Initially, gold mining in California was a solitary affair, with a lone miner hunched for hours over his gold pan, painfully swirling in order to separate the denser gold dust from the lighter pebbles, sand, and silt. This inefficient method quickly gave way to more cooperative techniques. A crew of two men worked a "rocker," a wooden box on rockers that would capture gold on wooden riffles as dirt was shoveled in and water poured over. Soon, crews of miners began to build "long toms," ten-foot long downward sloping riffled troughs over which water from a diverted stream was diverted to rinse off the lighter elements. Long Toms evolved into elaborate sluices, which could consist of yards and yards of trough.
Each progression in gold mining was more expensive and required more cooperation, organization and leadership. As hordes of miners rapidly depleted the easily obtainable placer deposits, companies and corporations stepped in where the independent prospector had once reigned, reducing to day laborers the argonauts that had mobbed the state with hopes of quick wealth.
The most widely used form of capital-intensive mining in California was hydraulic mining, which began its evolution several years after the initial discovery of gold. In 1852, a miner named Anthony Chabot began using a canvas hose to wash part of a hillside into his sluice. Soon, many miners employed hoses to wash away topsoil, trying to expose the Tertiary bedrock where ancient, gold bearing streams had once flowed. The rocks and pebbles in these prehistoric rivers served for millions of years as natural riffles, trapping the heavier gold particles as lighter sediments was washed into the early Cenezoic sea. It was on these ancient beds, usually under ten feet of top soil, that gold was most concentrated. (1)
Hydraulic mining came of age in 1853, when miner Edward Matteson introduced the novel concept of a nozzle, which allowed hoses to shoot water with tremendous pressure, not merely rinsing soil, but literally blasting it away. Soon, hydraulic monitors was being widely employed to wash away entire hillsides, sending the residue through sluices to extract the gold and then dumping it into the nearest river or stream. Profits were enormous, and some operations were carried on twenty-four hours a day, lit at night by torches, or later, electric lights.(2)
A severe drought lasting from 1862 to 1864 ended the first hydraulicking boom. The discovery of Comstock Lode silver deposits diverted labor and capital away from California mining operations to Nevada. The rains returned, however, by the mid 1860s, and disappointment with the Comstock Lode led many investors to reexamine prospects in California. Hydraulicking flourished again.
Capital was provided primarily from San Francisco, but Eastern and British investors also contributed financially to these operations. New technology also increased the power of the machines, as the "Little Giant" monitor could spew water in 400-foot arch and iron ribbed rubber hoses allowed for a dramatic increase in water pressure compared to the non-reinforced canvas hoses. This allowed miners to attack previously impregnable beds of compacted gravel. California was swarming with busted miners from the Comstock, as well as Irish, Cornish and Chinese former railroad workers, and these elements provided a cheap and readily available labor force for the mines.
Reservoirs were constructed to help sustain operations during the summer months, and almost 6000 miles of ditches were dug to divert water to the enormous cannons. By 1880, the hydraulic industry employed 20,000 people. Returns were enormous. By the 1880s, some 300 million dollars worth of gold had been removed via hydraulicking, and investors were enjoying upwards of 300% returns.(3)
Hydraulic mining, however, also created tremendous negative impacts to the areas downstream of the mines. The "slickens," or debris, once they had been separated from the gold in mile long sluices, were immediately dumped into the nearest stream or river. By 1854, two years after the commencement of hydraulicking near Oroville, the Feather and the Yuba, once pristine rivers full of snow melt, were transformed into brown muddy flows. River bottoms filled up with tailings. The Sacramento River soon became so shallow that steamboat navigation was barely possible, and in one instance, a steamboat docked on the Yuba was rendered immobile by mud buildup. River-born commerce in the Central Valley thus suffered. Indeed, the mass of dumped debris even adversely affected the hydraulic mining industry, as operations in Oroville had to be ceased temporarily in November 1873, due to clogged outflow.
Farmers were especially hard hit, as floods from artificially elevated river beds washed river water over their fields, it leaving them littered with cobble, gravel and sand. It is estimated that 39,000 acres of farmland was thus ruined by mining debris, with another 14,000 acres suffering partial damage.(4)
The most catastrophic result of debris dumping was that it dramatically increased the already flood-prone Central Valley's tendencies for inundation. The carrying capacity of filled-in stream and river beds was dramatically reduced, and during severe storms the water quickly over-spilled the banks and spewed out into the surrounding countryside. In December 1866,an especially severe flood struck the Central Valley, followed up two months later by a second inundation. In January 1875, a flood transformed Marysville into a Lake, and supplies had to be steamboated in to relieve the beleaguered townsfolk. When the waters subsided, the citizens of Marysville found their town caked in the thick muck of mining slickens.
