What if were to tell you that over 80% of the gold in the mother lode was still there? That the pivotal California Gold Rush barely scratched the surface of the state's wealth in gold? Would you believe it? It's true, the vast majority of the riches are buried right there in the sloping California goldfields, waiting. But why? Did the miners not know? Did gold lose its value? Neither, the miners were vastly aware of where the gold lay and the price per ounce of gold is 50 times higher than it was during the gold rush. So what happened?
Hydraulic mining was in full swing. Monitors (water cannons) blasted away at hillsides 24 hours a day, pumping tens of millions of gallons of water, eroding and setting loose the precious gold. Down the gold ran tumbling with mud, gravel, and other debris. It passed through long sluices catching the heavy gold flakes along the riffles and letting the sludge pass through. Tens of thousands of tons of gravel and mud poured daily out of the Sierra foothills and settled in the rivers below.
Flooded, choked, swollen. These were the terms that described the rivers and valleys of California as hydraulic mining took siege on the lowlands of the Sacramento Valley. City streets lay in ruins, farmlands encrusted with mud, and the San Francisco bay turned brown the year round. Tensions started to grow between the farmers of the valley and the miners of the foothills. Levees and damns were built, but burst, and so did the tempers of the people, finally leading to the landmark case of Edwards Woodruff v. North Bloomfield Mining and Gravel Company.
The case made its way up to the United States District Court in San Francisco and judge Lorenzo Sawyer. What he discovered was that thousands of acres of farmlands were flooded and towns like Marysville and Yuba City were under 25 feet of mud. He found numerous shipping lanes closed do to the impassibility of sludge choked rivers. So in 1884, a mere 31 years after the invention of hydraulic mining, judge Sawyer made his decision and ruled in favor of the farmers. The Sawyer Decision, as it is known, was 225 pages long and took nearly two hours to read, the final blow was stated thus, "All tailings must stop." While some mines continued to operate illegally or under heavy fines, the damage was done, and even these unlawful undertakings dwindled and diminished by the 1900's.
More than merely ending the era of the gold mining in California the Sawyer Decision had made a statement to protect agriculture, environment and the public interest. The ruling paved the way for the dominance of the rich agricultural economy of California today. It is also seen by many as the first environmental case in the United States protecting the interest of public lands over the rights of private financial interests, by acknowledging the value and effects of changing the environment. These legal effects are not the only major changes that often go unrecognized during talk of the gold rush - check back into our next blog to learn about the all too often forgotten effects on the American Indians of the area.