No one tracked the cost in environmental damage

State is still paying for miners' heedless ravaging of landscape

By Chris Bowman
Bee Staff Writer
Published Jan. 18, 1998

Hydraulic mining nozzle
A hydraulic mining nozzle is displayed in the Gold Rush town of Volcano, resting after years of blasting hillsides into gravel.

Bee Photo: Dick Schmidt

Never mind the unforgiving deserts and oceans they had to cross, the treacherous mountains they had to climb or the tons of granite they had to move once they reached the promised land.

Imagine instead the mother lode of all obstacles between miner and gold. Imagine an environmental impact report for the California Gold Rush.

Opportunists swarming the Sierra Nevada like grasshoppers, rearranging its rivers and streams, choking them with mining debris, polluting them with everlasting mercury, scalping hillsides, denuding forests, overfishing, overhunting, overrunning meadows with livestock, introducing diseases, displacing native plants, ousting thousands of environmentally conscious American Indians and forever shattering the primeval stillness of the mountains.

How do you mitigate that?

The forty-niners would have been crushed by the sheer weight of regulation before they could shout "Eureka!" The paperwork, if not the consultants' and attorneys' fees, would have done them in.

But California's original gold seekers faced no such hurdles. State government had not even been established, and it would be 35 years before the courts would impose the first restraints on the highly destructive hydraulic mining.

"Environmental destruction occurred because there was no policy to do anything else," said David Beesley, a history professor at Sierra College in Rocklin. "This was a period of unregulated use."

This free-for-all generation, unfettered from 1848 through at least 1883, inflicted more lasting damage to Northern California's environment and did more to alter its landscape than any generation since.

And not a dime in the phenomenally high environmental costs ever entered the ledgers, let alone the minds of the exploiters.

"There's no evidence that anyone stood up for the mountains," said Beesley, who is writing what he believes to be the first book on the environmental legacy of the Gold Rush.

Even John Muir, patron saint of the Sierra, was ambivalent about the gold orgy. Mining historian Duane A. Smith notes that at the peak of the destruction, Muir saw hope: A "vast amount of real work is being done, and the ratio between growth and decay is constantly becoming finer."

The naturalist would later modify his 1870s attitude.

Undeterred by law or conscience, the 19th-century Argonauts simply helped themselves to billions of dollars' worth of Sierra gold. Californians and their environment have been paying for it ever since.

American Indians who had lived in the Sierra for perhaps 10,000 years paid the first big installment with their lives and way of life.

The miners enlisted some natives as laborers, but most were ousted from their villages and hunting grounds.

The Konkow and the Maidu along the Feather River, and the Nisenan and Miwok in the reaches of the American and Merced rivers suffered the highest tolls among the estimated 100,000 Indians in California who died between 1848 and 1885 as a result of starvation, violence and diseases introduced by Europeans, historians say.

Sacramento Valley farmers paid the next big bill for the environmental destruction, beginning with torrential rains in 1862, then again in 1875.

Tailings from the previous decade's mining washed from their Sierra perches and clogged nature's drains. Rivers everywhere breached their banks. The nasty "slickens" -- mining's conglomeration of mud, sand and gravel -- smothered thousands of acres of cropland, killed thousands of cattle and swept homes off their foundations.

Hillside tree
A tree clings to a hillside in an eerie moonscape created by hydraulic mining at what's now Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park.

Bee Photo: Dick Schmidt

Mining companies were not held accountable for the damage or the cost of levees to contain the inevitable consequence of their gouging upstream.

Today, the tally of environmental destruction from the Gold Rush era keeps growing.

The cost is borne out every year in dike repairs to protect hundreds of thousands of Valley residents. The glacier of debris unleashed by Gold Rush miners deprived levee builders of nature's compact, leak-resistant foundation, formed over the eons.

The Easterners, Midwesterners, Europeans and others who joined in the Gold Rush also unknowingly passed on an insidious danger that puts many of today's immigrants at risk: mercury pollution.

The silvery liquid of thermometers proved an efficient magnet for the particles of gold washing through the old-timers' sluices, but a persistent contaminant for the vast amounts that got wasted away in the streams.

Scientists say the mercury has worked its way up the food chain, leading to state health advisories against eating more than two meals a month of sports fish caught in the Delta and San Francisco Bay.

"I am absolutely convinced that these health warnings ... result from the mercury mining in the Coast Range and placer gold mining in the Sierra river system," said Chris Foe, an environmental specialist with the state's Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The Gold Rush miners were ecological invaders in other ways that still haunt the environment.

Descendants of the burros that the miners imported to haul provisions today wander wild in the California desert, frustrating the state's attempts to reintroduce bighorn sheep. Federal law protects the intruders to the detriment of native sheep as they compete for forage and water.

Along with the miners came sheep and cattle that trampled mountain meadows throughout the Sierra range. In many areas, the native perennial grasses were trampled out of existence by sheep.

The Argonauts also brought an environmental disaster in their blood. Malaria-infested people coming from the Midwest carried different strains, and the boggy Sacramento Valley was the perfect media for transmitting the disease via mosquitoes.

But more than anything, it was the 32-year period of intense hydraulic mining that changed the face of the landscape. At the peak of hydraulic mining in the late 1870s, single nozzles up to 9 inches in diameter were discharging up to 25 million gallons of water in 24 hours, the equivalent of filling 1,250 backyard swimming pools.

So great was the debris at that time that the beds of the Feather and Yuba rivers where they join at Marysville were higher than the streets of the town, while the American River rose 10 feet where iet joins the Sacramento.

"Never in human history had man moved so much earth so quickly," wrote California geographer David J. Larson.

Environmental destruction was actually a selling point in some cases, as in this 1870s prospectus for the Cataract and Wide West Hydraulic Gravel Mining Co.

The Calaveras County company, wanting to rework the placers around Murphy's Camp, pointed out that the forty-niners' "spade work" had paved the way for the hydraulic company to try its hand:

"The hills have been cut and scalped, and every gorge and gulch and broad valley have been fairly torn to pieces and disemboweled, expressing a fierce and desperate energy hard to understand."

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