The days when hydraulic gold mining came of age |

The days when hydraulic gold mining came of age

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 mining operations. Matteson 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, he washed down the gravel from a small hill. The hose used was similar to the one made a year earlier 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. The size of the nozzles and hoses used in hydraulic mining increased in proportion to the ambition and capital of the individual miner. Ditches became wider, deeper and longer as one and two-man operations gave way first to cooperatives, then to larger combines and finally to huge corporations.

Hydraulic mining had demonstrated its practicability and outside capital began to flow in. Giant corporations acquired huge tracts of land with their all-important water rights. Between 1850 and 1880, hundreds of miles of ditches and flumes together with dams and reservoirs were built to carry and store water from the High Sierra and transport it to the mines below. By 1882, more than $110 million had been invested in hydraulic mining in California, a staggering sum for that time. No small potatoes even today!

The richest gravel deposits in Nevada County are along the San Juan Ridge that separates the south and middle forks of the Yuba River. Along this ridge the largest, most elaborate and most profitable hydraulic mines operated.

Unlike the first miners who sought gold in a hit-or-miss manner, the hydraulic mining company (as was also the case with the lode or quartz mining companies) was scientific in its approach. The early prospector would pick a spot, dig a shovel or two of dirt, and start panning. If no “color” appeared, he would move on. His tools were simple, usually a pick, shovel, gold pan (which occasionally doubled for a cooking utensil) and sometimes a rocker.

Hydraulic mining companies, on the other hand, consulted mining engineers and geologists and employed surveyors. Every step of the operation was well-planned and executed by skilled professionals.

Construction of miles of ditches, scores of dams, roads and drain tunnels, called for professional skill. Miscalculations were costly and time-consuming. The gold that had lain hidden for millennia must now be removed with haste and economy. High in the Sierra Nevada, dams were built that backed up hundreds of acres of water for summer mining use. In the mid-1800s cement was not yet a prime construction material. Reinforced concrete was unknown. Engineers relied on building materials at hand – stone and wood. Labor was cheap, and if the local supply was short, there was always an abundance of immigrant Chinese labor and at less cost than domestic workers.

To supply its mines at Badger Hill, Manzanita Hill, Birchville and French Corral, the Milton Mining and Water Co. built three dams that formed the English Reservoir. These dams, a mile above sea level, were built of stone blocks faced with wood. The highest stood 125 feet across the headwaters of the south fork of the Middle Yuba River. From English Reservoir a ditch 80 miles long was dug to the mines below. Ditches followed the contours of the terrain they traversed, therefore, distances to the mines were far greater than if the excavation were made in a straight line.

The scope of the water projects was in proportion to the needs of the mines. The total daily water consumption of the North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Co., the Milton Mining and Water Co. and the Union Gravel & Mining Co. was more than 100 million gallons or enough water for 1.7 million people to bathe once; individually, that is!

In their quest to maintain a constant yet controllable water flow, the hydraulic mining companies needed a reliable communication system to link the high mountain reservoirs with the mines below. Most mines were great distances from their water sources, some 50 miles or more away.

The most important consumer benefit that can be attributed to the hydraulic mining era is the introduction of long distance telephone communication. With the invention of the telephone in 1876 by Dr. Alexander G. Bell, the mine operators immediately saw a practical adaptation to their business. Instant communication meant instant control of water flow through the ditches that supplied the mines. This contact would eliminate delivery of unneeded water and would prolong the summer mining season by conserving stored water.


Bob Wyckoff is a retired Nevada County newspaper editor and author of local history.


Test your knowledge of Nevada County history

LAST WEEK’S photo of Jerry Brust’s store in Grass Valley on Mill street being divided into two stores, was correctly guessed by all who did. This time TIMELINES returns to its original format.


1. Name the three incorporated municipalities in Nevada County.

2. Which is the largest in area?

3. Which is the most populous?

4. Which was he last to incorporate?

5. Which is the county seat?


1. Grass Valley, Nevada City and Truckee

2. Truckee- 34 square miles prox.

3. Truckee- 12,450 in 1999

4. Truckee- March, 1993

5. Nevada City

– By Bob Wyckoff

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