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5— Environmental Changes before and after the Gold Rush
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Environmental Changes before and after the Gold Rush

Raymond F. Dasmann


The celebration of the Gold Rush has been an occasion for fun and games for many Californians--dressing up in pioneer costumes, marching in or cheering for parades, consuming alcohol, and other diversions. There is a nostalgia for an earlier time, one seemingly without the pressure of laws, rules, or community restrictions, when one could do as one pleased and, if lucky, suddenly become wealthy. Indeed, those who flocked to the gold fields were often betting their lives on "getting rich quick," and it is not surprising that a gambling hall was one of the first structures to be built in the new gold towns, usually in combination with a saloon and brothel.

In reading the accounts of those who were there in 1849 and later, most often one seeks in vain for descriptions of the countryside, the natural world, or the wild animal life. There was no obvious concern for the environment. Anything that stood in the way of the gold seeker was pushed aside or destroyed, whether a grizzly bear or a mountain. Ruthless exploitation with no thought for tomorrow was the basis for the way of life in gold-rush times.

The start of the Gold Rush was obviously related to the 1848 discovery of gold in the gravels of the American River near Sutter's Fort in what is now the Sacramento metropolitan area. The heavy influx of people began in 1849, but when did it end? In terms of population movement, it has really never ended, since the tens of thousands who came in 1849 hardly compare to the half-million or more who arrived in each of some recent years. In terms of environmental damage, it has not ended at all.

It is tempting to blame the Gold Rush for starting the process of severe environmental damage in California, in what had previously been a place where nature thrived, little disturbed by humans. Unfortunately this simplistic view would not be correct. California in 1849 had already experienced serious environmental changes resulting from human activity. Extensive open-range livestock grazing introduced by


Powerful jets of water play across a scene of astounding environmental destruction at the Malakoff 
Diggings, Nevada County, in a picture by the famed California photographer Carleton Watkins. The
 big hydraulic-mining monitors began their work here in September 1870 with water carried by a 
system of ditches and flumes stretching forty-seven miles into the mountains and constructed at a
 cost of three-quarters of a million dollars. By the time operations ceased in the 1880s, the North 
Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company had carved out a canyon more than a mile long and six hundred
 feet deep in places.  Courtesy California State Library .

Spaniards and Mexicans had resulted in modification of native grasslands, from a long-established and highly productive perennial bunchgrass community to one dominated by introduced (exotic) annual grasses of Mediterranean origin. Russian, Aleut, and American poachers had also hunted populations of sea otters and other marine mammals to near extinction. One could say there had been a cattle rush starting in the late eighteenth century with the coming of Spanish settlers and a fur rush starting in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, well before the more well-known Gold Rush. Certainly the Gold Rush directly caused even more severe damage to streams, rivers, their watersheds, and flood plains, and undoubtedly it accelerated the damage to grasslands, wildlife, forests, and other natural communities. But the damaging processes were already in place and those states that experienced no Gold Rush, such as Oregon, were to experience similar changes, although at a slower rate.

Still there is little doubt that, in terms of natural balances, California before the


Gold Rush was a more idyllic place than it was to be after that event. Perhaps the greatest indicator of the health of the environment was the abundance and diversity of wildlife, since wild animals do not thrive without a healthy habitat. The habitat for California wildlife was all of the forests and woodlands, prairies and marsh-lands, mountains and valleys, and rivers and seashores of the state.

Wildlife Changes

In the pyramid of life that comprised the natural world of California there is little doubt that the large predators were at the top. For them to thrive, there must be an abundance of prey, and for these to thrive, there must be an abundance of the plant foods that sustain them. Thus if you see an area where the predators seem fat and happy, you can suspect that all is well with the total environment. In California when the Spanish settlers first arrived in 1769, there was certainly an abundance of what was then the top predator on land, the grizzly bear.

