While the focus tends toward hard-rock mining when studying the productivity of California Gold Country — due to the difficulty of access to underground, the technological innovation those challenges bred and the teeming cast of characters that comprised the owners, engineers and blue collar miners involved in the enterprise — placer miners came first.
Using wooden bowls,
progressing to pans and finally sluice boxes, miners soon found diverting streams would process gravel more rapidly yielding better chances at locating gold nuggets more efficiently.
Along those lines, Edward Matteson discovered easier access to gold by using jets of highly pressurized water to erode hillsides while diverting the sediment runoff through sluice boxes or to holding ponds.
Matteson honed his innovative technique in 1853 at locations in and around Nevada City, and the hillsides throughout western Nevada County were soon exposed to large scale industrial-sized monitors capable of pulverizing paleogravels with intermittent deposits of gold.
During the 1860s, when hydraulic mining was at its apex in the Sierra Nevada foothills, entire hillsides were decimated and washed through gigantic sluices.
The North Bloomfield Mining and Gravel Company, established in 1866, is the embodiment of the hydraulic mining era, as no other operation matched its scale, expense or productivity.
The company was owned by 30 different venture capitalists from San Francisco, led by a consortium of railroad barons.
The operation consisted of a nearly 8,000-foot-long drainage tunnel at the current site of the Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park and seven large monitors capable of dislodging 50,000 tons of gravel daily during the peak of operation.
After the gravel was sifted for gold, much of the leftover sediment was dispensed down the Yuba River where it accumulated rapidly downstream.
Marysville, situated near the confluence of Yuba River and the Feather River — where other smaller operations took place — was the jumping off point for scores of miners who landed in San Francisco to make their way into the gold-rich hills to the east.
Steamboats would travel upstream from port and disgorge thousands of feverish emigrants hungry for gold.
As hydraulic mining continued to add enormous sediment loads to downstream locations throughout the Sacramento Valley, habitations along the river began to experience increasingly devastating flooding problems and navigation of rivers became increasingly treacherous for steamboats and other watercraft.
Farmers also began experiencing the detrimental effects from the large-scale sediment deposits traveling downstream. One such disgruntled agriculturalist, Edwards Woodruff, a New Yorker brought suit against the North Bloomfield Gravel and Mining company in September 1882.
Judge Lorenzo Sawyer, who lived in Nevada City during the early 1850s as the Gold Rush began to wax in intensity and practiced as a lawyer, handed down what became known as the Sawyer Decision in 1884.
Sawyer, who was a federal judge (appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant) at the time, is roundly credited for handing down the first environmental decision from a judge in the history of the United States of America.
The decision abruptly brought the hydraulic mining era to a close.
Malakoff Diggins, and several other sites easily spotted throughout western Nevada County, remain as a testament to the environmental devastation the form of mining wrought as early settlers sought their riches.