Hank Meals: A legacy of trails for the common good
As a history buff and enthusiastic hiker, I read the opinions of Mr. Fisher Smith and Mr. Diamond regarding the Cascade Canal Trail with interest. What hasn’t been addressed is our common legacy that includes hundreds of miles of ditches in various states of repair that are a familiar feature of our gold mining heritage.
We need some perspective on the historical purpose of ditches and how changing public attitudes can affect our use of these ditches today.
Dams and ditches were introduced to provide water for the “washing” of placer gold, making it easier to separate gold from associated gravel. When hydraulic mining was introduced in 1853 water was used for its mechanical properties and could reduce a hillside to a slurry of mud and gravel in a fraction of the time it would take many men using picks and shovels. This new and lucrative procedure enabled the mining of low-yield gravels, greatly increasing the volume mined. However, hydraulic mining required much more water forcing ditch companies to expand their length and carrying capacity.
Once the gold-bearing, or auriferous, gravel was reduced to a muddy flow it was sluiced for gold and discharged into the nearest drainage where it made its way downstream to cause problems for farmers, steamship operators, fishermen and increased the possibility of flooding. Between 1865 and 1884, Nevada County refined hydraulic engineering to a prestigious level, unsurpassed in the world while becoming the Silicon Valley of its day. However, the increased effectiveness of the hydraulic system corresponded directly to an increase in environmental damage.
Granted, this is a simplified explanation of the “hydraulic process.” Most of the environmental devastation ended with the Sawyer Decision of 1884, which legislated against the dumping of mine waste into Sierra Nevada streams. Today, we still have many vast excavations that were once hydraulic mines which, 135 years later, are still eroding siltation and have yet to reforest. There is also mercury stored in alluvial gravel banks awaiting re-release by some future storm or landslide. We have also inherited dams and hundreds of miles of ditches.
Ditches or canals typically descend an average of 10 feet a mile. That’s following a contour with a very gradual change in elevation, much more constant and easily walked than the average trail. Ditch tenders were responsible for about six miles of ditch and flume assuring ditches were kept clear of branches, landslides and ice, and opening floodgates if the flow was accidently blocked. Ditch tenders used berms on ditches and planks on flumes as trails and so did others, years after ditches were abandoned or repurposed.
It makes good sense to convert ditches and their berms to trails, where feasible. Ditch trails are totally unique because of their gentle gradient making them accessible to people with a wide range of abilities. While communities all over the country are trying to plan trails that can accommodate a wide spectrum of users we have inherited an already engineered system. We should look at this as a unique opportunity to create a forward thinking, all-ages and abilities trail system.
When John Olmsted first proposed a trip to the slopes of the Yuba River to a friend who used a wheelchair, the friend replied that forested mountain slopes would be among the last places he’d consider. But Olmsted had the ingenious idea that some of the many miles of ditch grade in the Yuba and Bear River canyons could be converted to trails that could be used by, for instance, people in wheelchairs. His dream was realized with the Independence Trail on the South Yuba. Think about it — we are only temporarily able-bodied and might someday appreciate the opportunity to enjoy nature on an accessible ditch trail.
Part of the continuing legacy of the hydraulic mining era is a persistent engineering-accented mindset about water with little regard for habitat, clean air, solitude or camaraderie, beauty and poetry. A stream, creek or river is more than a water-conveyance system.
I’m beginning to see a fundamental change in public thinking and welcome public policy that advocates the planning of more ditch trails as partial reparation for previous damage done to the Yuba-Bear, the most abused, but probably the most appreciated of Sierra Nevada rivers.
Hank Meals is an artist, photographer, historian and the author of several hiking books on the Yuba River.
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