High-pressure hydraulic mining operations send toxic sludge down rivers, inundating towns and farms

On January 19, 1875, levees enclosing Marysville, California, failed, allowing the flooding Feather and Yuba Rivers into the low-lying Sacramento Valley city. In hours, Marysville, which had blossomed from a tent camp into what Mark Twain called “the most well built city in California,” was inundated with toxic sludge. The direct cause was rain falling heavily in the nearby Sierra Nevada Mountains. The real reason was gold, and the long-term outcome was a dramatic change in American environmental law.

The 1875 Marysville flood traced directly back to the day in 1848 when James Wilson Marshall spotted gold flashing in a Coloma, California,

Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California, where James Marshall discovered gold in 1848, setting off the Gold Rush. (Library of Congress)

ditch. Marshall’s find, which set off the California Gold Rush, embodied what prospectors called “placer” gold, existing loose, often in shallow waterways, having been eased from its setting by centuries of erosion. “Placer” (plah SAIR), comes from the word for sandbank in California’s official language, Spanish. Where a fellow trying to extract gold from veins had to dig into the earth, even construct tunnels, a placer miner needed only a sharp eye and rudimentary tools. As Marshall did, many a prospector got rich simply picking nuggets out of a creek or river. More industrious types used a crude platform called a cradle, through which miners sluiced shovels full of water and gravel. Gold particles, heavier than sand or topsoil, sank to the bottom to be collected. The dross, or tailings, flowed back into the stream.

The gold rush was to Alta California, a remote northern province of Mexico. The district’s ruling class called themselves Californios, after a mythical Amazon queen, Califia. Californios owned extensive cattle ranches worked by what was left of the region’s 200 Indian tribes, such as the Nisenan, subjugated and forced into servitude by the Spanish. Upon defeating Mexico in 1848, the United States seized California and the rest of the Southwest. Despite a treaty guaranteeing “free enjoyment of their liberty and property,” Californios lost 14 million acres of land to squatters and white adventurers calling themselves “argonauts.” For example, in less than a decade proprietor Mariano Guadalupe Vallego’s 175,000-acre estate at Sonoma shrank to a few hundred acres, Vallego’s great herds rustled and slaughtered or sold. Joining the Union in September 1850, California, its population swelled by 300,000 immigrants who had sailed or trekked west in America’s largest human migration, became what its first governor, Peter Burnett, called “a mixed mass of human beings from every part of the wide earth, of different habits, manners, customs, and opinions, all, however, impelled onward by the same feverish desire of fortune-making.”

In the Sierra Nevadas, scene of Marshall’s strike, gold fever transformed farm towns into commercial nodes. Merchants “mined the miners,” charging prospectors a fortune for necessities and niceties. Cities like Sacramento, on the Sacramento and American Rivers, and Marysville, 40 miles north where the Yuba and the Feather met, served as way stations between San Francisco and Nevada County’s goldfields. Sacramento burned down and washed out multiple times but held firm as a hub. Marysville prided itself on being the “Gateway to the Goldfields.”

Frederic Remington painting of two miners employing the crude method of panning for gold. (Granger)

The Forty Niners, nicknamed for the first big year of the rush, combined a zeal for riches with virulent racism. Convinced they had a “divine right” to the earth, white settlers embarked on what historians Robert Hine and John Faragher call “the clearest case of genocide in the history of the American frontier.” Between 1846 and 1873, vigilantes, militiamen, and U.S. Army soldiers slaughtered as many as 16,000 indigenous Californians in an atmosphere redolent of torture, rape, and deportation at whose center the goldfields gleamed. Dispossessing the Sierra Nevada region’s Nisenan got the newcomers access to Yuba watershed placer deposits that soon ran dry. A dead claim, or mining location, came to be known as a “humbug.” The term attached itself to a locale where a town grew—and officially was called Humbug, California.

What Humbug lacked in placer deposits, it made up for in veins. The western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas, prospectors found, were rich in auriferous gravel—layers of sedimentary stone deposited by long-gone rivers and which concealed gold. To get to pay dirt, as miners called the coarse, blue-hued gravel stratum richest in ore, miners began tearing into mountains with pickaxes and sluicing pay dirt through cradles enlarged to fit the scale of placer mining, mountain-style.

Cradling was slow and inefficient. In diggings outside Humbug owned by the North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company, miners tried damming streams to build up a head of water pressure they could direct at the slopes, blasting away unwanted soil—the top layer was orange—with hydraulic power. In 1853, French immigrant miner Anthony Chabot, working at a North Bloomfield site, fashioned a rawhide hose through which he aimed snowmelt to dig hydraulically to pay dirt. A year later, Edward Matteson devised a wooden nozzle that spawned variations in leather, rubber, and finally iron, making short work of a long haul. The resulting contraption, which looked more like an artillery piece than a water conduit, was dubbed the “monitor.” The device and its cousins, with copper or brass nozzles up to 30 inches across, were soon slashing at mountains with 185,000 cubic feet of water per hour, able to float boulders like balloons, sometimes moving 100,000 tons of dirt in a day to obtain a few ounces of gold.

