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Mining California: An Ecological History

Mining California: An Ecological History

by Andrew C. Isenberg

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An environmental History of California during the Gold Rush

Between 1849 and 1874 almost $1 billion in gold was mined in California. With little available capital or labor, here's how: high-pressure water cannons washed hillsides into sluices that used mercury to trap gold but let the soil wash away; eventually more than three times the amount of


An environmental History of California during the Gold Rush

Between 1849 and 1874 almost $1 billion in gold was mined in California. With little available capital or labor, here's how: high-pressure water cannons washed hillsides into sluices that used mercury to trap gold but let the soil wash away; eventually more than three times the amount of earth moved to make way for the Panama Canal entered California's rivers, leaving behind twenty tons of mercury every mile—rivers overflowed their banks and valleys were flooded, the land poisoned. In the rush to wealth, the same chain of foreseeable consequences reduced California's forests and grasslands.

Not since William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis has a historian so skillfully applied John Muir's insight—"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe"—to the telling of the history of the American West. Beautifully told, this is western environmental history at its finest.

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Kirkus Reviews
Forget rugged individualism: corporations owned the Old West, agribusiness dominated the 19th-century landscape, and speculators looted the public trust. So writes environmental historian Isenberg (History/Temple Univ.; The Destruction of the Bison, 2000), observing that the passage of the Homestead Act of 1862 did little to prevent the West from being carved into resource-extractive estates. In this setting, California suffered "enclosure," much as the highlands of Scotland had; Indians were pushed aside, valuable properties appropriated and the government molded to benefit the largeholders. In Northern California, the driving forces were not only agricultural interests, but also companies devoted to removing ore and timber. They prospered, while their workers and tenants suffered; as Isenberg points out, for example, the miners who worked the first wave of the Gold Rush were earning $20 a day in 1848, but only $3 a day in 1856 (and that second number, he notes, "represents only the wages of those who earned enough in the gold country to remain there"). One cause was the replacement of labor-intensive forms of extraction with machinery; on the American River, placer mining technology took the place of humans, and soon whole mountains were washed into the San Francisco Bay. Timber companies removed huge quantities of redwood trees, once they had overcome an odd problem: at first, the things were too big to cut and transport. In Southern California, the land was similarly damaged, but this time owing to cattle overgrazing, an economy that failed to make anyone particularly wealthy. Yet these very instruments of degradation and extraction spurred Californians to set pace for the nation inestablishing environmental laws and conservation organizations; "much of the agenda of the wilderness movement," Isenberg writes, can be seen as a "reaction to or a negation of the most prominent forms of industrial resource exploitation in the nineteenth-century West."A strong complement to the work of William Cronon, Richard White, Patricia Nelson Limerick and other modern historians of the American West.

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Mining California

An Ecological History

By Andrew C. Isenberg

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2005 Andrew C. Isenberg
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-70720-0


The Alchemy of Hydraulic Mining: Technology, Law, and Resource-Intensive Industrialization

Between 1849 and 1858, California produced over $550 million in gold. This mineral wealth drew tens of thousands of prospectors: in 1848, the non-Indian population of California was a mere 14,000; by 1860, the new state had a non-Indian population of 380,000. Yet despite the booming economy, many argonauts had slipped into poverty by the late 1850s. According to one estimate, a miner's average earnings for a day's work fell from $20 in 1848 to a mere $3 by 1856. The latter figure represents only the wages of those who earned enough in the gold country to remain there. Many earned far less; these disappointed prospectors drifted into other sectors of the economy. One such failed prospector, Sullivan Osborne, lamented in 1857 that after six years in California he "lived and fared like a dog." He recorded in his diary that in 1851 he had been "young full of high hopes and bright anticipations of the future." Those dreams, however, "have long since perished and with them every fine ambition [and] all I've thought or wished to be."

