Sierra Nevada, California

Nevada County, California

Malakoff Diggins SHP

RIDE to it on a PASHNIT TOUR


Nevada- COUNTY

Paved to the park via Tyler-Foote Rd  - PAVEMENT
Just a few - CURVES

Nevada City - GAS

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History and growth of Hydraulic Mining in California

North Bloomfield is a well-preserved mining town at 3200 feet with numerous 1850s-era buildings along the main street.  What is unique about it in this part of California is much like Bodie- the town is more of a living museum. Towns along Highway 49 from Downieville down south through Sonora are preserved active towns, North Bloomfield is in a state of arrested decay and only reachable by a (paved) dead end road.

From Highway 49, Head up the 17-miles along Tyler Foote Crossing Rd to this forested 3,000-acre park, but if possible, plan your visit for when the town is open. You may even want to check the yearly schedule on the town’s website for when any special events are taking place. It’s an added thrill to gain access to buildings that might otherwise be closed.

As many as 2000 people lived here by 1876 during the heyday of the mining at Malakoff Diggins lasting from the 1850s to 1884.  Not only did the town serve as a residence for the miners, but it was the origin of all the supplies needed to extract the gold from the nearby hillside. Giant monitors were built and even a giant sewing machine in the museum was used to create the large hoses needed to bring water to the monitors. After 1884, the mine shut down and the town became the uninhabited ghost town of San Juan Ridge.

North Bloomfield feels spread out and not as claustrophobic as other gold rush towns, hiking trails surround the town, many leading to the nearby Malakoff Diggins. Several of the buildings have been restored to resemble a day from the 1870's. The drug store shelves are still lined with rows of mysterious elixirs not approved by the FDA. The general store is still stocked plumb-full of goods. And one of the restored homes is outfitted to resemble the everyday happenings of the late 1800's. 

You can peer through the windows or time your arrival to be in summer when an expertly lead docent tour, every day at 1:30 pm during the summer, will actually take you inside the buildings for a closer look. During the winter, the town is open on weekends. The elevation of North Bloomfield is 3200 ft and snow may be present into April along the streets. The town still has the schoolhouse, Catholic Church, General Store and E Clampus Vitus Building.

 

Behind all the buildings to the south is Humbug Creek. A popular axiom back when the easy gold quickly ran out. The creek today is still panned for gold. Although it is usually by children who've checked out a free gold pan from the park headquarters. Many still find tiny amounts of gold dust.  Humbug Days, including a parade and barbecue, is an annual event. The state park has the requisite campground and tent cabins that can be rented.

Malakoff Diggins State Historical Park 

The Diggins isn't a mine shaft like Empire Mine but more like a quarry that resembles a massive hole in the ground. The Diggins is a mountain ridge washed away, an artificial canyon 7000 feet long, 3,000 feet wide and as much as 600 feet deep at its peak. It took only a few years to create this devastation.  Now 135 plus years later, vegetation has barely reclaimed the scar.        

Gold was discovered in nearby creeks around North Bloomfield during 1851 by three miners escaping the congestion of Nevada City. When their supplies ran low, a member of their party headed down into Nevada City. After picking up supplies, he then visited his favorite saloon but paid for a round of drinks with bits of gold, thus piquing the interest of the saloon's patrons. The man refused to reveal the gold's source and no amount of prying worked the secret from him. He was secretly followed back to the discovery, present-day North Bloomfield.

With the location of the gold revealed, the area was soon overrun and any trace of placer gold evaporated. The prospectors muttered the word 'humbug' and left, in turn naming the stream Humbug Creek. For several years, the area was quiet but farmers settling the area continued to find flakes of gold.  Soon new claims were staked, and by 1857 the town of Humbug sprang up and soon grew to 1700 residents including a considerable Chinese population. The town became the center of all area mines, including the nearby Malakoff Mine which was producing a steady stream of gold. Not feeling Humbug was a fitting title, the name of the town was changed to the more pleasant-sounding North Bloomfield.

The gold in Humbug Creek dried up again and many of the miners left selling their claims to French miner Julius Poquillon who also consolidated abandoned claims and in turn, his land grew to some 1500 acres by 1866. Yet there was a great deal of gold left.  But unlike placer mining, it couldn't be simply plucked from the ground.  Nor was it held in quartz where it could be hard rock mined like the nearby Empire Mine. It was stuck in layers of sediment in the form of a low-grade fine dust. The gold here in the San Juan Ridge was buried in "deep gravels" that were once ancient riverbeds. 

