As the story goes, an Irish prospector thought he discovered gold by the Yuba River; despite his best efforts at subterfuge, he was unable to keep his secret from his fellow miners in the nearby town of Nevada City, 16 miles away. The miners tried their luck, found nothing, and declared the site a “humbug,” a name that stuck to the adjacent hamlet and creek.
Several years later, when gold was really discovered, residents of Humbug deemed the name inappropriate and unrespectable so they changed it to Bloomﬁeld. Alas, Bloomﬁeld already existed farther south in California so the town’s name changed again—this time to North Bloomﬁeld. (Historians have yet to ﬁgure why the miners chose the name Bloomﬁeld.)
The change in the town’s name, accompanied by a change in technology—hydraulic mining—led to a dramatic change in fortune. Spraying vast amounts of water under high pressure onto the gold-laden gravels of the Malakoff area, the miners created quite a pit—and proﬁt—for the mine owners. During its operation, between 1866 and 1884, some 41 million cubic yards of earth was excavated, yielding several million dollars worth of gold.
The amount of erosion and subsequent environmental damage caused by hydraulic mining was astonishing. Debris dumped into the Yuba River was carried all the way to the Central Valley; silt clogged up the river and caused ﬂoods, leading to loss of life and property. Silt was ﬂushed all the way to San Francisco Bay. Navigation of the Sacramento River was imperiled.
Although hydraulic mining, described as “a devilishly successful method of blasting gold from the ground,” was born when Antoine Chabot first used a hose to wash loose gravel on his claim at Buckeye Hill, it was here at the Malakoff Mine that the method realized its full potential. The gold the miners were after here along the San Juan Ridge was located in “deep gravels,” ancient riverbeds which had dried up some fifty million years ago. Since that time, the powerful geologic forces that created the Sierra Nevada have twisted, moved, broken, and buried those ancient river channels and their gold deposits, often times under several hundred feet of low grade or worthless dirt. And the most efficient and economical way to move that dirt and get the gold was hydraulic mining.
The North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company operated the Malakoff Mine, the world’s largest hydraulic operation. In an effort to provide better drainage needed to reach the richest deposits, the company embarked on one of the greatest mining engineering feats of all time, carving an eight thousand foot long drainage tunnel through solid bedrock. Hamilton Smith was the engineer in charge of digging the tunnel, and after thirty months of intense activity he saw his tunnel completed on November 15 of 1874, which allowed the company to mine the deep gravels and dump the tailings directly into the South Yuba River. The company reached its peak after completing the tunnel, operating seven giant monitors twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and processing fifty thousand tons of gravel per day. In this manner, more than forty-one million yards of earth were mined, which resulted in creating the Malakoff mine pit, a spectacular canyon some seven thousand feet long and three thousand feet wide, which reached a depth of nearly six hundred feet at the peak of mining operations.
Although hydraulic mining proved to be extremely profitable, it also proved to be disastrous to the environment. The waste gravel, mud, and water from the mining operations were initially dumped into Humbug Creek and later into the Yuba River. These tailings polluted the streams, killed the fish, and rendered the Sacramento and Yuba rivers un-navigable for ocean going vessels for more than one hundred years. The silt from hydraulic mining reached as far as San Francisco Bay and on through the Golden Gate. At Marysville, debris from the Malakoff mine choked the Yuba until the river bottom was higher than the adjacent town, causing severe flooding and damage. And as the bed of the Sacramento River rose, floods struck the rich agricultural areas in California’s great Central Valley, resulting in millions of dollars in damages for local farmers.
The farmers, who were not about to let hydraulic mining destroy their land, fought back and by June of 1883 a landmark case was being heard in the courtroom of Judge Lorenzo Sawyer. A Marysville property owner named Woodruff had brought suit against the North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company to stop them from dumping tailings into the Yuba River. In January of 1884, Sawyer handed down his decision, ruling in favor of the farmers. This was the famous Sawyer Decision, the first environmental legislation in the United States, and the decision which effectively brought an end to the era of hydraulic mining in California. In a 225 page document he permanently enjoined the North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company from dumping tailings into the Yuba River. In one of the great landmark cases in early conservation history, Woodruff (a Central Valley property owner) vs. the North Bloomﬁeld Gravel Mining Company, Judge Lorenzo Sawyer issued a permanent injunction in 1884 against dumping tailings into the Yuba River.