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John Conaway's
Coming to Oroville

Temporary photoI remember my first impressions of Oroville when my mother, father and I drove into this quiet river city during the summer of 1952. We were moving into the area so that my parents could take over the Oroville Laundry. Oroville was a place where a young adventurous boy could walk the streets and enjoy the slight cooling night air and not be afraid.

The adventures and life-forming experiences that I had during this time have followed me as I moved on through life.

Life was simpler then and I like to refer to this period as “when the air was clean and sex was dirty”.

The movie ”Stand by me” brings back memories of a long-ago Oroville.

One episode in specific occurred during the summer of ‘57. As always, it was hot. My close friends and I were just lying around trying to think of things we could do to help pass the time until we went back to school to start our senior year. Our group consisted of four adventurous souls, three seniors-to-be, and one freshman-to-be at Chico State. The freshman was my cousin, Jack, who had just graduated from high school in southern California and was staying with my mother and me until college started. Darryl was the third member of the group and the last one was Joe. We had spent most of the summer planning our lives after graduation and figuring out how to bring in some money, to help offset our burger and malt expenses.

There wasn’t much to do in this small community except water activities provided by the Feather River that flowed through the town. Just south of town, along the river bank, had been an area of extensive gold dredging following the Great California Gold Rush. The dredges were huge machines that dug down to water table and then dug their way through the ground until they ran out of area to dredge. The process left hundreds of acres of dredged-up gravel piles that offered areas for summer adventure. We explored for wild animals and left over gold.

We decided that finding gold was the answer to our money problems. We decided to search for one of the lost sandbars in the Feather River which was fabled to hold rich deposits of gold dust. We acquired gold pans and tried panning the mica-laced (fool’s gold) sands along the banks of the old Feather River. It was a lot of work with very little reward. We tried some dry sluicing in the dredge piles and dry stream beds that emptied into the river. With the same results.

Darryl, who was the Thomas Edison of our group, suggested that we could find the pockets of gold located at the bottom of the river if we had some kind of diving equipment. Thus was born our underwater breathing device which would aid us in recovering the precious metal from the river bed.

We found an old compressor and an Briggs and Stratton gasoline engine that we brought back from the dead. The trick was configuring these elements and mounting them on a base so that we could connect them with a pulley and belt. We attached a garden hose to the air compressor so we had 50 feet of dive hose. We had an old diver’s face mask that we were able to connect to the end of the hose and place over our faces ... funny thing is, it worked.

Our first and only diving trial was in the deep waters, just upstream of the old Bidwell Bar Bridge. This area is now under four or five hundred feet of the water that is now impounded behind the Oroville Dam, constructed during the ‘60’s. We all took turns at trying to locate sand pockets in the deep recesses of the river rock.

There was one thing we overlooked though. The gasoline engine that powered the air compressor was located where the exhaust from said engine was blowing into the intake of the air compressor. It's a wonder we all didn't die in that little adventure. It is not good to breathe engine exhaust under water. We got a little light headed from the engine fumes but that was to be expected.

Even though the gold eluded us, we all felt like Lloyd Bridges. Lloyd’s TV series ”Sea Hunt" would come at a later date, I think he got the idea from us!

Although this adventure was a failure, it wasn't the end of adventures from the minds of youths looking to exercise poor judgment. A Feather River inner tube float, the Zorro incident and an electrical application to a wicker chair come to mind.

Stories from the same minds but with a different outcome.