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Hydraulic Gold Mining in
California's Sierra Nevada Mountains
Hydraulic Mining
Houseworth Stereoview #795, detail. "Hydraulic Mining, Behind the Pipes."
Image above Courtesy John Saddy & Jefferson Stereoptics.

[Click on a picture below to get an enlarged view.]
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Image Captions

Hart stereoview #61, Hydraulic Mining. Courtesy Michael Croke, Poor Warren's Antiques.
A. A. Hart stereoview #61, "Hydraulic Mining, at Gold Run, Placer County."
Courtesy Michael Croke, Poor Warren's Antiques.

Additional Hydraulic Mining related Images from the CPRR Museum Annex:

Courtesy Barry A. Swackhamer Collection.
Images selected by Craig E. Crouch.

Additional Hydraulic Mining related Images from the CPRR Museum Archive:

Images selected by Craig E. Crouch.

Additional Carleton Watkins Hydraulic Mining relating Images

Hydraulic Mining in California

By Craig E. Crouch, Rocklin, California

Hydraulic mining uses jets of water to break down gold-laden gravel banks and to wash the material through gold-separating devices (sluices and under-currents). It was one of the dominant forms of the California gold mining industry from the mid-1850s until 1884, when it was halted by federal injunction. During those 30 years, it is estimated that hydraulic mining yielded over $100 million in gold, or one third of the total gold produced by California in that period.

The techniques of moving mountainsides that were perfected by the hydraulic miners were used by the Central Pacific Railroad Company to open railroad cuts near Dutch Flat (which was already an active hydraulic mining area). The same methods were used in the construction of early dams for hydropower development; examples include Crane Valley dam and Lake Almanor dam.

Before continuing here, you should visit the Sacramento Bee’s web page on The Evolution of Gold Mining, to get a picture of how it was done. Come on back, though!

The technology of hydraulic mining was developed in the mining camps of the northern Sierra Nevada of California (May, Philip Ross. Origins of Hydraulic Mining in California. Holmes Book Company, 1970.). North of the hard-rock mining area of the Mother Lode, immense quantities of placer gold lay embedded in banks of river gravels deposited during the dinosaur (Tertiary) era. Tertiary and other gold-laden gravels laid exposed in valleys and on ridgetops from Plumas County in the north to Mariposa County in the south, but were concentrated in Nevada and Placer Counties. The problem was how to separate ounces of gold from tons of gravel, and the solution was washing on a grand scale.

Between 1849 and 1852, the tools of gold mining had evolved quickly. Gold panning, a one-man effort, had been largely superseded by the two-man rocker, then by the two-man Long Tom, and finally by the team-served sluice box. Water in quantity was needed at the diggings, and ditches were constructed to bring it from nearby creeks. By 1852, ground sluicing (turning ditch water out onto the ground) was being widely used to wash away overburden and to wash the paydirt into sluices. Histories say that in Nevada County in1852, a Frenchman, Antoine Chabot, was the first to use a large hose in ground-sluicing, and that in 1853 Edward E. Mattson of American Hill near Nevada City first used a metal nozzle at the end of a hose to wash down a gravel bank.

These techniques, and improvements to them, spread very quickly to other diggings, and the industry boomed as partnerships formed to work gravel claims. Mattson invented a water-powered derrick for lifting the larger rocks exposed by the hydraulic jets. And a series of inventions produced the hydraulic monitor, the ultimate in effortless control of devastatingly powerful streams of water. To supply the water needs of the many hydraulic mines, companies were formed to build ever-larger ditches tapping ever-more-distant water supplies in the high Sierra.

Initially, the limits on claim size resulting from the Gold Rush kept the mines small and in the hands of their owner-operators. But by the late 1860s, hydraulic mining had begun to evolve into a business of big capital and wage labor. Many ditch companies had gone bankrupt when competition lowered water prices, and ditch systems were consolidated by their successors. Over the years, many miners had lost their claims to water companies for non-payment of water bills. Drift mining (tunneling into the bottom of the Tertiary gravel beds) was a costly and risky way to reach the richest deposits, but most of the gold was scattered as fines throughout the gravels.

In addition, long and expensive hard-rock tunnels were needed to carry the mining debris away from the mine, for disposal into rivers or ravines. And supplying water year-around required hundred-mile ditch systems and construction of mountain reservoirs. Economy of scale and the application of large, long-term investment was required to make hydraulic mining pay, so claims were consolidated and stock companies were formed to raise the needed capital. From the 1860s through the early 1880s, the hydraulic mining industry consolidated into fewer than two dozen large stock companies dominating the best diggings of Nevada, Butte, Yuba, and Placer Counties, with smaller mines scattered on hundreds of sites throughout the Sierra Nevada.

The many millions of tons of silt, sand, and gravel washed down from the mines was the industry’s undoing (Kelley, Robert L., Gold vs. Grain, The Hydraulic Mining Controversy in California’s Sacramento Valley. Arthur H. Clark Company, 1959). The massive volume of debris that resulted from hydraulic mining clogged streams and rivers from the foothill outlest to the mouth of San Francisco Bay, obstructing navigable rivers and reducing their ability to carry flood waters. The lighter silt and sands, the "slickins", spread over the river-side farms of the Sacramento Valley and ruined many farmers. These downstream impacts of the industry eventually brought on a series of local, then federal, lawsuits, and a series of debates in the California Legislature on how (or if) the problem would be solved. The end of debate came in 1884, when federal circuit judge Lorenzo Sawyer issued an injunction against the industry discharging its debris.

With the Sawyer injunction, the industry collapsed and the hydraulic miners abandoned the diggings for other work. Over the next ten years, plans for local and regional dams to restrain mining debris were discussed and in 1893 legislation carried Amador County Congressman Anthony Caminetti was signed. The Caminetti Act provided for the US Army Corps of Engineers to license the operation of individual hydraulic mines once they had demonstrated that their debris would not be discharged to the rivers. But for most mines it was too late: their ditches and flumes had failed, capital for adequate debris dams was difficult to raise, and their workers had moved on. Sporadic operation of a few hydraulic mines continued into the 1960s.

After the hydraulic mining industry was shut down, most of the mining water systems were abandoned as too expensive to operate. Many, though, were adapted for irrigation and/or hydropower use, and continue to serve us today. If you are interested in the history of these water systems, visit Bringing water to the mines...the hydraulic systems of the Sierra Nevada, 1850-1900.

For a very extensive history of hydraulic mining and an appreciation of its impact on California history and institutions, see: Holliday, J. S., Rush for Riches: Gold Fever and the Making of California, University of California Press, 1999. Note: We appreciate the contribution of Professor Joel Michaelsen (University of California Santa Barbara Department of Geography), for making available on the Web some images of hydraulic mining from Rush for Riches.

Related Links:

Images Courtesy Barry A. Swackhamer Collection, as noted.
Text Courtesy Craig E. Crouch, Rocklin, California.

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