Julius sourced investors in San Francisco, in particular William Ralston, one of the silver kings who made his fortune digging up Sun Mountain in Nevada, and then added Lester Robinson, a railroad baron in San Francisco. In 1868, they set up the North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company which provided the 3.5 million dollars in seed money to get the mine started. The name originated from French miners wanting to commemorate the 1855 capture of the Russian Fort Malakoff, near Sebastopol, in Europe's Crimean War. Their investments finally produced gold ten years later in 1878.

Julius employed a new form of mining discovered in 1852 called Hydraulic Mining credited to Edward Matteson who had used a simple canvas hose to wash loose gravel from his claim at Buckeye Hill in 1853. The use of the term hydraulic simply refers to the use of water. The method was soon refined and by 1876, the operation was in full swing employing the entire town to support the mining. Seven full-scale Craig water cannons pummeled the hillside day and night with powerful streams of water. The monitors resembled a long cannon or modern-day fire hose nozzle. When the water reached the Monitor, it was compressed into a nozzle. The nozzle was from one inch to eight inches in diameter. An eight-inch Monitor could throw 185,000 cubic feet of water in an hour with a velocity of 150 feet per second.

The mine operated seven monitors at one time which required large amounts of water. An army of 300 Chinese laborers worked on a grand scale to create reservoirs further up in the mountains. Reservoirs of mountain water fed into ditches, channels, and diverted streams and rivers from all over higher elevations. Laborers built 5,276 miles of flumes, canals and ditches over the next 30 years to supply water to the mines.

The water would be pulled by gravity down the mountain 45 miles through these channels at ever increasing speed. As it flowed, the channel gradually became smaller and the pressure increased. The water was fed through penstocks, or hoses, and shot out of massive monitors, some as long as 10 feet in length. The monitors articulated and could be directed at the hillsides as powerful streams of water simply washed the hillside away.

The force of water was so great, it was said a 50-pound weight dropped into the stream would be thrown hundreds of feet. It was recorded that animals and people, struck by the force of the stream were killed even at a distance of 200 feet away from the monitor.

The slurry, or water and sediments, were then collected into sluices. In the sluice, the gold particles are heavier than the sludge and separate from the sediment.  The waste product was simply dumped into Humbug Creek and flowed downstream. From the miner’s perspective, what happened to the runoff was someone else’s problem. The creek however, soon couldn't handle the volume.

Two drainage tunnels were constructed. The Hiller Tunnel was 556 feet long. Then Hamilton Smith engineered one the most impressive mining feats of the day- a drainage tunnel to directly reach the South Yuba River. After 30 months of men working day and night to complete the tunnel, water flowed through it into the South Yuba River in late 1874. The tunnel was carved from solid bedrock and was 7847 feet long.

The completion of this second tunnel encouraged a feverish pace to reach more gold. Electric lights were installed at the mine by 1880 to illuminate the Diggins allowing the mine to operate 24 hours a day. The electricity illuminated high-intensity lighting or locomotive headlights. California’s first long-distance telephone line was installed, the telephone line ran upstream to Bowman Lake to allow the men at the mine to direct the flow of water needed to supply the monitors. At its peak, water monitors at Malakoff Diggins operated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week requiring sixty million gallons of water daily producing 50,000 tons of gravel per day. Thomas Bell, the president of the company, estimated in 1876 that the hydraulic mine would consume 16 billion gallons of water in that year alone. The amount of earth hydraulically pulverized and washed downstream was estimated at 12 billion tons.

The result though of all that water running downstream was tailings. The volume of the tailings grew into millions of tons of cubic yards of dirt, mud, and fine silt. The seven monitors could fragment 100,000 tons of earth per day and the amount of water used at the mine reached millions of gallons per day. The tailings rushed downstream as a silt that raised the bottom of the Yuba River and then on into Marysville. The river then joined with the Sacramento River. This silt settled into river bottoms and created massive floods as the mining continued.

1955 Flood in Marysville, Levees surround the city

The Yuba River flowed directly out of the foothills to Marysville while the river bottom quickly filled with silt and sediments. The city was already surrounded by levees from both the Feather & Yuba River. In 1875, the levees broke and filled the city with water while the surrounding levees acted as a huge bowl from which the water could not drain. The flood killed local residents and destroyed portions of the town. This would not be the last time Marysville flooded. The city would flood numerous other years such as the 1955 flood pictured above.

The city flooded again the next year after the river bottom rose higher than the town, the river bottom in Marysville rose 25 feet. In 1880 alone some 40,000 acres of farmland and orchards were destroyed while another 270,000 were severely damaged.  Downstream, the city of Sacramento flooded while the silt traveled all the way to San Francisco Bay affecting shipping in the Carquinez Strait. San Francisco Bay began to fill up with silt from the mine at a rate of one foot per year.