Like many emigrants to California, Osborne had embarked for the Far West believing that gold was a free good easily available in nature, obtained by independent laborers and simple means. Within a few years of the discovery of gold on the American River, however, labor-intensive means of exploiting readily accessible deposits known as placers—panning, rockers, and makeshift dams to divert rivers and dig at the streambed—had given way to hydraulic mining. Using this technology, in which high-pressure water cannons washed hillsides into sluices constructed to trap gold but let soil and gravel wash away, California continued to mine large quantities of gold after 1858: between 1859 and 1874, the state produced $400 million in gold. In these later years, even fewer independent prospectors took part in the exploitation of California's mineral wealth than in the 1850s. One observer, John Kincade, wrote in 1871, "Mining is no longer generally prosecuted by those having a will to work, but is conducted by the few having capital to invest. All that class of mining that was easily discovered and worked has passed away."

The emergence of hydraulic mining and the decline of independent prospectors were not coincidental. Hydraulic mining was a relatively old and simple technology; the Romans had employed it in Iberia. Yet it was not for its simplicity that hydraulic mining emerged in California. However accessible the technology, constructing a hydraulic mining system—dams, reservoirs, distributing flumes and aqueducts, pipes and nozzles, tunnels, and sluices—was a massive undertaking that required the outlay of significant amounts of capital, a scarce commodity in the nineteenth-century West. For investors, the benefits of hydraulic mining justified its initial costs for two primary reasons. First, the investment in the technology of hydraulic mining reduced the high costs of labor in the gold country. Hydraulic mines initiated the transformation of the gold country from a locale dominated by independent prospectors to an industrial place characterized by wage laborers. The key to this transition was the replacement of tools such as pans, picks, and shovels, which were owned and used by independent laborers, with the machines of hydraulic mining, which were owned and controlled by investors.

Second, the hydraulic system extended a measure of human control over the dynamic hydrology of the California gold country. The effort to impose control over the nonhuman natural environment is a hallmark of large technological systems. The unpredictable environment—floods one season, drought the next—made the use of water to wash gold-bearing gravel unreliable. Investors were wary of committing capital to California placer mining until the industry had tamed the volatile environment. By attracting capital investment as well as reducing labor costs, hydraulic mining technology compensated for chronic shortages of capital and high costs of labor—the two most expensive factors of production in nineteenth-century America.

The historian Richard White has analyzed the intersection of nature, technology, labor, and culture in his study of the Columbia River. White argued that nineteenth-century Americans used technology not to change nature and forms of labor but to realize them "in a new form." He grounded his argument largely in a reading of the New England transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who "reconciled" a spiritual nature with a productive capitalism. In their approach to nature and capitalism, White wrote, "Americans were Emersonians." On an intellectual level, this may have been true, although other historians, such as John Kasson, have suggested that Emerson's view of machines and nature was more ambivalent. In either case, hydraulic mining engineers in California certainly did not understate the transformative power of their technology: for them, it radically changed the economic and natural environments, taming nature and laborers alike and thus making placer mining an attractive investment. Industrial technology was for them a sign of economic power, much as European nations used technology to impose power on their colonial possessions in Africa and Asia.

While hydraulic mining had substantial benefits for investors, it had significant environmental costs. The sluices flushed tailings into the streams that flowed out of the Sierra. By the mid-1860s, debris from hydraulic gold mining had fouled and flooded rivers that drained into the Sacramento River, and ultimately into San Francisco Bay, destroying both fish and farmland. Hydraulic mines used large amounts of mercury, a toxic mineral mined and processed near San Jose, as an amalgam in their sluices. Much of this mercury also found its way into the riverine environment. In short, as Californians transformed the environment in the pursuit of wealth, they created costly environmental problems. Yet the legal environment that made natural resources available cheaply also protected industry's right to dispose of wastes in public waterways—at least until a coalition of opposing agrarian and industrial interests formed to challenge the hydraulic mines in the 1880s. By that time, however, much of the environment of the gold country—its hydrology, its ecology, and its very geology—had been irrevocably altered. California had become an industrial place.

The mercury and gold deposits of California were the products of millions of years of geological change. The Sierra Nevada, a 400-mile mountain chain rising to nearly 14,500 feet, extending from the Mojave Desert in the south to the Cascade Range in the north, owes its origin to the convergence of tectonic plates, the continental- and oceanic-sized pieces forming the outer layer of the earth. Tectonic plates are not fixed in place; they slowly drift atop a more viscous layer below. The Sierra began to form 200 million years ago as the westward-drifting North American plate collided with the Pacific plate. As the two plates abutted, the ocean floor of the Pacific plate squeezed beneath the North American plate at an oblique angle, in a process geologists call subduction. The intense pressure of the subduction created heat sufficient to form magma, or molten rock. The magma eventually cooled to become an enormous block of granite called a batholith. Succeeding pulses of magma intruded into the batholith, causing it to rise.