It would be wrong to say that the grizzly was a bad-tempered animal. At times it could be quite cheerful and content in its bearish way. But it was easily and unpredictably offended. Then, it would fly into a rage and might tear the offender apart. The Indians had deep respect for the large bears and usually managed to coexist with them peacefully. So, too, did James "Grizzly" Adams, a colorful and loquacious gold-rush era hunter who roamed the wild country of California with his two tamed grizzlies, raised from cubs and taught to tolerate humans. His accounts, although not always trustworthy, confirm the relative abundance of bears throughout California. Adams also reported on the presence of true wolves, along with the ever-abundant coyote. On one occasion he encountered a female jaguar, with a cub, in the Tehachapi Mountains.[1]

All early accounts of conditions in California before European hunting began to seriously impinge on the wildlife and wild country indicate that California Indians and wild animals lived in relative harmony. It was not that Indians did not hunt. They did, and indeed depended on deer, elk, pronghorn, and other species for part of their food supply. But they did not kill for profit and had deep respect for the animals on which they depended. In consequence, animals that are now wild and wary, such as mountain lions and black bears, were then relatively tame and not quick to flee from human presence. A view of this relationship was provided by pioneer Hale Tharp, as told by Walter Fry and Toby Whyte:

There were about 2,000 Indians then living along the Kaweah River above where Lemon Cove now stands. . . . The Indians told me that I was the first white man that had ever come to their country. Few of them had ever seen a white man prior to my


The famed hunter James Capen Adams and his pet grizzly Ben Franklin, as portrayed
 by Charles Nahl. Few Californians maintained Adams's complex and imaginative 
relationship with bears, preferring simply to slaughter them for food or sport. "The 
California Grizzly," remarked a writer for  Hutchings' California Magazine  in 1858, "is
 exceedingly ferocious, and powerful; and unless treated to a deadly bullet, it is a hard
 customer to manage in an encounter." From Theodore H. Hittell,  The Adventures of 
James Capen Adams, Mountaineer and Grizzly Bear Hunter of California
  California Historical Society, FN-30962 .


There was an abundance of game. Deer were everywhere, with lots of bear along the rivers, and occasionally a grizzly bear. Lions, wolves, and foxes were plentiful.

During the summer of 1858, accompanied by two Indians, I made my first trip into the Giant Forest. When we arrived at Log Meadow there were a great many deer and a few bear in the meadow, and the animals paid little attention to us. The deer came around our camp, and some of the bears sat upright in order to get a good look at us. I shot a small buck for camp meat. The shot did not seem to frighten the other deer or any of the bears.[2]

More striking was the testimony of a Chumash elder, Grandfather Semu Huaute, who refers to a wilderness north of Santa Barbara: "You know, daughter, before the Spaniards came to California, the bears and us used to gather berries together. The bears were real friendly. We got along real well. We could talk to each other, and we had a good understanding. When the Spaniards came, they found it pretty easy to shoot the bears. After that the bears wouldn't go berrying with us any more."[3]

The Spaniards hunted bears and, although the grizzly population increased greatly in the countryside because of the new food supply—Spanish cattle—they succeeded in controlling the bears' numbers somewhat around the missions and pueblos. But it was the dispersion of people into the wild country in the gold-rush days, first as prospectors, then as miners, finally as settlers, that led to the massive depletion of wildlife. Of course the grizzly, who challenged people and often attacked, was one of the first to go. One indicative example was Humboldt County, where, according to the settlers, grizzlies were obnoxiously abundant. Early pioneer Calvin Kinman had counted forty grizzlies from one high hill in the Mattole country, but probably the last bear to live in the region was killed in 1868. In Santa Cruz County, grizzlies were also common until 1886, when the last one was reported dead. In the Sierra, they lasted longer, but the last grizzly seen, but not killed, was in Sequoia National Park in 1925.[4]

The fate of the grizzly and other animals illustrates the Gold Rush's adverse effects on the land animals of California and their habitats. However, offshore the same depletion and near extermination of marine mammals occurred. There, the decimation began even before the advent of mining, without the influence of tens of thousands of gold seekers. Two aquatic animals—the sea otter and the beaver—were the targets of the fur rush beginning more than a century before the Gold Rush. The sea otter was abundant along the California coast, particularly around San Francisco and Monterey bays and the Channel Islands. Perhaps 300,000 or more swam in the offshore waters. Unfortunately for the otters, they had a dense, warm brown coat with a silvered frosting of guard hairs. This came to be regarded as highly desirable among fur wearers in Moscow, Peking (Beijing), and elsewhere among the world's elite.


