Most of the development initially associated with gold mining occurred in various towns in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains during the second half of the nineteenth century. Molten gold, formed in the Sierras, Rockies, and Cascades during the ancient uplifting of the mountains, poured into fissures, designated as veins. This organic term, coming from the idea of veins within the ancient "earth mother," was rooted in an older concept that both gold and the earth were alive. Veins that were close together formed a lode, or a set of veins that could be worked together. The idea of a mother lode was based on the belief that several veins within the earth rose to the surface, where they could be tapped. Placers were places where gold had eroded into small particles through the action of water. It could be recov ered by panning, or washing the heavier gold nuggets out of the gravel by rotating a flat-bottomed pan. The area known as the Mother Lode in the western Sierra foothills was noted not only for the early process of gold panning, in which prospectors employed pans, cradles, and sluice boxes to wash and separate out the heavy gold particles from the sand and gravel, but also for river mining, hydraulic mining, hard rock mining, and dredging. Silver was found in conjunction with gold in areas east of the Sierras, such as Nevada's Comstock Lode.
During the Gold Rush, people came to California by three major routes. One was around Cape Horn by boat from the East Coast. Another was to sail to Panama and cross the hot humid rain forest, an area that harbored tropical diseases, and then travel by boat up the West Coast to California. Most gold seekers, however, came by overland trail through the west. The main California trail left Council Bluffs on the western edge of Iowa, traversed Nebraska to Fort Laramie in Wyoming, and continued over the Continental Divide at South Pass, whence it followed the Humboldt River across Nevada and the Sierras to the gold fields. Those who started late in the season turned southward to Salt Lake City and crossed the Salt Lake Desert to the Humboldt River Valley, in order to ascend and cross the Sierras before the snow fell.
People of numerous ethnic and racial origins came to the gold country. American miners, along with Chinese and Mexicans, mingled with European and South American immigrants. Walter Pigman, a gold miner in 1859, commented on the ethnic diversity of the gold country: "Had the opportunity of seeing the mixed multitude of human being that are in this country. The Americans take the lead, the Spanish next, then comes the poor degraded native Indian, the Chinese, the Chilean, the Mexican, and, in fact, some from every nation of the earth are to be found here. All in search of gold!"3
Indians initially participated in the process of panning for gold. Samuel Ward, who worked on the Merced River in 1849, wrote: "[T]he members of the wigwam kept together in their own watery pew; the father scooping into his batea the invisible mud and sand of the river bed, and the mother bearing it to the shore to perform those skillful gyratory manipulations by which the water is made to carry away . . . the earthly matter, until . . . there remains in the bottom of the pan the yellow spangels" of glittering gold.4 But soon the Indians were pushed out of the gold country, their people massacred, and their ways of life devastated. Miners blasted out rocks, hunted animals for meat, and chopped down oak trees, depriving Indians of their staple foods. Mining debris spoiled the rivers on which they depended for fish, and depleted salmon runs.
In 1849, California declared itself a slavery-free state, and its constitutional convention that year outlawed slavery. In the Compromise of 1850, the United States agreed that California was to be admitted to the Union as a free state. But as part of that compromise, the U.S. also passed the Fugitive Slave Law, requiring people to return slaves determined to be fugitives by federal magistrates. Northerners in the East were mandated to comply by returning slaves to the South; many not only disobeyed the law, but were outraged by its passage.
Many blacks believed that their best chance to secure freedom was to travel west through Canada and then proceed south into California. There they formed mutual aid societies to assist each other economically and socially and to avoid the Fugitive Slave Law. Many found opportunities to work in the gold mines, and those who arrived as slaves were often able to purchase their freedom and that of their families. A white forty-niner from Ohio wrote in his journal: "I saw a colored man going to the land of gold, prompted by the hope of redeeming his wife and seven children____ His name is James Taylor."5 Reuben Rudy, friend of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, came to California by way of Panama and made $600 after digging for four weeks on the Stanislaus River. Other blacks headed for places such as Auburn Ravine, where an African-American miner working alongside whites was photographed in 1852. By then there were 2,000 blacks in the state of California. In some cases, they returned to the East, were reunited with their families, and remained in the free North.
Chinese immigrants also came to California in great numbers, many from Guangdong Province. They arrived on credit tickets organized by Chinese steamer lines and set out for the gold country on ferries through the San Joaquin Delta to Stockton and Marysville. In Auburn Ravine, white miners worked alongside Chinese as well as black miners. By 1852, there were 5,000 Chinese along the Yuba River, and by 1855 their number had swelled to 20,000. They lived in China camps, where they retained their own customs, foods, and religious practices. But they fell victim to the 1850 Foreign Miner's Tax, which charged them $20 a month, a hardship for most Chinese. By 1870, their numbers in the mines had dropped by half, and many moved into the Central Valley, where they began to establish agriculture. Those who stayed behind worked the river bottoms abandoned by other miners. Others worked for railroad companies, helping to lay track through the Sierras and across the continent. In 1882, the Chinese Exclu sion Act was passed, and vigilante violence began to discourage many Chinese from further activities. From California, they moved into other western states, where gold and other mining activities were prevalent. Others went north to Oregon and Washington or through the Rockies into Montana, where they established Chinese communities.