Beginning ten to twelve million years ago, and particularly in the last three million years, the Sierra batholith has lifted up rapidly. In 1872, an earthquake in the Owens Valley raised the eastern front of the Sierra by twenty-five feet. To borrow an analogy from the geologists Edward Tarbuck and Frederick Lutgens, the batholith acted like a heavy but buoyant log floating high in the water in isostatic balance with the mass below it.

The magma that became the granite of the Sierra forced to the surface hot water containing gold in solution. The presence of gold in solution is not itself remarkable: many rocks and even seawater contain minute amounts of gold. What was notable was that in California the silica solution settled in fissures in the granite to form gold-bearing quartz veins. Here it would have remained, largely inaccessible, were it not for millions of years of fluvial erosion. In the first phase of erosion, occurring between forty and sixty million years ago, long before uplift, broad rivers flowed across the hills that preceded the Sierra, eroding the quartz veins and disbursing the gold along gravel riverbeds. Subsequently, volcanic activity over tens of millions of years buried these ancient riverbeds in lava and ash. In the second phase, after uplift, mountain streams on the western slope of the Sierra eroded the sedimentary and volcanic accretions that had covered the gravel deposits. When argonauts arrived in California in 1849, therefore, this second phase of erosion had left much gold relatively accessible. In 1849, in certain places in the streambeds of the Feather, Yuba, American, Mokelumne, Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced rivers, flakes and nuggets of gold were visible to the naked eye.

The riverine environments of the western slope of the Sierra were the ecological centers of the gold country. The riverlands were unique environments in the otherwise dry climate of the foothills and Central Valley. In contrast to the coniferous forests of the mountains and the grasses of the valley, the riverlands supported dense forests of cottonwoods, willows, Oregon ash, California black walnut, oaks, sycamores, and alder on the natural levees created by centuries of sedimentary deposits. These types of trees, with bright green, large leaves, are rare in the dry region west of the Rocky Mountains, an area without native elms, beeches, or hickories.

The geologist Jeffrey Mount has called the rivers of California products of a contest between the mountains and the erosive effects of the oxygen- and water-rich atmosphere. Water flowing in the rivers begins as moisture in air currents flowing eastward from the Pacific, that is until they meet the western slopes of the California Coast Range. The coastal mountains cast a "rain shadow" over the low-lying Central Valley, causing much of the region to receive less than twenty inches of annual precipitation. Moisture-bearing air currents that are high enough pass over the Coast Range and encounter the higher elevations of the Sierra. Precipitation there, however, is uneven: 50 percent of upper Sierra annual precipitation falls as snow between January and March. Less than 3 percent of annual precipitation falls during the summer. As a consequence, the flow of water in the streams on the western slope of the Sierras is torrential in the spring, as winter snow melts, but a comparative trickle in the summer.

River flow alternately impeded and permitted miners' search for gold. High water in the spring prevented miners from scouring the auriferous gravel of the riverbeds for treasure. In the summer, when the streams had receded, companies of miners sought to dam or divert streams to search the riverbeds for dust, flakes, and nuggets. In a letter home in 1850, Joseph Pownall described this backbreakingly labor-intensive process:

You have come to the conclusion it may be that we can pick up a chunk of gold whenever we choose on the surface anywhere. This is a gross mistake. Imagine to yourself a stream between two mountains full of rocks and trees and stones and grass.... What is there to be done? Why you have to strike for the rocky bottom or ledge on which the stream runs and on which the gold is deposited ... which often requires a tremendous deal of extremely laborious work. Picture to yourself your humble servant pulling at one end of a pump endeavoring to keep a hole free while some 3 or 4 companions are at work in it.

Despite their labors, dams and ditches collapsed frequently, forcing miners to begin their work again. Maddeningly, if too much water obstructed the miners' access to gold, so did too little. Miners relied on flowing water to wash gravel through long wooden sluices designed to separate gold from lighter soil and gravel; low water made it impossible for miners to wash their gold.

