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by Don Baumgart
By the 1850s more and more dirt had to be moved to find less and less gold. The time of the lone miner equipped with a pick and a pan were over. Bigger equipment, owned by companies, took over.
Hydraulic mining to uncover gold was an invention that found favor with some and angered others. The process was developed near Nevada City during the winter of 1852-53, creating a demand for massive amounts of water delivered under high pressure. With that blasting water, as one journalist observed, "a handful of men took out the very heart of a mountain."
By 1858 hydraulic mining ruled the day. In the Sierras natural banks were blasted with black powder, then hit with powerful streams of water. Then conventional sluice boxes separated the gold from the washed-down gravel.
To deliver the water a system of ditches and flumes dropped in elevation, speeding up the stream to a powerful strength. Water companies were formed and, like the merchants and shippers who supplied the gold fields with tools and supplies, owners of water companies became wealthy. More than a few of the companies acquired mining properties when large water bills couldn't be paid.
In 1866 the Central Pacific Railroad used high pressure water nozzles to open cuts for laying track near Dutch Flat in Placer County. Much later high pressure water was used instead of steam shovels and suction dredges to clear the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal.
But the foothill miners and the valley farmers were on two opposing sides when it came to using high pressure water to dig for gold in the foothills.
Downstream from the enthusiastic mining companies and their giant Monitor water nozzles, the farmers were getting buried. Between 1849 and 1909, 685 million cubic feet of mining debris was dumped into the Yuba River. Marysville and Yuba City were clogged with mud and gravel that washed downriver from the Oroville mines. By 1868 the river beds were higher than Marysville's streets, and levee building began.
In a strange twist of fate, the Monitors washing all that material down to bury the town, were made in Marysville.
Hydraulic mining debris washing down from the foothill mines amounted to eight times the soil and rock that had to be moved to build the Panama Canal. In all, 1.5 billion cubic yards of soil and rocks were blasted from the Sierra hillsides and dumped into nearby rivers.
By 1870 San Francisco capitalists owned most of the hydraulic mining claims. They built 100 miles of ditches, installed the latest equipment, and worked 'round the clock. A tidal wave of mining debris buried fences downstream and choked fruit trees. A peach farmer, A.J. Crum, joined other farmers in a lawsuit against Spring Valley Mine. A jury ruled against the farmers, knowing full well that a season's gold output from hydraulic mining was worth more than the farmers' crops and the farm land itself.
"Much of it escaped from the mountains altogether," reads an early 1900s report looking back on hydraulic mining debris in the Sierra Nevada. Called "tailings" or "slickens" what the miners were washing into the mountain rivers was somewhere between sand and gravel, with a few occasional boulders thrown in. This debris "found eventual lodgement in the Great Valley of California or in the tidal waters of San Francisco Bay."
In September, 1882, Edwards Woodruff, a Marysville property owner, filed suit against the North Bloomfield Mine and all other mines along the Yuba, asking for a perpetual injunction against dumping mining debris into rivers.
It was 1883 when Judge Lorenzo Sawyer, in a San Francisco courtroom, began to read his decision in the case. Sawyer had made several personal inspection trips up the rivers, across farms, and up to the mines. Three-and-a-half hours after he began reading, Judge Sawyer completed his 225 page ruling.
Hydraulic mining was at an end in California. Forever.
"The mining counties received the news as they would have a death sentence," Robert Kelley writes in his book Gold vs. Grain. "Smartville was sunk in gloom; Grass Valley reported a general feeling of profound sorrow; in Nevada City there was universal dissatisfaction and regret."
It was, perhaps, the first environmental victory won in California.
Copyright Don Baumgart, 2002