CALIFORNIA (KTXL) — California’s Gold Rush is known for making many people rich and inflating the population of the then-young state, but it also resulted in the creation of the nation’s first environmental law.
As gold mining went from individuals with gold pans raking the bottom of creek beds to industries using the latest technologies to strip precious ores from California’s hillsides, the impact on the surrounding environment became more severe.
Hydraulic mining was a growing form of industrial mining, in which high-pressure water would blast out of water cannons, known as monitors, into hillsides to wash away dirt and rocks to uncover the gold beneath.
The largest hydraulic gold mining operation in California was the North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company, known today as the Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, 26 miles northeast of Nevada City.
In 1882, after three decades of hydraulic mining in the area, this operation would be the catalyst for a Marysville farmer to file litigation with the California Circuit Court that would create the nation’s first environmental law.
The mine got its start when three prospectors heading north from Nevada City found gold in a small creek. Eventually, other miners would learn of the location of the creek, but turned up empty-handed and named the creek Humbug Creek.
However, gold was eventually discovered in gravel piles in the area and hydraulic mining would begin at the site in 1853. By 1857, Humbug City swelled to 500 people, had its own post office and was renamed North Bloomfield.
The mine’s operations were not even close to their peak. In the 1860s, after multiple years of drought, many left North Bloomfield for other mining locations.
French immigrant Julius Poquillion saw the potential in the mine and bought up plots all around North Bloomfield. After securing new investors from San Francisco, Poquillion began the North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company in 1866.
Poquillion scaled up every aspect of the mining operation, adding a total of four monitors that could blast 25 million gallons of water per day, building 100 miles of dikes and canals, and purchasing English Reservoir, the largest in the state at the time, to provide enough water and build several dams.
One of the biggest projections, the one that would be the cause of the lawsuit, was the creation of the 7,878-foot long North Bloomfield Tunnel in 1874, which would send debris to the South Yuba River.
By 1876 the mine was fully operational, with 11 reservoirs sending 100 million gallons of water per day to the mining site to move over 100,000 tons of gravel every 24 hours.
The town of North Bloomfield had also grown to around 2,000 people.
This increased production would come at a cost, as the debris from the mine would raise the riverbed of the Yuba, Feather and Sacramento rivers above their banks in some areas and cause flooding.
The town of Marysville, as well as the city of Sacramento, experienced flooding due to the rise in the riverbeds from built-up mining debris deposits.
Following this series of floods, Marysville farm owner and business owner Edward Woodruff filed litigation against the mining company in 1882, in what is known as Woodruff v. North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company.
“It (debris) has filled up the natural channel of the Yuba above the level of its banks and of the surrounding country, and also of the Feather below the mouth of the Yuba, to the depth of 15 feet or more,” states the court documents. “It has buried with sand and gravel and destroyed all the farms of the riparian owners on either side of the Yuba, over a space two miles wide and twelve miles long.”
Besides the destruction of his and other townspeople’s property, Woodruff also said that the rise in the riverbed caused steamships to be unable to travel upriver and provide shipping for businesses.
“Originally the steam-boat landing for the city was on the Yuba, nearly opposite to this block, but by reason of the filling up of that river its navigation has been prevented, and the landing is now in the Feather, three-fourths of a mile distant from said block,” court records read.
On Jan. 7, 1884, Judge Lorenzo Sawyer concluded that the operations of the mine were destructive to those downriver and banned debris to be washed into water sources. What has become known as the Sawyer Act ended hydraulic mining operations across the state.
North Bloomfield mining ignored the newly created act and was heavily fined in 1886. In 1890 they were fined again for not getting an operating license as required by a newly created state law.
By the late 1890s, the mine finally ceased operations and left behind a 6,900-foot long, 3,800-foot wide and 600-foot deep mining pit.
During the mine’s 44 years of operation, it removed 41 million cubic yards of gravel and dirt and uncovered $13.5 million in gold.
Today, the site is the Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, which includes the town of North Bloomfield and the mining site itself.
In the 130 years since the mine closed nature has begun to reclaim the land and many animals now call the pit of the mine home.
According to signage in the park black tail deer, mule deer, black bears, mountain lions, several kinds of owl, bobcats and coyotes call the park home today.