George C. Briggs arrived in California from Ohio in 1849, but didn't spend much time digging for gold. Instead, he grew fruit, which he sold to miners. On his 1851 watermelon crop alone he made $5,000 and turned the profits into fruit trees. In 1859 Briggs grossed more than $100,000 from his orchards along the Yuba, Feather and Sacramento Rivers.
A Quick Profit in Farming
As Briggs' agricultural business turned a profit in the early 1850s, other miners-turned-farmers cleared and planted the bottomland along California's rivers to grow vegetables, barley and dairy. Like Briggs, many turned quick profits and settled into the business. Soon they were growing wheat and selling flour in the mines for as much as $3 a pound.
A Miner's Life
For 49ers who stuck it out in the mines, gold rush life changed radically during the 1850s. By 1852 the average daily yield for placer miners was less than a third of what it had been in 1848 -- just $6, down from a high of $20. With such a decrease in income, many men went to work for large mining operations. The independent 49er with his pick and shovel became a wage laborer.
A Funnel and a Hose
In March 1853 a miner from Connecticut, Edward Matteson, and his partners fashioned a three-foot tapered metal funnel to which they clamped a canvas hose. They pumped water through the hose and pointed it at the hillside from which they were trying to extract gold. The water shot through with surprising force, quickly rendering the hillside into a pile of gravel and providing plenty of pay dirt from which to separate gold.
The new technique caught on fast. The roar of water cannons and the crumbling of hillsides soon echoed through the mining district, as hundreds of gallons of water fired into the hills. "I am at a loss to illustrate the tremendous force with which the water is projected from the pipes. The miners assert that they can throw a stream four hundred feet into the air. ... Those streams directed upon an ordinary wooden building would speedily unroof and demolish it," wrote a reporter for the San Francisco Daily Alta.
Millions of Gallons
Hydraulic mining required millions of gallons of water. Entrepreneurs dammed streams and built complex systems of ditches and wooden flumes to direct water to the mining operations. The Tuolumne Water Company spent $200,000 to bring water to the Columbia mines from 20 miles away. To recoup its $373,000 investment in flumes, the Middle Yuba Canal and Water Company charged 35 cents (about $8.00 in 2005 dollars) a "miner's inch" for its water. By 1859, 5726 miles of aqueducts ran through the California mining region.
The profits from hydraulic mining were enormous and the state economy boomed. From 1860 to 1880, California's mining operations yielded $170 million. San Francisco had more millionaires than New York or Boston. While mining remained the cornerstone of the economy, farmers like George Briggs were doing well too. They fed the thousands of men who blasted California's hillsides and exported millions of bushels of wheat to world markets.
In January 1861 a warm spell brought heavy rains that loosened deep snowdrifts in the Sierras. Snowmelt ran down the canyons and swelled the rivers. At Marysville the levees were overwhelmed and the surrounding countryside was inundated. Thousands of heads of cattle drowned. Worse, the flood washed down millions of cubic yards of dirt, mud and silt -- all residue from upstream hillsides that had been pulverized by hydraulic mining. When the water receded, it left behind eight-foot drifts of silt in Sacramento. Riverside farms were buried in sand. In George Briggs' orchard on the Yuba River, three feet of muck hardened into "slickens" that wiped out 58,000 fruit trees. Briggs promptly moved to Santa Barbara.
Without concern for those downstream, hydraulic mining proceeded at a relentless pace. The mining companies permanently altered the California landscape, choked its rivers with sediment, and repeatedly buried thousands of acres of low-lying farms. At one farm, the peak of the farmhouse roof barely poked through the 18 feet of slickens under which it was buried. With no laws to protect their property, enraged farmers took the miners -- their best customers -- to court. The battle over hydraulic mining raged for the next 20 years.
Farming vs. Mining
With each new flood, the frustrated farmers challenged the mining companies' right to destroy the valley lands. In doing so, they attacked a near sacred institution and the foundation of the California economy. Even when the farmers won the occasional injunction to halt hydraulic mining, the mining companies ignored it and kept the hoses firing. After all, they argued, their industry employed thousands of men and was worth far more than the towns and farms downstream.
The New Gold
The miners didn't seem to understand that wheat was becoming the new gold. In 1880 a single farmer made $800,000 on his wheat crop. That decade, the value of the state's agricultural production exceeded the value of its mines. On January 7, 1884 state court judge Lorenzo Sawyer finally ruled in favor of the farmers, bringing an official end to hydraulic mining. But for the next ten years, clandestine mining operations persisted in washing debris into California's rivers, leaving a landscape that looked as if it had been ravaged by giant moles.
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