California's First Environmental Law

Malakoff 1899
Malakoff Diggins, 1889

One of the first environmental laws in the United States was passed in 1884 after California gold seekers water-blasted entire mountains searching for the prized metal.

During the Gold Rush era, the first Forty-Niners looked for surface gold in riverbeds using pans and improvised wooden devices called sluices or rocker boxes. This method, called placer mining, circulated water through dirt, rock and spent ore while the heavier gold dropped to the bottom. Once the easily accessible gold had run out, miners tried other methods to find and separate gold from underground quartz veins, including building ditches and wooden flumes to run water through ore.

Not long after a rich gold deposit was found in a creekbed northeast of Nevada City, French miner Anthony Chabot pumped water aimed through a canvas hose at the ore supply to speed up the search through dirt and rock. Hydraulic mining was born in 1853 when a man named Edward Mattison increased the water pressure by adding a nozzle to the hose. Waste ore and gravel tailings were piled on creek banks or dumped into streams leading to the Yuba River.

Malakoff Monitor
Malakoff monitor

The area came to be known as North Bloomfield. French immigrant Julius Poquillion bought and combined several abandoned local claims in 1866; soon he had accrued more than 1,500 acres. Poquillon then sought wealthy San Francisco investors William Ralston and Lester Robinson for his large-scale, hydraulic-powered North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company.

Malakoff miners

The group built dams and more than 100 miles of canals, flumes and ditches to carry water from a reservoir to the claim. The resulting water power could fragment 100,000 tons of earth per day at the “Diggins” pit. For more than 20 years, the North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company expanded. More hydraulic mining camps were set up in the hills above the American, Feather and Bear Rivers, but the most successful mine site was the Malakoff mine on San Juan Ridge—named for Fort Malakov in Russia. The amount of earth hydraulically pulverized and washed downstream was estimated at 12 billion tons.

Malakoff hydroblast

By 1876, seven full-scale Craig water cannons were washing earth from the mountainsides to uncover the gold-laden quartz beneath. The spent tailings were mounded in the Malakoff pit; workers then dug a tunnel nearly a mile and a half through the bedrock to wash tailings directly into Humbug Creek, flowing to the South Yuba River.

Downstream, concerns arose about the tailings from hydraulic mines as soon as they were operational. The more that water blasted the hillsides, the greater the debris problem. Riverside farms were flooded and destroyed. Silt was estimated to fill San Francisco Bay at the rate of a foot each year, while the Yuba, Feather—and thirty miles downstream— the Sacramento river channels had to close to steamboat traffic. Because many valley towns depended on the miners for income, valley residents simply built tall levees for flood control.

However, at the confluence of the Yuba and Feather rivers, the town of Marysville flooded in 1875. Its high levees created a huge bowl for the floodwaters—killing some residents and destroying their property. Surviving Marysville residents formed the Anti-Debris Association and beseeched the State Legislature to regulate mining operations, but several years of legal battles and vandalism followed. Marysville property owner Edward Woodruff filed suit in 1882 against the mining company. In 1883, the Yuba River’s 130-foot English Dam burst; sabotage was suspected.

On January 7, 1884, after protracted testimony and argument, Judge Lorenzo Sawyer handed down his decision in the case of Woodruff vs. the North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company. Sawyer’s 225-page decision described the damage caused by hydraulic mining rubble and permanently enjoined the mining company against dumping into watercourses. The injunction meant no profit for the company, which had not yet broken even. They had invested more than $3 million on equipment and labor but unearthed less than $2.8 million in gold by that time.

The ruling that ended the Golden State’s devastating hydraulic-mining era by forbidding waterway pollution—one of our nation’s first environmental laws—predated by fifteen years a similar national law, the federal Rivers and Harbors Act, passed in 1899. The Malakoff pit mine is now preserved at Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park.

Malakoff today
Malakoff Diggins Today