The unpredictability of the river valley environment impeded not only the search for gold but the search for outside capital investment to support mining in California. One of the ironies of gold rush California was that, despite producing roughly one-third of the world's gold in the 1850s, far from being awash in capital, the state was chronically short of it. Once the most obvious and accessible gold deposits had been exhausted, few investors from outside the state were willing to commit capital to the speculative venture of California placer mining. Indeed, because so many goods were imported, bullion flowed out of California in the 1850s; Californians relied on a currency of gold dust, nuggets, and foreign coins. In 1854 much of the California economy operated on credit, and in early 1855 several California banks closed. The investment climate worsened at the end of the decade, when the discovery of silver deposits in Nevada siphoned off most of the available capital.

To make up for this shortfall, California, like most of industrializing America, looked to British investors, who underwrote much of the industrialization of North America and Western Europe. Most British investors regarded California placer mining as too risky a venture to commit to, however. In the first few years after the discovery of gold, a handful of investment companies formed in London to raise capital for California gold mining. Most of these companies did little more than formally incorporate, however, and none stayed in existence longer than two years.

So in the early and mid-1850s, when miners began to build reservoirs and canals to control the unpredictable river flow of California, they sought not only to regularize the environment and thus gain easier access to placer deposits, but to attract capital investment by imposing predictability on the rivers.

Encountering the same natural obstacles as placer mining, the construction of reservoirs and ditches proceeded fitfully. In December 1851, A. H. Gilmore wrote to his brother in Indiana of the impressive scale and potential profit of the Mokelumne Hill ditch: capitalized at $175,000, the ditch was eighteen miles long, including at one point a 1,000-foot-long aqueduct spanning a ravine seventy-two feet deep. The work was not completed, however. "Our canalling operations are not coming on as well as was anticipated, the rainy season having set in rather early [sic] than usual. All operations on the works have necessarily been suspended until next spring, so there will be no profit reaped from this source for the time being."

Once completed, early reservoirs and ditches were shoddy and unreliable. A reservoir near the settlement of Independence Hill in Placer County broke in January 1855, causing water to sweep down the ravine, killing three people. Eventually, with the help of capital investments from within the state, the reservoirs became more stable. Pownall, seeing the centrality of the control of water to mining operations and perhaps weary of laboring in the mines, joined a group of investors that eventually called itself the Tuolumne County Water Company. Beginning in 1853, the company constructed a system of reservoirs and ditches on the Stanislaus River. By June 1855 it had built four large dams at a cost of $140,000. The largest reservoir had a capacity of nearly 200,000 cubic feet. A system of distributing ditches supplied water—for a fee, of course—to mining camps in the area. A typical agreement with a miner in California was for 10 percent of the net proceeds arising from the use of the company's water.

Amos Parmalee Catlin, a lawyer from Duchess County, New York, who had migrated to Sacramento in 1849, had still less desire than Pownall to labor in the diggings himself. In December 1851 he and his partners posted a claim on the South Fork of the American River: "Notice is hereby given that a company under the name of Natoma Water Company has been formed for the purpose of taking water by means of a canal from the south fork of the American River and conveying it thence on the southerly side of said South Fork down to the placers in the vicinity of Mormon Island." The company's dam washed out after one year, but the reconstructed dam succeeded in siphoning water from the South Fork of the American River just above Salmon Falls into a ditch running parallel to the river's southern bank. The ditch delivered water to such mining camps as Rhodes Diggings, Prairie Diggings, and Willow Springs Diggings, proving so profitable that in 1853 Catlin and his partners were able to reorganize the company with a capital stock of $600,000.


Excerpted from Mining California by Andrew C. Isenberg. Copyright © 2005 Andrew C. Isenberg. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Andrew C. Isenberg is a professor of history at Temple University. He is the author of The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750–1920 and is a former fellow of the Huntington Library and the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies.

Andrew C. Isenberg is the author of Mining California: An Ecological History (Hill and Wang, 2005) and The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750–1920 and the editor of The Nature of Cities: Culture, Landscape, and Urban Space. He is a historian at Temple University and lives in Penn Valley, PA.

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