Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.

Jim Miller

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Eureka Moments Revisited Part 3, A Divine Project or "The Lord's Cradle"

     Not that Lord !, I'm talking about Israel Shipman Pelton Lord. Way back in 1999, I purchased a copy of the book, "At the Extremity of Civilizaton", An Illinois Physician's Journey to California in 1849, from the author Necia Dixon Liles. Necia promised a good read and I was not dissapointed. The book is described as a "Meticulously Descriptive Diary of an Illinois Physician's Journey in 1849 Along the Oregon Trail to the Goldmines and Cholera of California, Thence in Two Years to Return by Boat Via Panama by Israel Shipman Pelton Lord."

     Descriptive far beyond the usual journal, Lord's account holds details about his experiences that minutia junkies like myself feast on. One of the many delights in this book was Lord's description of a typical Cradle or Rocker, as used in the Gold Rush. In an earlier post, I had mentioned that I used this description to create authentic replica cradles for years, when I had an interpretive carpenter's shop in Columbia State Historic Park. All of the examples I once crafted are long gone but just recently, some pending projects had steered me towards creating one more. I thought it would be fun to share this classic cradle with the reader.

 Detail From an Original Gold Rush Daguerreotype
Showing a Carpenter's Shop in Jacksonville
Image Source Online Auction

     Let's start with Lord's description, from page 221, dated Thursday, March 14, 1850. " Many attempts have been made to improve upon the common rocker, or cradle, for separating the gold from the earth; and in my opinion all have most signally failed. The form is very similar to that of the article of the same name, used to rock children in, and here occasionally put to that use. Think of a cradle worth $55. The common size is four feet long, from sixteen to twenty inches wide on the top, and from six to eight inches deep. The bottom is laid down - from nine to twelve inches broad; next a piece five or six inches wide stands off on each side at an angle of 45 degrees; and then two pieces of like width perpendicular above them, forming  a trough with five unequal sides. These top pieces, at a point about two-fifths from one end, are slanted off, at about the same angle, towards each end; thus making the longest end, or foot of the cradle, the shallowest.

My Version of Lord's Cradle
Note the removeable handle
and reenforced corners, both period details
Photos Lindy Miller 2012

     But this figure is only to lessen the weight, and make it a little more ship-shape. The short end, or head, slopes, perhaps, an inch and a half, and the long one, or foot, over two inches. A piece is next nailed across each end to close it up, the foot having an opening one and a half inches above the bottom, and two inches or less wide, extending to within an inch and a half of the sides of the cradle. A cleat an inch and a half wide is nailed across the bottom at the junction of the two sections and the cradle, and another, midway between that and the foot. In each side (inside) of the head section, is nailed a thin strip of wood, slanting from near the top downwards towards the head, to within two or three inches of the bottom. On this is placed a thin frame, like the screens in a fanning mill, with a piece across the middle, on which is stretched a piece of strong cotton or linen cloth. This reaches to within two or three inches of the head.

Riddle Box lifted to reveal Apron ("cloth plane")

      A box five or six inches deep, and tapering toward the head to four, covering the whole upper section, with the bottom of sheet iron or zinc, punched with holes about two inches apart, and from one half to three-fourths of an inch in diameter, is hung to the head of the cradle by a couple of common three-inch butts. A handle is screwed to the side, and a couple of short rockers, with a short iron pin in the middle of the bottom of each, and the animal is ready to go. It is placed by the water, on a slight frame of two side pieces and two end ones,in the middle of each of which is a hole for the pin in the rocker to play in. These keep the cradle in its place.

Apron removed to show "thin strips of wood"
for support

     Two lazy men sometimes work it, but usually one man is sufficient. He stands or sits with the left hand on the handle, which stands out more or less from the cradle, and in his right which is toward the head, a tin dipper holding two or three quarts. About a pail full of earth is thrown into the box, and the cradler begins to rock backwards and forward, constantly throwing on water, until all is washed that will go through the holes in the metal bottom. The remainder is thrown out, by quickly raising the end of the box, and then the process is repeated.

Underside, showing "rockers", "iron pin(s)",
 bedpiece ("slight frame") and plugs for the drain holes

     Whatever goes through the holes is washed down the inclined cloth-plane, which lies under-and drops into the bottom of the cradle at the very head. From this point it is washed, dashing from side to side, traversing the whole length of the cradle, the bottom of which inclines toward the foot about four and a half inches, tumbling and rolling and whriling over the cleats, and finally rushes out at the opening in the foot.

     Some of the gold usually stays on the cloth plane, unless it is very tensly stretched on the frame - most of the remainder is found in the upper section of the cradle, and some reaches the space between the first and second cleats - seldom lower. When the half day's or day's work is done the cloth is cleaned off into a pan, and the earth and gold in the upper section, and between the first and second cleats of the lower, are put back into the box and run through again.  What remains in the same section is drawn off through holes in the bottom (which at other times are kept plugged) into the pan with what was taken from the cloth and "panned out", such is the term used."

      So, there you have it. During the period, cradles could be as different as the men who built them but they usually followed a similar pattern. I've always liked this particular cradle for many reasons, not the least being that it's extremely effective at processing material and it's just a great looking example, "ship-shape", as Lord put it. For those who are curious, I used full dimension, rough cut pine for most of the construction and cut-nails from Tremont Nail . All the steel is uplated and when I used screws, I removed their plating to keep it reasonably authentic. Rock on !!


  1. Nice.This will help me with my project.

  2. Glad you have brought ISP's tools into the 21st century. He can be very useful, and it's easy to become smitten by his irascible nature.
    Necia Dixon Liles, akapanowski@gmail.com