Gold panning was the source of most of the gold for the first two or three years of the Gold Rush. Gold nuggets were found in placer deposits in riverbeds. All one needed was a pan or a cradle with riffle bars on the bottom and a box on the top, into which sand, rock, and silt from the riverbeds were scooped. As mining advanced, a chain of sluice boxes with riffle bars was set on an incline so the water would run off, leaving the gold, which was heavier than water or sand, in the bottom of the trough. As the placer mines containing the nuggets were depleted, other forms of mining followed. In river mining, cooperatives built dams to divert the water away so the streambed could be mined. Hard-rock mining used shafts and underground tunnels with rails and ore carts to extract gold-bearing rock, while in the devastations of "hydraulicking," entire hillsides were washed away.
Hydraulic mining began in 1852 through the efforts of Anthony Chabot, creator of the enormous "monitor" nozzles that blasted water onto hillsides and captured nuggets in chains of sluice boxes. Miners, forced out of panning for gold or victimized by failed river-mining cooperatives, became wage laborers for the owners of the new mines. In 1879, a newspaper reporter described the scene: "We stand at the brink of the mine____Around us are naked rocks and well-scraped furrows, piles of pine-wood blocks for use in the flume, rusting joints of condemned water pipe, and shops where soot-covered men are lifting joints of new pipe." One experienced a cacophony of sounds. "As we turn to descend, a measured succession of sounds begins____[T]he next thing is to get rid of the large boulders often weighing tons. They must be blasted into fragments so small that when the water is turned on here again they will be swept down and out through the tunnel____[H]ere are thirty or forty men, busy with drills, in a great hammering company. It is at this instant, wild music."6
Hydraulic mining depended on vast systems of canals and ditches that diverted water from lakes and rivers, which then fell by gravity through pipes and hoses, producing powerful streams of water that could be directed against hillsides. By 1882, there were 6,000 miles of flumes, ditches, and sluices in the Sierras. Reservoirs constructed along the Yuba, Bear, Feather, and American Rivers held 50 to 500 acres of water on their surface. Sluice gates across streams and reservoirs regulated the force and quantity of water sprayed on hillsides, releasing dirt and rock that flowed through sluice boxes to collect the gold.
Photographer Carleton Watkins (1829-1916), who traveled throughout California taking pictures of mining and agricultural activities, took a famous photograph of hydraulic nozzles blasting away entire hillsides. The enormous effect was described by the 1879 newspaper article: "There's real pleasure ... about this gigantic force. [The water] is beaten into foam until ... it comes out with ... a wicked vicious unutterable indignation____[I]t requires much experience and judgment to know how to use this stream to best advantage, and with greatest safety____[R]ocks two feet in diameter fly like chaff when struck by the stream."7 Anyone on whom the hydraulic blasts might turn did not survive.
"Hydraulicking" came to an abrupt end in 1884 when Judge Lorenzo Sawyer of the Ninth Circuit Court issued the famous "Sawyer decision," halting mining using hydraulic nozzles. The golden era of hydraulic mining lasted only thirty-two years, but, during that time, it had major human and environmental consequences.
Hydraulic mining daily displaced 50 to 100 tons of debris, consisting of muddy soil and rock, an enormous amount compared to that from hard-rock mining, which followed the hydraulic era. The force of the water washed out entire hillsides. The debris then washed downhill, carrying the topsoil with it, and creating huge fans of tailings at the base of the mines. Cones of debris dotted the hillsides, and colorful, vertical cliffs were formed from water and wind erosion. Debris filled the mountain streams and rivers, creating sandbars and islands and producing banks of yellow mud.
As the debris flowed down to the valleys below, it covered acres of farmland, filled the beds of streams, created shoals in the rivers and bays, and halted tidal action in the cities of Marysville and Sacramento. Historian Robert Kelley, in Gold vs. Grain: The Hydraulic Mining Controversy in California's Sacramento Valley (1959), described the effects on farmlands: "Farmers talked of how the rivers were filling. How each small rise in the rivers pro duced floods, how hundreds of acres of fruit orchard along the rivers were dying as debris spread slowly, imperceptibly, out into the valley."8
The Yuba riverbed rose at an annual rate of a third of a foot per year and the Sacramento at the rate of a quarter of a foot per year. The debris in the Yuba spread out along the shores of the river in a three-mile-long fan, containing 600 million cubic feet of debris from the mines. The streets of Marysville were originally 25 feet above the Yuba River, but, by 1879, so much debris filled the riverbed that the streets had to be protected by levees. Debris began to fill the Suisun Bay and Carquinez Straits below Sacramento, with its effects felt as far west as San Francisco Bay.
