The first time I was in Frank’s store was in the early ‘80s. I had worked for the Mining Journal off and on from the time my grandfather owned the magazine through my parents ownership and thought it was time to strike it rich suction gold dredging.
I purchased a 4” ATC Wetwasher dredge from the manufacturer in Aptos, California, and talked my brother Steve into coming along with me on my first dredging trip. I had seen a few dredges in action and read quite a few articles on the topic, but I really had no clue where to start. There was some equipment I was missing that would allow us to stay under water for extended periods, but I honestly didn’t remember what it was called.
We planned to camp out for three or four days wherever we ended up. We picked up a dredge permit in Sacramento on our way up from the Santa Cruz area and stopped by Pioneer Mining Supplies in Auburn to see what else we needed. As we browsed through the equipment at Frank’s store, not wanting to make our lack of experience blatantly obvious, we politely asked a few questions. We also didn’t want to tell Frank that our father owned the Mining Journal, displayed for sale on the counter, for fear that we would completely embarrass our family.
I’m fairly sure Frank thought that Steve and I were just a couple of clueless kids, but he didn’t make us feel like it. Together we figured out the essential items we were missing and paid for them, with Frank throwing in a couple of vials for “all that gold” we were going to get over the next few days.
I remember trying not to laugh as I asked Frank some detailed questions while he helped carry our purchases out to my truck, including how to start a dredge! You could see the light go on in his head as he smiled back at us—he suddenly realized we had absolutely no idea what we were doing.
Frank spent the next 30-40 minutes going over the art of suction dredging with us, including starting and priming the motor and pump, hooking up the air supply, unclogging the hose and much more, while continuing to help other customers in between. Then he asked us where we were heading to strike it rich. “I was hoping you could tell us,” I said with an embarrassed smirk. I completely exposed our cluelessness and we all laughed.
Frank led us back into the store. He drew us a map to a location that was open to the public and said we should find at least a little gold, though we probably wouldn’t get rich on our first try. I only recovered a few flakes on that first trip, but I gained a life-long respect for Frank Sullivan.
After 30 years, we are saddened to report Frank has decided to close Pioneer Mining Supplies in Auburn, the landmark meeting place for prospectors and miners. Frank recently had open-heart surgery, and store manager Dennis Robnett died unexpectedly of a heart attack on July 24. Frank has recovered from major setbacks before, but he can’t get around California’s desire to shut down the entire suction gold dredging industry. While gold prices have gone north of $1,800 per troy ounce, Pioneer Mining Supplies will be sitting out this latest gold rush.
Frank would be the first to tell you that California’s current moratorium on suction gold dredging has made it impossible to thrive and nearly impossible to survive. He was the number one retailer for suction gold dredges made by Keene Engineering, and sold a considerable amount for Proline, too. His small business managed to pump millions of dollars over the years into the California economy. Dredging could be a huge contributor to our troubled economy at the current gold price, creating jobs and contributing taxes, except for the current ban on dredging throughout the state—even in areas where there are no endangered or threatened species.
Frank estimates that his business was down ”about 65 percent” due to the current dredging moratorium.
Prospectors and miners gravitated toward Pioneer Mining as much for friendly advice as for the latest products. Frank sold his Blue Bowl business to his daughter Heather, and she will be establishing a store at a nearby location, though we don’t know all of those details yet; but we do know Frank and the staff at Pioneer Mining are already missed.