.”
Big Spenders, Big Losers
In the later years of their endeavor, Shoots and Demott were known around the area—the sparsely populated stretch of Ocean House Road (now Ocean Avenue) from the Ingleside Jail complexes (then known as Branch County Jails no.2 and no.3) out to the ocean. They showed up sometimes at various resorts out there with money to burn. Most notable among the public houses of dubious reputation was the Ocean House. (Listen to a Western Neighborhoods Project podcast about the Ocean House here.)
The Call reporter pronounced, “There is no question that they found gold, a man does not stick to a task for over seventeen years without something to repay him….It is well known among their intimate acquaintances that they made many big losings at the [Ingleside] race track, and they were known as ‘spenders’ at several of the resorts in that locality.”
The matter of extracting the metal from the ore was a subject of widespread speculation. “They didn’t get the gold out in the usual way,” said one old-timer in the district, “It’s my opinion they found gold in a certain kind of rock and in small nuggets. In this way they could take out quite good-sized piles and nobody ever the wiser….I have known of similar cases, I used to mine myself…along the Sacramento [river]. A young fellow…went to work in an old shaft and took out considerable metal. Nobody could ever tell how he did it [or] find any gold. Nobody ever could but him and he always found plenty.” Plenty of myths and stories around mining.
Bare Bones Operations
What is sure is that Shoots did not have one of the big engine-driven mining mills that were at that time allowing mining operations to extract ever smaller particles of gold from ore. Inventor William A Merralls, who built the Sunnyside Conservatory, had a successful business marketing his milling machines in San Francisco.
The Call reporter tells his readers what he found when he left the hospital and visited the site of Shoots’ cabin in the forest, where a primitive but “cozy” life was revealed. Chained dogs and hungry chickens greeted him. There was no sign of Demott, and the lock on the door was covered in cobwebs.
The reporter inspected the camp. “That mining operations were extensively carried out by Shoots and Demott there can be no doubt….at least 300 feet of shafts have been sunk, one of them being about 125 feet deep. The tunnels and drifts will easily aggregate to over 1400 feet. A good deal of the work is timbered, but most of it is simply the rock walls….No ore has been hauled from the dumps for milling, at least here is no sign of such traffic. In what shape the gold was obtained only the two miners know.”
Singing Wind, Swaying Grove
Although Shoots contradicts himself in his account of his operations, he does seem clear on the pleasures of his rural life. “It’s a nice place to live out there in the grove, where you can hear the wind singing through the trees,” he tells the reporter, looking “as if he wished himself out there again.”
Nelson Hundley Shoots passed away three days after the interview, on 1 June 1898, aged 73. None of the brief obituaries in the three main SF newspapers got his name or age quite right, and he may be buried under the name “Shoot.” 
The money for his funeral was given by an invalided Civil War veteran named Charles E Greenlow, about whom I could find almost nothing, nor any tie to the reclusive Shoots. Perhaps Greenlow, who received a pension from the US Government, read the account in the paper, and was moved to offer this grant to provide for Shoots’ burial, which suggests that Shoots had very little left in his kitty by then.
In a year when tens of thousands of men left for the Klondike territories in Canada in a huge, well-publicized gold rush, the notion someone was mining inside the San Francisco city limits was likely to have provided an amusing and touching Sunday long read for many.
Read the entire deathbed interview and account of Shoots’ life in the SF Call here, or if that doesn’t work for you, download an image file of it here.
- “Hermits Mine in the City,” SF Call, 24 May 1898. ↑
- My thanks to Harry Bernstein for unearthing this map at the California Historical Society in the course of his researches about the Balboa Reservoir. ↑
- “Flooded His Mine,” SF Call, 13 Jun 1893, p6; “Injury to a City Mine,” SF Examiner, 13 Jun 1893; “A Damaged Mine,” SF Chronicle, 13 Jun 1893. ↑
- From citations in a family tree on Ancestry.com the Stafford/Rees-Hundley family, which I confirmed. ↑
- See https://campus.uwplatt.edu/about/history ↑
- From citations in a family tree on Ancestry.com the Stafford/Rees-Hundley family, which I confirmed with US Census data. ↑
- Sacramento Great Register of 1867 and 1872, via Ancestry.com. ↑
- “Gold Mining in San Francisco,” SF Call, 29 May 1898. ↑
- “Flooded His Mine,” SF Call, 13 Jun 1893, p6. ↑
- “A Damaged Mine,” SF Chronicle, 13 Jun 1983, p6. This article refers to him as a lessee. ↑
- “Another Miner who Seeks a Fortune on Ocean Beach,” SF Examiner, 19 Aug 1884, p2; “Miners Wash Gold Out of Ocean Beach Sands,” SF Examiner, 10 Feb 1900, p3; “Gold from the Black Sand,” SF Examiner, 13 Mar 1895, p9; and “Our Mining Squatters,” Oakland Tribune, 2 Feb 1930, p104. ↑
- “Gold Mining in San Francisco,” SF Call, 29 May 1898. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- His true age is confirmed by US Census data from 1850, far more likely to be accurate than a reported age at the end of life. ↑
- So says an entry on the Findagrave.com website. I have asked the cemetery to confirm this. ↑
- Information from Findagrave.com and Ancestry.com. ↑
2 thoughts on “The Secret Miner in Sutro’s Forest”
What a fascinating story. Thank you!!
Excellent work as usual Amy.