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Our History

The ugly history of hydraulic mining starts here

  Steve Cottrell


 When I read last month that a young black bear had been euthanized in Oregon because it had become too friendly with humans, I was reminded of Nevada City author Jordan Fisher Smith’s nonfiction book, Engineering Eden.


Originally published in 2016 and recently made available in a softbound edition, the former park and wilderness ranger uses a deadly bear attack in Yellowstone National Park and subsequent civil trial in Los Angeles to examine the federal government’s 150-year attempt to control nature in the American wilderness. 


Engineering Eden received critical acclaim when first published, including a review in The Wall Street Journal that noted how Jordan, “weaves together a dramatic court case in Los Angeles, a grizzly-bear attack (in Yellowstone), and a surprisingly fascinating debate over what constitutes the word ‘natural’ when it comes to national parks.”

In addition to his account of a groundbreaking civil trial and flawed federal wildlife policies, Jordan points to hydraulic mining as an example of how engineering Eden can sometimes backfire.


“The (hydraulic mining) technique led to the development of water cannons that liquified whole landscapes,” Fisher Smith wrote, “leaving eroded pits a mile wide that remain barren today.”


Since hydraulic mining with a nozzle attached to a canvas hose was first experimented with here in 1853, I thought I’d share some graphic details about effects hydraulic mining had on the environment –– effects Fisher Smith describes in his book as “wanton destruction.” And for those details I turn to Gray Brechin’s 1999 book, Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.


Brechin describes how gold from Nevada County fattened the bank accounts of a few greedy men in San Francisco, but in the process created an environmental disaster. 


A mining technique that began with small canvas hoses soon grew into massive operations, including the North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company with its 8,000-foot-long tunnel that dumped tons of debris into the Yuba River every day for 20 years. 

That debris –– along with debris from other hydraulic sites –– eventually flooded farms and orchards in and around Marysville and, in time, filled the Sacramento River with so much silt that shipping lanes in San Francisco Bay were impacted. 


“With each subsequent year that the hydraulic operations expanded, the flooding worsened until it resembled a biblical deluge,” Brechin wrote. “In the worst years, the Sacramento River widened into a turbid sea fifty miles wide, draining sluggishly to the narrow bottleneck at the Carquinez Straits before exiting into San Francisco Bay.” Brechin also noted, “In wet years, an immense coffee-colored plume fanned from the Golden Gate to stain the Pacific.”


Like it or not, the liquified landscape Jordan Fisher Smith refers to in Engineering Eden and the biblical deluge that historical geographer Gray Brechin describes in Imperial San Francisco, had their origins in Nevada County and remained largely unchecked through the 1860s and ‘70s.


In 1884, however, following two years of litigation and more than 2,000 witnesses, United States Ninth Circuit Court Judge Lorenzo Sawyer, a former Nevada City attorney and ninth Chief Justice of the California State Supreme Court, released a 225-page opinion known today as simply the Sawyer Decision. 


Judge Sawyer’s ruling was one of the earliest environmental decisions in this nation’s history and predated by 15 years the first federal environmental law. It brought uncontrolled hydraulic mining to an end, but it could not heal the unfathomable damage that had occurred.


Today, a 19th century monitor stands in Calanan Park –– the first thing many visitors see when they take the Broad Street freeway ramp and approach the main business district. Some residents view it as a symbol of environmental madness and others as a symbol of Judge Sawyer’s historic and courageous ruling.


Whatever your opinion about the water monitor, I highly recommend Engineering Eden and Jordan’s account of how federal wildlife management in national parks, as well as mining for gold in California, have had some devastating consequences.


Steve Cottrell is a historian, former city councilman and mayor and a longtime Nevada City resident. He now lives in St. Augustine, Fla. He can be reached by emailing exnevadacitymayor@gmail.com.


In his 1999 book Imperial San Francisco, historical geographer Gray Brechin wrote about the impacts of hydraulic mining.

Photo by Wendy Edelstein 

Jordan Fisher Smith, a former park ranger and author of Engineering Eden, has been a longtime Nevada City resident.

Photo by Zdenek Mlika 

Federal Circuit Court Judge Lorenzo Sawyer, a former Nevada City attorney, authored the historic Sawyer Decision.

Courtesy California Supreme Court 

As Jordan Fisher Smith and Gray Brechin explain in their respective books, 19th century hydraulic mining had an unprecedented environmental impact when debris from mining operations here clogged rivers and streams all the way to San Francisco Bay.

Courtesy Searls Historical Library 

About the photo

As Jordan Fisher Smith and Gray Brechin explain in their respective books, 19th century hydraulic mining had an unprecedented environmental impact when debris from mining operations here clogged rivers and streams all the way to San Francisco Bay.

Courtesy Searls Historical Library