Hydraulic gold mining: Hirshman’s Pond and Diggin’s
Hydraulic gold mining is defined by Harry L. Wells in his “History of Nevada County, California,” 1880, as: “washing down the auriferous hills of the gravel range by directing a powerful stream of water against the bank, the dirt and rocks being carried by the water through a deep cut or tunnel in which is set a system of flumes or sluices (riffles) for catching the gold, being finally discharged into some ravine or can(y)on and denominated ‘tailings.'”
While working a gravel claim at American Hill near Nevada City in 1853, Edward E. Matteson, a miner from Connecticut, conceived the idea of putting water under pressure to work in gold mining operations. He enlisted the aid of Eli Miller, a tinsmith who fashioned a nozzle of lightweight sheet metal. With this nozzle attached to the end of a canvas hose, Matteson washed down the gravel from a small hill. The hose used was similar to one made the year before by Antione Chabot for ground sluicing operations across town in Buckeye Ravine.
Hydraulic mining was an immediate success. Within weeks it had spread to Rough and Ready, 10 miles west of Nevada City and to Little York, a short distance east. Wherever water was in abundance or could be brought in easily by ditch, the method was tried.
One of the earliest hydraulic operations was conducted northwest of Nevada City along present day State Sign Route 49. The mine was operated by others until about 1866, when the Hirshman brothers, Henry and Moses, bought into the venture. Some time in the late 1870s, the location became known as Hirshman’s Diggin’s.
The Hirshman’s hydraulic mining operation was one of the more successful of the many that dotted the landscape of western Nevada County in the years between the mid-1850s and 1884. The end to hydraulic gold mining came on Jan. 9, 1884, when Federal Judge Lorenzo handed down his infamous decision that virtually ended the practice. Judge Sawyer ruled the resulting silt and debris washed down was too destructive to the rich agricultural land of the Sacramento Valley to be allowed to continue.
In later years, legislation was enacted allowing hydraulic mining if the resulting debris was kept from reaching the valley. The cost to build these “debris dams” was out of proportion to the value of gold recovered. For all practical purposes, hydraulic gold mining was history.
Sometime after the mid-1880s, a tunnel draining water from the floor of the diggins collapsed, forming what today is called Hirshman’s Pond. For many years after the cessation of hydraulicking at Hirshman’s, a lone pine tree, a survivor of mining operations, stood silent vigil over the mine. The harsh winters finally took their toll and, in January 1911, the Grass Valley Union ran the tree’s obituary:
“MEMORABLE EVERGREEN DROPS TO BOTTOM OF DIGGINS”
“The ‘Lone Pine,’ situated in the Hirshman diggins near bedrock, and which is known to nearly every resident of Nevada county, ended its existence yesterday when it was blown from the few feet of dirt in which its roots were encased. ‘Lone Pine’ is just an ordinary pine tree, but it has had a memorable history. It’s (sic) fame is State-wide.
“In the days of hydraulic mining this tree was the only one of that section that was not washed away by the violent force of the monitors. For years it has stood, roots exposed, and people who have viewed it have wondered how the lone tree bore its weight in such a small amount of earth. Photographers have pictured it on post cards and artists have painted it, but now the lone evergreen has passed into history.”
And now a new use for Hirshman’s Pond and Diggins. Recently, the city of Nevada City acquired a 35-acre parcel that includes Hirshman’s. According to Nevada City’s Planning Commission Chairwoman Laurie Oberholtzer, “The purpose of the purchase is to protect a scenic and historic resource and expand the city’s parks and recreation lands. Future use will include interpretive-walking tails, picnicking and other public uses.”
Hirshman’s was purchased with California State Parks and Recreation voter approved bond money awarded to Nevada City by the Nevada County Board of Supervisors. Nevada City’s Mayor Conley S. Weaver, who was a member of the group instrumental in the acquisition, said that study for property use is under way.
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