The trouble started in 1740, when the Russian government sent Vitus Bering to explore the northern Pacific toward Alaska. In the Aleutian Islands, the native Aleuts brought him large numbers of otter skins, which on the return of his expedition proved to be highly popular in Russia and China, and by the late 1700s, Russian ships were hunting the animal along the California coast.[5] The Spanish exploitation of sea otters, probably using Chumash hunters, began before 1785, when the first government regulations on the trade were issued. Between 1786 and 1790 alone, nearly 10,000 skins were exported from Mexico to Asia via the Manila galleons. The Russians, partly to improve their access to the fur trade, established bases at Fort Ross in 1812 and in the Farallon Islands, from which they went forth with their Aleut hunters to kill sea otters. One hunting party in San Francisco Bay in 1811 massacred 1,200 otters. The French also played a minor role; in 1786 the expedition of Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse obtained 1,000 skins, which they sold in China for $10,000. The price went up from $10 to $60 a skin by the 1790s. Americans became involved in the early 1800s and were still active by gold-rush times. The best known American hunter, George Nidever, was particularly busy in the Channel Islands and offshore in Baja California from 1834 to 1855.[6] By gold-rush times the otters were becoming scarce, and prospecting held a greater allure for the hunters. Nevertheless, the otter population had been reduced to perhaps thirty-two survivors by the time it was given full protection in 1911.

It was not only sea otters that suffered from this marine carnage. The Alaska fur seal was greatly reduced; and the Guadalupe fur seal was pushed to near extinction and, along with the elephant seal, survived only on Guadalupe Island in Baja California. As I wrote in an earlier work,

Few people realize even today, with the current interest in whales, how many kinds of sea mammals occur in California waters. There are twenty-six species of cetaceans, the whales and dolphins, seven species of seals and sea lions, and one sea-going otter. . . . Just as great herds of elk and antelope [pronghorn] moved across the plains of the Central Valley, in pre-European days, so also did great herds of sea mammals travel above the plains of the continental shelf, moving up the slopes of the islands and occasionally down into the depths of the submarine canyons. The abundance and variety of these sea mammals were greater than those of their terrestrial counterparts.[7]

The marine mammals under greatest hunting pressure were those that came upon the shore to rest or breed, but even the truly marine species did not escape. By the early 1800s, whaling ships from New England were in California waters chasing after right whales and sperm whales. Shore-based whaling started in 1851 and concentrated on gray and humpback whales. But all of the great whales were under attack, and with most, numbers were quickly reduced to the point of endangering the survival of the species.


The mammal that contributed more than its share to the fur rush was not a marine or coastal-waters species but an inhabitant of fresh water—the golden beaver. This large rodent reached its greatest abundance, not in the forests of the Sierra or the coast, but in the Central Valley and particularly the marshlands where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers came together to flow into the San Francisco Bay. Unlike its relatives of the Great Lakes forests and Rocky Mountains, the golden beaver did not usually build large dams or lodges that protruded above the water surfaces. Usually, beaver dens were dug into the river banks and the entrances were below the water line. Since beaver are mostly active at night, an abundance of beaver in a river may not be noticeable.

