"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."

Water Power Idled Miners As Big Business Moved In

by Don Baumgart

Solitary gold hunters watched with dismay as the resources of engineers replaced the labor of men with picks and shovels and big companies came to dominate the gold fields. Hydraulic mining clearly was a company approach, employing men to aim the giant water nozzles and claim the washed gold from the rubble. Five or six men operating a high pressure water nozzle did the work of a hundred or more shovelers.

The efficiency of hydraulic mining made the single miner obsolete and turned him into an employee. Young men who had followed the call of gold around Cape Horn or across the great plains left their dreams and barren claims and went to work for the mining companies.

The miner population along the Yuba River dropped drastically as the labor-saving method grew in favor. The thousands who had worked the gold-bearing gravel by hand found themselves thrown out of work by the Monitor, that powerful nozzle that washed down mountains.

One observer said, "In 1851 labor pocketed all the profits of the mines. In 1858 capital pockets most of it." The Sacramento Union called the changes brought by hydraulic mining, "...a complete revolution..." Claims had fallen almost entirely into the hands of men of means, who employed a few others to work for them. The San Francisco Morning Call said, "The mines have ceased to be the poor man's friend."

Mining companies needed vast amounts of water to mine hydraulically, and at first it was costly, later dropping in the 1850s as ditches and water systems grew. Most of the canals and flumes in '50 and '51 were short-run projects, designed to carry water only a few miles. The next two years would see these projects grow to engineering marvels.

Many mining companies, seeking to avoid the high price of water for their giant nozzles, started their own water companies and discovered yet another way to get rich in the gold fields -- by selling water.
But first, they had to get it to the gold.

The Magenta Flume, made of timbers from nearby trees, carried water across a deep canyon to supply hydraulic mining in the Northern Mines. It was 160 feet high and supported a veritable wooden water ditch seven feet wide and 16 inches tall. It dropped a foot for every 100 feet of length, forcing the water to keep moving.

The Eureka Lake Company owned the Magenta Flume, built by French engineers in 1859 to move water across the gap between Cherry Hill and South Eureka, which would later become the town of Graniteville in Nevada County. The flume's completion was celebrated with band music and cannon salutes. Playing martial music the band led a small party of men and women in a walk across the still-dry waterway, followed by a fine meal and fireworks. Two hundred people danced until the wee hours and at some time during the festivities a man rode his horse across the towering flume.

The water roared in and hydraulic mining companies washed away the gravel of ancient long-dry river beds to find the gold that had nestled amid bottom gravel when the rivers were alive. It was immensely destructive to the hillsides, and the land downstream. Complaints were heard of the virtual burial of alluvial farming lands, obstruction of navigation in the Sacramento and Feather Rivers and flooding.
Miners who once depended on their own strong arms now worked at the mercy of the elements that produced the water to bombard hillsides.

"Dull times," in the gold fields meant work was halted by a scarcity of water, according to Hank Meals in his book Columbia Hill. If the water dried up, so did the work.

"Hundreds of men were out of work," reported the August, 1861 issue of Mining and Scientific Press, "sitting with chairs tilted back, their feet against the stovepipe, while they read the daily papers for the 20th time." The flumes were dry.

That drought ended with a roar. In 1862 a flood greater than any in modern times poured off the mountains, choking rivers with tailings and dumping debris around what is now Marysville and in the Sacramento Valley. Owners of land near the rivers became alarmed. Their awakening concern was the first signal that the days of washing away mountains to find nuggets -- were numbered.


Copyright Don Baumgart, 2003

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