The Central Valley is essentially a wide flat valley 70 miles wide surrounded on four sides by mountain ranges. With the river bottoms now at the same level of the surrounding farmland, yearly snowmelt from the Sierra Valley Mountains flooded thousands of acres of farmland destroying crops and entire towns.  So much water poured over levee breaks, the Sacramento River became an inland sea 50 miles wide.

The mining at Malakoff Diggins created the largest man-made ecological disaster in recorded history. Angry residents created the Anti-Debris Association and in 1882, farmers led by wheat farmer Edward Woodruff in the Central Valley below took the miners to court with Woodruff v. North Bloomfield Mining and Gravel Company.

In 1884 the legal battle ended when a federal judge granted a permanent injunction against this practice of depositing the tailings into the Yuba River.

Judge Sawyer did thorough homework and listened to both sides of the argument, visited the mine at Malakoff Diggins and witnessed firsthand the dumping of tailings into area rivers. In January 1884, Judge Sawyer ruled against the mining companies in a 225-decision detailing the damage caused by hydraulic mining banning the practice of dumping tailings into active waterways. The injunction effectively killed off any profit the mined hoped to earn. Investors had sunk $3 million into the mine, but only unearthed $2.8 million in gold by that time. But by 1884, over four million dollars in gold was pulled from forty-one million yards of earth.

 

The result of the legal battle was the first environmental protection legislation ever produced by making this method of hydraulic mining illegal. After the Sawyer Decision was ruled upon, mine owners simply ignored the Sawyer Act and continued to dump mine tailings into area rivers.

By 1886, the Malakoff Diggins was declared in violation of the Sawyer Act and forced to pay hefty fines and required to change their mining practices. The changes coupled with fines made the gold mining operation even less profitable.

The ruling was amended in 1893, allowing the practice of hydraulic mining if a silt pond was used to settle out the sediments from the resultant slurry. New regulations also required mining operation to have a license creating further regulations.

The North Bloomfield Mining and Gravel Company again ignored the amended ruling and was fined again further depreciating profits. The mine attempted to stay open and became one of the last hydraulic mining operations until it closed in 1910.

As restrictions on the mining companies increased in California, they simply left the state for less regulated regions like Colorado, the Dakotas and Alaska where fewer regulations existing. The Alaskan Gold Rush between 1896 and 1899 also utilized hydraulic mining to extract gold dust from layers of placer sediments.

At the turn of the century in 1910, hydraulic mining wasn't profitable and the mine closed. The town of North Bloomfield emptied and became a ghost town. Malakoff Diggins was the richest and largest hydraulic mining operation in the known world at that time. Yet as far as anyone can tell, there's still tons of gold left in the ridgelines at Malakoff Diggins.

In 1965, the state acquired the Diggins and created a 3143-acre state park encompassing the mine and town. Trails run along the rim and through the Diggins. Keep an eye out for items simply left there when the operation ended. For the best view, make for the lookout point in the Chute Hill campground. The hole in the earth has mostly filled up from erosion and runoff, the Diggins today is flat overlooked by exposed bluffs. Little vegetation has reclaimed the exposed bluffs in the last 140 years.

Plan your visit in early June for Humbug Days involving live music, a parade, a gold nugget race and other activities for the kids.

Nearby Motorcycle Roads:      

To reach Malakoff Diggins, ride up Tyler-Foote Crossing Rd up the spine of the ridgeline for 17 miles. The road name will change to Cruzon Grade, then to Backbone. When the road becomes gravel, make a right turn onto Derbec Road and into the park.

Be sure and ride Yuba Pass Highway 49. If you are headed due north, you can connect up with Oregon Hill Road to La Porte Road which is the latest motorcycle mecca with fresh pavement on up to Quincy. The longest single span covered bridge is nearby in Bridgeport via Pleasant Valley Road. In Grass Valley is the Empire Mine. Southward outside of Auburn is Foresthill Road which runs up to Mosquito Ridge.

Malakoff Diggins SHP - Photo Gallery

 

MORE INFO: Malakoff Diggins SHP

RIDE TO IT on a PASHNIT TOUR


GPS LOCATION
39.362778, -120.924444 - Malakoff Diggins SHP

RELATED INFO:
 

Malakoff Diggins State Parks website

Nevada City Chamber of Commerce MD SHP

Sierra Nevada Tourism

Topo Maps

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