Beaver trappers reached California in 1826, when a party led by Peter Skene Ogden of the Hudson's Bay Company came south from Fort Vancouver in Canada in the same year that the American trappers Jedediah Smith and James O. Pattie led parties from their bases near the Great Salt Lake and Santa Fe. Skene and Smith were particularly successful and took thousands of beaver between 1826 and 1828. They were to be followed by enough others to greatly reduce beaver numbers before the Gold Rush, when most hunters gave up trapping in the search for what was hoped to be an easier source of wealth, but eventually other fur bearers suffered the beaver's fate. According to Joseph Grinnell and his coauthors, "After the first period of rapid depletion, the second half of the nineteenth century brought an extension of trapping to the remaining and less conspicuous fur bearers in California. Thus the exhaustion of this resource [beaver] was extended to include nearly all the kinds of fur animals."[8]

The grasslands and marshlands of California were home to abundant tule elk when the first Europeans arrived. Dale McCullough of the University of California, Berkeley, has done the most complete study of these animals and has estimated their aboriginal numbers at 500,000.[9] Richard Henry Dana in his Two Years Bette the Mast described "hundreds and hundreds" of these animals on the Marin headlands, which he watched when his sailing ship anchored in San Francisco Bay in 1835.[10] Missionary-explorer Pedro Font noted the abundance of elk in the San Francisco peninsula and east bay in 1775 and 1776.[11] Early American settler William Heath Davis reported seeing as many as three thousand elk "that swam from Mare Island to Vallejo and back," and John Bidwell wrote of elk "by the thousand" in the Napa and Santa Clara valleys in 1841.[12] It was the tule marshes and grasslands of the Central Valley, however, that supported the greatest numbers of elk, and it was there that they made their last stand.

The Gold Rush touched off the slaughter of elk because of the demand for meat in the burgeoning mining camps, towns, and cities, coupled with a shortage of beef or mutton. For a time, market-hunting of elk, deer, and pronghorn, along with waterfowl and other game, became a lucrative livelihood for those who preferred shoot-


Egg pickers gather the harvest on one of the Farallon Islands, some thirty miles off the
 Golden Gate, in 1880. The wild rush west of thousands of gold seekers created an enormous
 demand in California not only for game, but also for fish and fowl and eggs. Between 1850
 and 1856 the Farallone Egg Company alone brought over three million eggs—chiefly those
 of the common murre—to the San Francisco markets.  California Historical Society, 

ing to grubbing for gold. While there is little doubt that market-hunting depleted elk populations, it was the spread of agriculture, and the corresponding destruction of elk habitat, that really led to their near extinction. With agricultural demands came the drainage of the tule marshes, the canalization of rivers, and the fencing of farmlands. Meanwhile, great herds of domestic cattle, sheep, horses, and other livestock competed with elk for the forage produced on lands not suited to crops. In the words of T. S. Van Dyke,

As the swamps began to be drained and the cover burned off, and roads made through the drying ground, it was again the same old story of the white man. By 1875 the antelope were a curiosity on the great plains, where so many thousands lately glimmered through the dancing heat, while the elk were almost as rare in the great rule swamps


that so lately seemed inaccessible. By 1885 only one band was left, and that was on the immense (half-million acre) ranch of Miller and Lux in the upper part of the valley, some twenty miles from Bakersfield.[13]

Van Dyke visited the last herd in 1895 and found that only twenty-eight animals had survived despite the protection provided by Henry Miller. From these and perhaps only one other pair of elk reported by Game Warden A. C. Tibbets in 1895, the present population of tule elk, now numbering over two thousand, descended, but genetic diversity has been lost.

The near extermination of elk was matched by that of the pronghorn. The antelope-like grazers roamed the sea coast from Monterey to the Los Angeles basin, and the interior from the upper limits of the Sacramento Valley south into Baja California and east into the Great Basin and the Mojave Desert. But the pronghorn were animals of the grasslands, not adapted to forest, chaparral, or rule marshes. Thus, unlike the elk or black-tailed deer, they had no place to hide from the hunters. Their keen eyesight and fast running speed were no match for firearms, and they were rapidly wiped out from their main center in the Central Valley, the coastal areas, the desert fringes. Only in the northeastern corner of the state, in the sagebrush plains, did pronghorn survive. One could blame their decline on gold-rush mining, and it was, no doubt, a contributing factor, but it was the resultant lack of government protection and popular support for conservation, combined with the spread of pastoralism and agriculture, that were the main causes.