The public began to become increasingly aware of the adverse effects hydraulic mining was having on their lives, and the first public outcry was raised to try to suspend or eliminate hydraulic operations. In 1874, Sutter Country newspapers began receiving angry letters from prominent citizens decrying the practice, and a series of town meetings were held to address the public's concern over the issue.(5)
That same year, Central Valley farmers and property owners formed the Anti-Debris Association, committed to battle mining interests, which had previously organized in 1876 into a protective corporate league known as the Hydraulic Mining Association. In 1880, the recently commissioned state engineer, William Hammond Hall, reported to the legislature that California rivers were growing seriously shallow. It was the first major study conducted of the area, and the first conclusive, official documentation of the damage mining runoff was inflicting.
There was little hope of legislative redress, however, either from the United States Congress (which had jurisdiction over the nation's navigable rivers), or from the state legislature in Sacramento. Congress had always offered implicit support for mining operations on federal lands, and the only major action it took was to order the US Army Corps of Engineers to begin researching ways to limit the damage done to the Central Valley by mining operations.
The state, meanwhile, would not fathom an act as bold so banning hydraulic mining, although the legislature grappled with ways to guarantee flood control to the Central Valley. In 1878, a Central Valley legislator proposed a bill banning hydraulic mining operations, which was easily defeated in the Assembly, and in 1880 a proposal to make dumping mining debris in the river a misdemeanor was likewise voted down.
Thus, people turned to the Courts, hoping to obtain a court injunction against hydraulic mining operations. In 1878, James Keyes, a once prosperous wheat farmer, requested an injunction against the hydraulic mining operations upstream of his farm, claiming that their practices were ruining his property. The liberal Judge Keyser granted the injunction. The next year, however the State Supreme Court overturned the ruling, claiming that since the mining companies were not in a deliberate conspiracy to destroy Keyes land, and since Keyes could not prove which particular mine's slickens was the source of his misfortune, then such a broad injunction was improper.
From 1879 to 1884, a series of legal battles raged within various California courts. Various injunctions against individual mining firms were issued, revoked, and frequently ignored. In one case, a mining company obtained an injunction from a county court to prevent the local sheriff from entering upon company property to issue the injunction of the State court. Finally, in 1884, the matter came before the Federal 9th Circuit Court in the case of Woodruff v. North Bloomfield. Judge, Lorenzo Sawyer, a former 49er, concluded the matter decisively by issuing a sweeping injunction against all hydraulic mining in the state, ordering an immediate statewide halt to the dumping of tailings into river and streambeds, a move that effectively brought the hydraulic mining industry to an abrupt halt.
The Sawyer decision had broken no new legal ground. It was based upon the well-established common law of equity, the basic notion that it is wrong to use private property in a way that damages the property of someone else. While the case is frequently cited as one of the first examples of an environmentalist court ruling, Sawyer was not prompted by any special desire to preserve the environment, but rather to protect the rights and property of the Central Valley farmers.(6)
Nonetheless, for an era dominated by corporate interests, the case was a popular victory, as it shut down an entire industry to protect the rights of the people downstream.
Despite Sawyer's injunction, illicit small-scale operations persisted in the mountains for years. In 1893, the Federal Caminetti Act allowed hydraulic mining to return to the state, provided that the debris were captured in dams to prevent downstream damage. While some limited operations were resumed, the nine-year lapse proved fatal for the industry, as infrastructure had deteriorated and the major firms had dispersed; large-scale operations were a thing of the past, although minor hydraulicking would continue as late as the 1960s.
The sudden halt to mining operations highlighted the fact that agriculture was the future of the California economy, despite the fact that gold mining had been the principal industry in the state since 1849. But by the 1870s and 1880s, wheat farming was booming in the Central Valley and large-scale agriculture was promising far greater profits than large-scale mining. The battle over hydraulic mining pitted the new economy against the old, and agriculture proved triumphant.
Kelly, Robert. Gold vs. Grain: The Mining Debris Controversy. Glendale: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1959.
Kelly, Robert. Battling the Inland Sea: American Political Culture, Public Policy, and the Sacramento Valley, 1850-1986. Berkley: The University of California Press, 1989.
Hundley Jr., Norris The Great Thirst: Californians and Water, 1770s—1990s. Berkely, The University of California Press, 1992.
Bean, Walter. California: An Interpretive History. McGraw Hill, 1968.