Instead of cradles, miners now used miniature wooden aqueducts called flumes, angled atop trestles to keep the water moving. North Bloomfield Mine boasted 100 miles of flumes and ditches—one stretch was 1,400 feet, 160 feet in the air—that washed pay dirt over riffled and slitted surfaces that collected gold and sent tailings into streams and rivers. Landslides often occurred. One slide buried a miner; before he could expire, another slide exposed him to the air and a future. The work went on at all hours and in all seasons as miners transmogrified evergreen forest into moonscapes. Heavy snows known as “Sierra cement” could wipe out miles of flume with an avalanche. Hydraulic mining amounted to “the very devil’s chaos,” journalist Samuel Bowles wrote in 1865.

Those tailings had to go somewhere, and that somewhere was the Sacramento Valley, where mining debris clogged rivers, collapsed levees, flooded orchards and homes, fouled drinking water, and killed residents and livestock in cities like Marysville. A toxic “yellowish ooze” devastated the booming city and adjacent farmland after the January 1875 flood. Once, no burgher there would have raised a complaint; for two decades residents of the city and the valley had tolerated inundations by mining silt, or slickens, that disrupted navigation as far south as San Francisco Bay out of a sense of dependency on the gold trade. Now, however, wheat and other Sacramento Valley crops were contributing to California’s economy, freeing Marysville and environs from the cross of gold.

An elaborate place flume in Columbia Gulch. (Library of Congress)

Yuba County property owner Edward Woodruff, a legal resident of New York state, had watched floods wreck his properties three times, rendering them useless. Woodruff joined other valley residents in organizing the Anti-Debris Association of the Sacramento Valley to stop mining companies from dumping in the Yuba, Feather, and Sacramento Rivers. A Farmers’ Association was formed in parallax to the Hydraulic Miners’ Association. Intent on keeping its tracks and hundreds of acres of Sacramento Valley rights-of-way clear and safe, the Central Pacific Railroad, later to be the Southern Pacific, chimed in. In 1882, the plaintiffs filed suit in the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of California.Woodruff v. North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company called for a “perpetual injunction” against the dumping of tailings into rivers. Woodruff caught fire across California. “[F]armers pouring into the valleys of California created an agrarian empire and set in motion years of controversy,” historian Robert Kelley writes. “Of these clashes. . . none was more remarkable than the long controversy which raged in the Sacramento Valley over the fate of hydraulic gold mining in the northern Sierra Nevada.”

North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company had spent years and millions of dollars to fine-tune its operation, which, although bringing in $10 million to $15 million in gold annually, was not yet turning a profit. Mine investor Lester Robinson rallied miners and businesses serving them. Newspapers devoted column inch upon column inch to fiery rhetoric from both sides. Damage to dams, flumes, and monitors drew accusations of vigilantism. Bribes, whether cash or whiskey, traded hands in both directions.

Judge Lorenzo Sawyer, who was hearing the case for the Circuit Court, himself had spent time in Nevada City hoping to strike it rich. As part of his due diligence for the case, he spent two years traveling the region again to assess the alleged damage. Sawyer pored over 20,000 pages of testimony from 2,000 witnesses, including state engineer William Hammond Hall, who said “more than 15,000 acres, or twenty-five square miles, of the Yuba River watershed was buried under mining debris, with the slickens at least twenty feet deep in the Yuba riverbed near Marysville.” Sawyer studied damage caused when dams collapsed due to excess tailings. He read case studies, like one focusing on Dr. Eli Teegarden, whose 1,275 acres had almost all been “buried from three to five feet deep with sand, and utterly destroyed for farming purposes.” Mid-trial, word came that Lester Robinson had sued a company for dumping coal mine tailings into the stream watering his San Joaquin Valley farm—and won, a blow to the mining company executive’s standing.

A tall wooden flume built to send a high-pressure stream of water onto a hillside in Yuba County, California. (Library of Congress)

In January 1884, Judge Sawyer ruled, handing down along with his decision for the plaintiffs in Woodruff vs. North Bloomfield a 225-page document describing damage from hydraulic mining. Sawyer’s decision effectively banned the practice—the federal government’s debut as a regulator of commercial matters related to the environment.

North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company persisted, keeping the flumes running and the crews working and the tailings going into the streams and rivers. Woodruff and allies brought contempt actions against the company in 1886 and in 1891. Knowing an agreement had to be made and unwilling to hamstring an industry now the economic engine of the entire state, Congress passed the 1893 Caminetti Act, an effort to impose a strict regulatory framework on hydraulic mining. However, clean hydraulic mining proved a loss leader. North Bloomfield Mine and Humbug, California, now incorporated as North Bloomfield, went moribund.

By 1900, hydraulic mining in California and towns there reliant on the practice were almost entirely abandoned.The ghost towns lingered empty until the Depression in the 1930s, when the old hamlets enjoyed a brief vogue. Today, buildings on North Bloomfield’s main thoroughfare are a state park. The location is set to become the first of its kind in California to operate entirely on solar power.