California Gold begins thirty years after the Gold Rush as James Macklin (Mack) Chance leaves the Pennsylvania mining town where he grew up and heads for The Golden State to make his fortune. After working and walking his way across country, Mack arrives in Oakland and is in for a rude surprise when he thinks he can stow away on the railroad’s ferry across the bay and they wouldn’t dare throw him overboard -oh yes they would! Once he makes it to San Francisco he witnesses a young woman jumping into the bay and fails in his attempt to “rescue” reporter Nellie Ross (much to her chagrin as he ruins her story for Hearst’s newspaper) and the two begin a strong friendship that eventually turns into much more.
Mack’s fortunes continue up and down as his drive and temper finally upset the movers and shakers of San Francisco and after surviving a vicious beating he leaves for Los Angeles to take old traveling companion J. Paul Wyatt up on his offer to join in with him in the “real estate” market — selling worthless lots to unsuspecting tourists. The land boom busts (where did Wyatt originally get the funds to purchase the land from?) and the unstable Wyatt leaves Mack high and dry with creditors and angry buyers knocking at his doors. Seeing potential in the worthless tar pits of the surrounding countryside Mack seeks employment with the oil prospectors as he learns the trade – finally striking black gold and setting him on his way to fortune and power.
Despite their lifelong love for each other, Mack and Nellie’s goals for their individual futures are too diverse for marriage (at least they think so) and Mack marries alcoholic Carla Hellman, daughter of wealthy land baron Swampy Hellman. It doesn’t take Mack long to realize the mistake he’s made, although grateful for the son Carla gives him. Mack continues to expand his business prospects, delving into real estate, agriculture, the burgeoning Hollywood film industry and these enterprises eventually lead him into increasingly dangerous conflicts with corrupt government officials and the growing labor unions.
Mack’s story takes the reader from 1886 California and on into the early 1900’s, as California struggles with the old and the new ways, including the catastrophe of the 1906 earthquake that results in a profound personal loss for Mack that forever changes his perspectives on life. As Mack assembles his great fortune, he finally realizes the empty shell his life has become and how little happiness all that wealth can bring without loved ones to share it with. All in all a very good (but not great) read, although IMO Jakes tried to stuff way too much into the story and had Mack’s business enterprises spread into way too many pies – I have to confess my eyes glazed over a bit at times – especially the complicated mechanics of getting that oil out of the ground. Four stars, although tops with me on big old fat sagas of Old California is still Celeste De Blasis’ The Proud Breed.