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Turning Water to Gold

Confronted with a hill full of gold, miners removed the hill and the gold — and left a mess behind

Finally, in 1875, a particularly disastrous flood struck the Sacramento Valley, sending enough water swirling through Marysville to fill its streets with thick, gooey mud. State engineer William Hammond Hall's report was shocking. Hydraulic mining had dumped millions of cubic yards of earth, rocks and debris into the Yuba. North Bloomfield Gravel Mining alone had poured in more than 20 million cubic yards a year.

Lining up with the farmers was the Central Pacific Railroad (later the Southern Pacific). The politically powerful railroad not only counted on mud-free riverside tracks but was a large landowner throughout the valley. With its backing, the farmers made a federal case of the controversy, and in 1882, a New York resident and Marysville property owner, Edwards Woodruff, filed suit before Judge Lorenzo Sawyer.

Woodruff v. North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company dragged on for nearly two years. Mountains of testimony told of losses to landowners like Woodruff and legal rights held by mining companies, with innumerable visits by the court and witnesses to observe the damage firsthand. In January 1884, Sawyer, who himself had come to California as a goldseeker, presented a 255-page decision. Hydraulic mining was not illegal, Sawyer wrote, but by dumping its tailings into the river, North Bloomfield not only violated the rights of those downstream but despoiled the landscape and watershed that were not its to destroy. The company could practice hydraulic mining on its own land but was required to impound the debris. It could no longer simply dump it into the river.

Church bells rang jubilantly in Marysville that night.

Hydraulic mining soon went into decline. Hydraulic mining's residue, of course, continued to seep into the river, and the California Debris Commission monitored the debris dams for years.

The abandoned "diggins" became Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park in 1996. About 27,000 visitors a year drive down the twisting narrow road to admire the colorful formations. Most are campers and hikers, who peek in the restored general store, which closed in 1942 and still displays boots and shovels and miners' gear left behind. Or they simply marvel at the last of the eight monster water cannons that once pulverized the hillside, day and night.

"It's an irony, isn't it?" Ken Huie is saying. He has just shown me a mile-and-a-half-long tunnel that drained the mine. "It cost the company about three and a half million dollars to construct all this. And all they got back, according to the best estimates, is three and a half million. For all the effort and the damage, they just about broke even."

By Edwin Kiester, Jr.

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