Mining California: An Ecological History

Overview

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 ...

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Overview

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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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Superbly written. This excellent read, a model for future studies, deserves highest recommendations.” —D. Steeples, Choice; An Outstanding Academic Title

“As entertaining as it is insightful, Isenberg's book does justice to the dramatic ecological transformations California underwent in the half century after the Gold Rush. This is environmental history at its best.” —J. R. McNeill, author of Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World

“Andrew Isenberg's superb new book analyzes the ecological domino effect set in motion by the California Gold Rush, which touched off the cycles of environmental degradation the scale of which we can only now fully appreciate. Filled with lessons and warnings, Mining California is a timely and important book.” —William Deverell, Director, Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West

“The book offers a mother lode of descriptions of the sheer scale of projects undertaken, and a keen portrait of the ecological domino effect of new industries…. At a time when the state’s residency has been forecast to grow by 13 million in the next 25 years, with its population probably stretching into its farthest regions, Mining California offers sobering reading on the consequences of unchecked expansion.” —San Francisco Chronicle

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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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780809069323
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 7/25/2006
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,020,841
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.57 (d)

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.

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Table of Contents

Introduction : the political economy of California industrialization 3
1 The alchemy of hydraulic mining : technology, law, and resource-intensive industrialization 23
2 Banking on Sacramento : urban development, flood control, and political legitimization 53
3 Capitalizing on nature : innovation and production in the redwood forests 75
4 Gambling on the grassland : kinship, capital, and ecology in Southern California 103
5 The enclosure of the plateau : land and labor in the high lake country 131
Epilogue : economic development and the California environment 163
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