Grassland Changes

Radical changes in California's grasslands began to take place more than seventy years before the Gold Rush. With the coming of the Spanish missionaries in 1769, new elements were added to California's broad spectrum of animal life: cattle, sheep, goats, horses, and donkeys, as well as domestic fowl. These exerted a heavier pressure on the grasslands and oak savannahs of the state, which were already supporting, presumably at a carrying capacity level, great herds of elk, pronghorn, deer, and bighorn sheep. Even without any other element of change, this increased pressure of grazing alone would have changed the nature of the grasslands in favor of those species less preferred by, and of lower nutritional value for, domestic livestock. At the height of the mission period in the early decades of the nineteenth century, some 400,000 cattle and 300,000 sheep were added to the half-million elk and no doubt greater numbers of pronghorn and deer in the grasslands of the state.[14] Many wild herds of cattle and horses had strayed from missions and ranchos into the San Joaquin Valley, but most of the managed herds were in the coastal mountains and valleys from San Diego to Sonoma. Added to this pressure on the native grasses was


the sometimes devastating effect of California's climatic cycles of flood and drought years, as well as the cessation of grassland-burning by Native Americans.

Perhaps of even greater consequence was the Spaniards' introduction of foreign species of grasses and forbs. These exotic species of Mediterranean origin were well adapted to California's climate, and equally important, to heavy grazing pressure. They were, for the most part, annuals, able to ride out drought in seed form and germinate when rains finally came.[15]

Before the Gold Rush, introduced species of grasses were certainly well established in the more southern areas, but probably not as much in those northern parts of the state with higher rainfall and less pressure from introduced livestock. In 1841 John Bidwell traveled through the Central Valley in the spring. He wrote of the clear atmosphere, the plains brilliant with flowers, the luxuriant herbage. Historian Rockwell Hunt wrote that "When Bidwell entered California in 1841, and for several years thereafter, wild game abounded and in such variety that even the most moderate and restrained description, were it not already familiar everywhere, would excite the absolute incredulity of the critical listener."[16] Similarly, in the spring of 1844, John Charles Frémont traveled through the San Joaquin Valley to Walker's Pass in the southern Sierra. He described

a level region covered with grass with an occasional grove of live oaks to lend variety. There were fields of blue lupine, several feet in height, which interspersed with the profusion of golden poppies, added to the pleasure of the travelers. They saw several bands of elk and antelope . . . also bands of wild horses were numerous, particularly on the west side of the river.[17]

However, cattle herds were built up in the 1850s to meet the demands of an increasing gold-rush population, with a peak of over three million head reached in 1862. Grazing pressure intensified and became more widespread, only to face the floods of 1862 and severe drought of 1862-1864. Cattle numbers crashed to a low of a half-million by 1870. Sheep were more adaptable than cattle, and their numbers increased to 5.5 million by 1875. With sheep came heavy pressure on wet high mountain ranges, to which they were driven when grazing and summer drought had depleted lower-elevation ranges. John Muir, who worked as a sheepherder in the late 1860s, recorded the devastation of the meadows: "Sheep, like people are ungovernable when hungry . . . almost every leaf that these hoofed locusts can reach within a radius of a mile or two from camp has been devoured. Even bushes are stripped bare."[18] Scientist William Brewer kept a journal, and during the great drought he also described a similar scene on May 30, 1864:

We came onto San Luis de Gonzaga Ranch, at the eastern end of the pass. Our road lay over the mountains. They are perfectly dry and barren, no grass—here and there a


gaunt cow is seen, but what she gets to eat is very mysterious. All around the house it looks desolate. Where there were green pastures when we camped two years ago, now all is dry, dusty bare ground. Three hundred cattle have died by the miserable water hole back of the house, where we get water to drink, and their stench pollutes the air.