In 1917, engineer Grove Karl Gilbert (1843-1918) made a study for the United States Geological Survey of the amount of debris flowing from the Sierras through the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers and its effect on the Suisun, San Pablo, and San Francisco Bays. His report was replete with photographs showing debris-filled creek beds and buried forests. The debris spread out on either side of streams and rivers, confining the water to a narrow central channel and changing its flow. After the Sawyer decision halted hydraulic mining, tree trunks formerly under water began to reappear as the accumulated debris began to wash downstream.
The effects of the debris-clogged rivers on the tides at Sacramento remained until the early twentieth century. Gilbert's data showed that, in the 1880s, the Sacramento River was filled with debris from hydraulic mining, but that by 1902, the tides had returned as far upriver as Sacramento itself and, by 1920, had reached 20 inches, just below the 24 inches they had been originally. But at Marysville, upstream from Sacramento, the lack of tides remained. Today, Marysville — originally above water — is below water level and protected by levees. Nevertheless, trees began to regrow along riverbanks, and restoration of the river ecosystem began to take place. As the effects of hydraulic mining diminished, much of the vegetation grew back, and some of the conditions that existed prior to the hydraulic era were reestablished. Nonetheless, permanent effects remained, and hillsides still bear the visual marks.
The period of hydraulic mining that effectively ended with the 1884 Sawyer decision was followed by hard-rock mining. New technologies were developed to remove the gold and silver imbedded in rock, rather than in the more accessible riverbeds and gravel-filled hillsides. The rock had to be pulverized and mercury added to bond with the gold in the form of an amalgam. Mercury was mined in the Salinas Valley south of San Francisco and in the Napa Valley to the north, whence it was transported to the Sier-
ras. The gold-mercury amalgam was heated in bullion furnaces at high temperatures to form liquid gold metal and to vaporize the mercury. The gold was then poured into bullion bars and transported to the mining exchange in San Francisco, while globules of mercury washed down the rivers.
Major environmental effects resulted from the discharge of mercury. The waste mercury washed down the streams, poisoning the rivers for fish and creating unhealthy water for human use. Today that mercury is still embedded in mountain streams and in tributaries of the Sacramento River. Although covered by deep silt, it nevertheless represents a hazard for humans and fish, especially when the rivers are dredged or the silt is disturbed.
Environmental changes from hydraulic and hard-rock mining occurred in the Sierra Nevada mountains and foothills. The original cover of oaks in the foothills was extensive. Miners cut the woodlands for fuel, for building materials for cabins and sluice boxes, and for range and pasture lands. After cutting and grazing, oak seedlings were eaten by cattle and deer, hence the trees did not reestablish themselves, and chaparral — which is fire adaptive — moved higher into the foothills than in the pre-Gold Rush era.
Poet and commentator Joaquin Miller (1837-1913) described the changes in the Sierra that resulted from mining activities: "I stood in ... the placer mines. Smoke from the low chimneys and log cabins began to rise and curled through the cool, clear air on every hand, and the miners began to come out."9 He sketched a scene of gloom and darkness in the valleys where the miners were working as they toiled to enrich themselves for private profit. The land around them became pockmarked with holes dug for mining shafts, and entire rivers were diverted out of their streambeds.
Sierra wildlife was also transformed as a result of Gold Rush activities. The grizzly bear, which had been native to the western slope, became extinct from the area in 1924. Mountain sheep, which had been common in the high Sierras, were reduced by hunting and human presence. The wolverine, fisher, and marten were trapped out, while coyotes and wildcats were killed to protect sheep. Mule deer occurred throughout the Sierra, migrating to the high meadows in the summer and returning to the foothills in autumn, creating trails that humans also used for traveling. Cougar, the major predator on mule deer, was drastically reduced, hence deer populations increased, causing ecological damage by browsing on shrubs.
The populations of small mammals and birds were affected by mining and logging, as well as by fire and grazing. Logging reduced the number of tree squirrels and native birds, which lost ground to other species that tolerated the changed conditions. The tree squirrels were replaced by ground squirrels and chipmunks; Sierra birds, such as woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, creepers, and Steller's jays, by fox sparrows and green-tailed towhees, which adapted to the chaparral that took over the habitat.
Many fish, including most of the salmon runs, were sharply reduced by mining debris, streamside tree removal, and habitat destruction by cattle grazing. They were replaced by native trout, propagated by the Fish and Game Department, and by brown and eastern brook trout introduced to supplement native species.
After the Gold Rush, the Sierra foothills and mountain valleys were further transformed by grazing. By the turn of the century, Swiss dairy farmers were taking their cows into the mountain valleys in the spring and bringing them back to the lowlands in the fall. Large herds of beef cattle and sheep overgrazed the meadows after the snow melted. Cattle numbers are now regulated by the U.S. Forest Service.
Although restoration of landforms, trees, and wildlife is possible to a certain extent, the area will never revert to the pre-mining era or to the ecosystem known by native Americans. Population effects on the Sierras further decrease that possibility. Mining thus left an indelible impact on both the landscape and on the multiethnic populations of California, only partially mitigated by ecological restoration and the enforcement of civil rights for minorities.
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