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Up The Road: Malakoff Diggins, California’s First Environmental Victory

J. Cook Fisher

We tend to romanticize California’s gold rush, picturing, in our mind’s eye, grizzled old guys in wide-brimmed hats wading into scenic mountain streams, alone, to pan for gold.

Most miners were quite young, though, and well-educated, if a bit wild—rarely alone—seeking adventure as much as wealth, at least in the early days of the gold rush.

And California’s pretty scenery was destroyed by mining. It didn’t stand a chance once the world rushed in, hell-bent for wealth.

For a close-up look at the impact of gold mining, head to remote Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, near Nevada City, where hydraulic mining left behind barren spires of colorful earth haunted by the lonely spirit of Utah’s Bryce Canyon.

By the early 1850s, foothill rivers and streams had been picked clean by prospectors. So, mining technology evolved.

Hydraulic mining—invented right here, at Malakoff, by ingenious miners—exposed gravel and gold deposits deep in the earth, layers of sediment laid down by ancient river flows. With pressurized water and huge rawhide firehoses attached to one-ton iron nozzles called “monitors,” miners could blast away entire hillsides—scouring away trees—all vegetation—and radically reshaping the land. Rivers of mud killed fish and other streamlife, flooded towns, and ruined farmland.

But the technology did succeed, so it spread. Sediment or “slickens” from big-time hydraulic gold mining flowed down both the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, from countless tributaries, filling in about one-third of San Francisco Bay in just 10 years.

Outraged downstream landowners, including California’s powerful Southern Pacific Railroad, fought back. The Federal Anti-Debris Act passed in 1883—banning sediment dumping in the Sierra Nevada, not hydraulic mining per se. The next year brought a sympathetic court ruling, marking the first U.S. legal victories on behalf of the environment.

Hit the trails at Malakoff to explore the surreal scenery at the open-pit mine, which produced some $5 million in gold. The pit itself is about a square mile in size, 600 feet deep in places. A tunnel here, now buried by mud, was once the world’s longest “sluice box,” used to separate gold from gravel and sludge.

North Bloomfield is a ghost town on the site of Malakoff’s old Humbug City—so named, by miners, when the surface gold played out. Make time to poke into the 1872 schoolhouse; old Cummins Hall, now the interpretive center; and other restored buildings.

This lively old-timey town also honors the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus, a well-lubricated social fraternity that popped up in California during the early days of the gold rush.

Rituals and hilarious titles intentionally made fun of service groups like Masons and Oddfellows. Clampers, as they still call themselves, met in “Halls of Comparative Ovations”—often the back room of local saloons—and swore allegiance to their unique flag, a hoop skirt with the words: “This is the flag we fight under.” At the height of the order’s popularity, in the 1870s, so many miners were Clampers that entire mining camps shut down during events.

Which is why you should come to North Bloomfield in June for the park’s annual Humbug Day. Clampers—now a bit more serious, and known for historic preservation as much as hijinks—join with the Sierra Muzzleloaders, jug bands, and others to put on the World’s Shortest Parade.

Kim Weir is the founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project. She researches, writes, and hosts Up the Road, a radio show and mini-podcast about California co-produced by North State Public Radio. Kim got her start as a travel journalist in 1990 with the publication of the first and original Moon Handbooks Northern California, a surprise best-seller. Six other Moon books on California soon followed. She is a member, by invitation, of the venerable Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). Kim earned a BA in environmental studies and analysis, with an emphasis on botany and ecology, and also holds an MFA in creative writing. She lives in Paradise.