The ranch contains eleven square leagues, or over seventy six square miles. In its better days it had ten thousand head of cattle, besides the horses needed to manage them. Later it became a sheep ranch, and two years ago, when we camped here, it fed sixteen thousand sheep besides some few thousand cattle. Now, owing to the drought, there is no feed for cattle, and not over one thousand sheep, if that, can be kept through the summer.[19]

Heavy grazing, drought, and fire suppression in the 1850s and later took their toll on the rangelands, with the result that annual grasses of Mediterranean origin now dominate in California, and relatively few sites are still covered by native perennial bunchgrasses.

Forest Changes

California's forests were not subject to heavy pressure, except locally, until relatively recently. In Spanish and Mexican times there was only a limited demand for wood for building. The Gold Rush brought its influx of people and a demand for housing. Redwood forests were cut down in the hills surrounding the San Francisco Bay and southward in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Around the gold camps and the new towns, forests soon disappeared. Historian Ralph Mann has written of this for the Grass Valley and Nevada City mining towns:

The towns had been located among hills once laden with the most magnificent forests imaginable but now the ridge between the towns, like the hills for miles around, was denuded. The mines and mills required vast amounts of fuel and lumber, and by the late 1860s the great American plan of cutting down every tree was beginning to cause concern. Timber lands had been pre-empted, wood had to be hauled great distances, and prices were high.[20]

Following on the Gold Rush, the Comstock silver mines in Nevada caused removal of the pine forests on the Sierra east of Lake Tahoe. Away from the Mother Lode country, the ancient sequoia were cut down, apparently just because they were there, in the Converse Basin of what was to be Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. They were left lying on the ground.[21]

The first mechanical sawmill to be built in Hispanic California was in the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1822, but by that time the Russians at Fort Ross may have been exporting redwood lumber to Hawaii and elsewhere. The practice was well established by 1827, when Fort Ross was visited by the French explorer Duhaut-Cilly. By the Gold Rush, lumber was shipped in large quantities from Eureka to San


In 1856, when the pioneer San Francisco lithographers Charles Kuchel and Emil Dresel drew the 
town of Downieville on stone, the surrounding hills had been stripped nearly bare of trees. 
Established in 1849 on a fork of the Yuba River, the camp grew rapidly, its vigorous mining 
economy creating a huge need for lumber and fuel. Today, a century and a half later, Downieville
 is one of the most picturesque of the old mining communities, and grand forests once again 
cover the rugged slopes.  California Historical Society, FN-16040 .

Francisco, resulting in the inevitable removal of the old-growth forests surrounding Humboldt Bay. All of these efforts had devastating local effects, but at least some forest lands, unlike the grasslands, were to receive federal protection, starting with Yosemite Valley in 1864, to be followed after 1890 by the establishment of national forests and national and state parks throughout the wooded areas of the state.[22]

Hydraulic Mining

Today, motorists driving along the Tyler Foote Crossing Road off Highway 49 on San Juan Ridge in the Sierra foothills will encounter some strange scenery. Mostly,


they will drive through second-growth ponderosa pine forest, much of which is heavily invaded by manzanita or Scotch broom. Settlement is sparse, but there are enough houses, old and new, to indicate the area is inhabited. It is a long way from wilderness, but semi-wild forest vistas are common. Occasionally bears pass through, and coyotes sing at night. Mountain lions are present, usually unseen, along with numerous bobcats, foxes, raccoons, and skunks. Deer do not abound, but there are quite a few. Human society there is somewhat two-layered, the old timers (before 1960) and the various immigrants of the 1960s and 1970s—call them hippies if you will, although most dislike the appellation. Then there are some newcomers, long-distance computer-commuters from Sacramento and points west who are usually well-heeled and build expensive houses. Visitors to the district are shocked to suddenly encounter a moonlike landscape, where the land has been turned upside down and its leached underpinnings revealed. Hills of washed gravel appear stark white in contrast to the red soils of the ponderosa forest. Between some of the gravel ridges there are ponds or marshy areas. At first look the land appears totally barren, but then you notice a few dwarfed pine trees and some green growth in the marshes. It is not, after all, moonlike, but clearly a desert where none should be.

These "diggins," as they are called, extend on up the course of Shady Creek and Tyler Foote to the Malakoff Diggins State Park, where they have been preserved as a historical landmark. They are part of the heritage from the gold seekers of the "days of '49"—a heritage of ruined land. Technically, they were not diggings. Nobody shoveled them. Instead, they date to the hydraulic mining period after 1860, when miners directed powerful jets of water to wash hillsides away and into sluices where the heavy gold could be separated. All the lighter particles, from sand to clay, along with larger rocks and wood, were washed downstream to eventually clog the rivers and help cause the major Sacramento River flooding of the 1860s and later. When the damage landed almost on the steps of the State Capitol, the legislature still took no effective action to outlaw hydraulic mining. Those downstream from the Sierra foothills were left with the residue.

Charles Nordhoff, in his book California . . . for Travellers and Settlers , published in 1873, watched the process of hydraulic mining and described it as follows:

Water brought from a hundred or a hundred and fifty miles away and from a considerable height is fed from reservoirs through eight, ten or twelve inch iron pipes through . . . a nozzle, five or six inches in diameter, is thus forced against the side of a hill one or two or three hundred feet high. The stream when it leaves the pipe has such force that it would cut a man in two if it should hit him. Two or three and sometimes even six such streams play against the bottom of a hill, and earth and stones, often of great size, are washed away until at last an immense slice of the hill itself gives way and tumbles down.


At Smartsville, Timbuctoo and Roses Bar (near Marysville) I suppose they wash away into the sluices half a dozen acres a day, from fifty to two hundred feet deep, and in the muddy torrent which rushes down at railroad speed through the channels prepared for it, you may see large rocks helplessly rolling along . . . the gold is saved in long sluice boxes, through which the earth and water are run, and in the bottom of which gold is caught by quicksilver. . . .

But, in order to run off this enormous mass of earth and gravel, a rapid fall must be got into some deep valley or river. . . . At Smartsville, for instance, the bed which contains the gold lies above the present Yuba River, but a considerable hill, perhaps two hundred and fifty feet high, lies between the two, and through this hill each company must drive a tunnel before it can get an outfall for its washings.

. . . of course the acres washed away must go somewhere, and they are filling up the Yuba River. This was once, I am told by old residents, a swift and clear mountain torrent; it is now a turbid and not rapid stream, whose bed has been raised by the washings of the miners not less than fifty feet above its level in 1849. It once contained trout, but now I imagine a catfish would die in it.

. . . as you journey . . . toward the Yosemite, after you leave Murphy's every foot almost of the soil, for mile after mile, has been at some time turned over by the gold seekers. River beds have been laid bare and the adjoining bottoms searched. The earth all the way to the foothills was removed, and as you near Columbia you see immense fields made up of nothing but rocks and boulders sticking their barren, water worn heads into the landscape, with deep pits between them.[23]

If hydraulic mining had not been stopped, the gold hunters might well have washed all the soil and loose rock from the Sierra into the Central Valley. As it was, enough debris was washed down the rivers to cause serious damage. The especially heavy rains of 1861—62 brought the first severe flooding induced by hydraulic mining to the Sacramento Valley, as the once-clear streams dumped their loads of silt and debris (slickens). A vast lake covered the southern Sacramento Valley, including the grounds of the State Capitol. William Brewer, who was in California during the flood and the following drought, wrote in January 1862 that "The Central Valley of the state is under water—the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys—a region 250 to 300 miles long and an average of at least twenty miles wide." In September he wrote from the area of Red Bluff:

Although the channel of the Sacramento is insufficient to carry off all the water of wet winters, yet it is rapidly filling up, each year increasing the difficulty. Previous to 1848 the river was noted for the purity of its water, flowing from the mountains as clear as crystal; but, since the discovery of gold, the "washings" render it as muddy as the Ohio in spring flood—in fact it is perfectly "riley," discoloring even of the waters of the


K Street in Sacramento during the great flood of January 1862. The unprecedented rains
 that fell from the skies beginning late the previous year overwhelmed river channels 
choked with mining debris and turned the Central Valley into an inland sea. The city of 
Sacramento responded by strengthening its levees and raising its streets above the high
 water mark, as much as ten feet in some instances.  Courtesy California State Library .

great bay into which it empties. . . . Last winter's floods alone are supposed to have raised the bed of the river at Sacramento six or seven feet at least.[24]

Despite the complaints of valley landholders, hydraulic mining continued. In 1875, Marysville was virtually destroyed by Yuba River flooding, and great damage was wrought by the Bear and Feather rivers. Still, the political influence of the min-


ing companies was so great that it took many lawsuits and sessions of the state legislature and Congress before any action was taken, and even then early regulations were ineffectual. Finally, in 1884 the U.S. Circuit Court in San Francisco granted a perpetual injunction against hydraulic mining. Although many small miners continued to fight in Congress, the influence of farmers in the valley had grown greater than that of miners in the hills.[25]

Along Tyler Foote Crossing Road and Highway 49, towns like North Columbia and North San Juan, which thrived to serve the miners, faded away. The population of North San Juan dwindled from 10,000 to a few hundred. One would think that with such a monument to greed as the "diggins," California would have learned a lesson. But mining companies never give up, and still propose to re-enter the mined lands to scrape up any gold that was missed in the nineteenth century. The setback experienced by the miners in the 1884 court decision was more than compensated by the Mining Act of 1872, which gave miners essentially carte blanche to mine where they pleased on public lands. Despite many efforts to repeal this law, it remains on the books and affects California today.

The Gold Rush can be held responsible for the damage done by mining, even if much of it took place well after the original rush, after many of the Forty-niners had made their slow, crestfallen way home, without gold. It was the Gold Rush that set off the destructive, furious search for the yellow metal that later brought the moving of mountains and filling of valleys.


There is enough damage to be charged to the Gold Rush without adding to it environmental changes that preceded it or would have gone on in its absence. Undoubtedly the greatest harm resulted from hydraulic mining, but mostly because the damage persisted far beyond the mining period. Beyond that, the Gold Rush had, at worst, an accelerating effect on activities that would have occurred, but at a slower pace, such as grazing, draining of wetlands, logging, and hunting. The changes in grasslands that were still localized in 1849 became much more widespread and severe because of rapidly growing numbers of people and much greater demand for meat, milk, wool, hides, and other livestock products. Some of these changes were further accelerated by the recurrent droughts that were a normal part of California's climate. Areas visited by William Brewer in 1861 and noted as rich pastures were devastated and barren when revisited in 1864 when the severe drought was in progress. These disturbed areas were quickly colonized by the exotic, aggressive annuals brought in during Spanish colonization.

The increase in population started by the Gold Rush also stimulated an increased demand for housing, which in turn caused stepped-up logging in the more accessi-


ble forest stands. But the towns and cities would have grown eventually without the Gold Rush, and the demand for wood also. It is dubious that government intervention and control during a slower-paced period of growth would have been much help in saving the old-growth forests, when such regulations are still relatively ineffective today.

Without the Gold Rush, the spread of agriculture would have happened in any event, and with it, the drainage and clearing of tule marshes, the construction of irrigation canals, and the damming of rivers, and with that the loss of waterfowl and fish habitat. The construction of the transcontinental railroads had more effect by far on the demand for farm products than did the Gold Rush. The Homestead Act and other government policies intended to encourage settlement brought the movement of people into every habitable area of the state by the end of the century.

The devastation of wildlife began long before the Gold Rush, and it was more the increase in population and spread of people into the far reaches of California after the Gold Rush that brought the demise of the grizzly, jaguar, and wolf and the near extermination of elk, pronghorn, condors, and other species. But in reach of the mining camps and towns, wildlife had small chance for survival.

There was a "window of opportunity" for more balanced resource usage between the breakdown of Spanish/Mexican control and the creation of the new state of California. The Gold Rush easily closed that window and gained for the miners unlimited license to create environmental havoc. It is fortunate that the supply of accessible gold was limited and not more widely distributed throughout the state, or California would be known for its barren diggings instead of its mountain forests and golden hills.

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