- Hydraulic mining
Hydraulic mining, or hydraulicking, is a form of
miningthat employs waterto dislodge rock material or move sediment. Previously, the use of a large volume of water had been developed by the Romans to remove overburden and then gold-bearing debris as in Las Médulasof Spain, and Dolaucothiin Britain. The method was also used in Elizabethan Britain for developing lead, tinand coppermines, and became known as hushing. The modern form of hydraulicking, using jets of water directed under very high pressure through hoses and nozzles at gold-bearing upland paleogravels, was first used by Edward Matteson near Nevada City, Californiain 1853. [Randall Rohe (1985) "Hydraulicking in the American West", Montana the Magazine of Western History, v.35, n.2, p.18-29.] In California, hydraulic mining often brought water from higher locations for long distances to holding ponds several hundred feet above the area to be mined. Insofar as California hydraulic mining exploited primarily river gravels, it was one form of placer mining, that is, working of alluvium(river sediments).
Water was used on a very large scale by Roman engineers in the first centuries BC and AD when the
Roman empirewas expanding rapidly in Europe. Using a process later known as hushing, the Romans stored a large volume of water in a reservoir immediately above the area to be mined; the water was then released all at the same time. The resulting wave of water removed overburden and exposed bedrock. Gold veins in the bedrock were then worked using a number of techniques, and water power was used again to remove debris. The remains at Las Medulasand in surrounding areas show badlandscenery on a gigantic scale owing to hydraulicking of the rich alluvial gold deposits. Las Medulas is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. The site shows the remains of at least seven large aqueducts of up to 30 miles in length feeding large supplies of water into the site. The gold-miningoperations were described in vivid terms by Pliny the Elderin his Naturalis Historiapublished in the first century AD. Pliny was a procurator in Hispania Terraconensisin the 70's and must have witnessed for himself the operations. The use of hushing has been confirmed by field survey and archaeologyat Dolaucothiin South Wales, the only known Roman gold mine in Britain.
Early placer miners in California discovered that the more gravel they could process, the more
goldthey were likely to find. Instead of working with pans, sluice boxes, long toms, and rockers, miners collaborated to find ways to process larger quantities of gravel more rapidly. Hydraulic mining became the largest-scale, and most devastating, form of placer mining. Water was redirected into an ever-narrowing channel, through a large canvas hose, and out a giant iron nozzle, called a "monitor." The extremely high pressure stream was used to wash entire hillsides through enormous sluices. By the early 1860s, while hydraulic mining was at its height, small-scale placer mining was a thing of the past. The vast majority of lone prospectors could not sustain themselves, and the mining industry was taken over by large companies, most of which found hard rock gold mining (or quartzmining) more profitable. By the mid-1880s, it is estimated that 11 million ounces of gold (worth approximately US$7.5 billion at mid-2006 prices) had been recovered by hydraulic mining in the California Gold Rush.
While generating millions of dollars in tax revenues for the state and supporting a large population of miners in the mountains, hydraulic mining had a devastating effect on
riparianenvironments and agriculturalsystems in California. Millions of tons of earth and water were delivered to mountain streams that fed rivers flowing into the Sacramento Valley. Once the rivers reached the relatively flat valley, the water slowed, the rivers widened, and the sediment was deposited in the floodplains and river beds causing them to rise, shift to new channels, and overflow their banks, causing major flooding, especially during the periods of Spring runoff.
Cities and towns in the Sacramento Valley experienced an increasing number of devastating floods, while the rising riverbeds made navigation on the rivers increasingly difficult. Perhaps no other city experienced the boon and the bane of gold mining, as did Marysville. Situated at the confluence of the Yuba and Feather rivers, Marysville was a final "jumping off" point for miners heading to the foothills to seek their fortune.
Steamboatsfrom San Francisco, carrying miners and supplies, navigated up the Sacramento River, then the Feather River to Marysville where they would unload their passengers and cargo. Marysville eventually constructed a complex leveesystem to protect the city from floods and sediment. Hydraulic mining greatly excerbated the problem of flooding in Marysville and shoaled the waters of the Feather River so severely that few steamboats could navigate from Sacramento to the Marysville docks.
The spectacular eroded landscape left at the site of hydraulic mining can be viewed at
Malakoff Diggins State Historic Parkin Nevada County, California. [http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=494] A similar landscape can be seen at Las Medulasin northern Spain, where Roman engineershydrauliced the rich gold alluvial deposits of the river Sil. Pliny the Eldermentions in his Naturalis Historiathat Spain had encroached on the sea and local lakes as a result of hydraulic operations.
Vast areas of farmland in the Sacramento Valley were deeply buried by the mining sediment. Frequently devastated by flood waters, farmers demanded an end to hydraulic mining. In the most renowned legal fight of farmers against miners, the farmers sued the hydraulic mining operations and the landmark case of "Edwards Woodruff v.
North Bloomfield Mining and Gravel Company" made its way to the United States District Courtin San Francisco where Judge Lorenzo Sawyerdecided in favor of the farmers in 1884, declaring that hydraulic mining was “a public and private nuisance” and enjoining its operation in areas tributary to navigable streams and rivers. Hydraulic mining was recommenced after 1893 when the United States Congresspassed the Camminetti Act which allowed such mining if sediment detention structures were constructed. This led to a number of operations above brush dams and log crib dams. Most of the water-delivery infrastructure had been destroyed by an 1891 flood, so this later stage of mining was carried on at a much smaller scale in California.
Although often associated with California due to its adoption and widespread use there, the technology was exported widely, to
Oregon(Jacksonville in 1856), Colorado (Clear Creek, Central City and Breckenridge in 1860), Montana(Bannack in 1865), Arizona(Lynx Creek in 1868), Idaho(Idaho City in 1863), South Dakota (Deadwood in 1876), Alaska, British Columbia( Canada), and overseas. It was used extensively in Dahlonega, Georgiaand continues to be used in developing nations, often with devastating environmental consequences.
Hydraulic mining was used extensively in the Central Otago Gold Rush that took place in the 1860s in the
South Islandof New Zealand, where it was known as "sluicing".In addition to its use in true mining, hydraulic mining can be used as an excavation technique, principally to demolish hills. For example, the Denny Regrade in Seattlewas largely accomplished by hydraulic mining.Hydraulic mining is the principal way that kaoliniteclay is mined in Cornwall, in South-West England.
The battle between the old method of pan mining and hydraulic mining is the central theme of the 1985
western film Pale Rider.
Pliny the Elder
*"Hydraulic Mining in California: A Tarnished Legacy", by Powell Greenland, 2001
*"Battling the Inland Sea: American Political Culture, Public Policy, and the Sacramento Valley: 1850-1986.", U.Calif Press; 395pp.
*"Gold vs. Grain: The Hydraulic Mining Controversy in California's Sacramento Valley", by Robert L. Kelley, 1959
*Lewis, P. R. and G. D. B. Jones, "Roman gold-mining in north-west Spain", Journal of Roman Studies 60 (1970): 169-85
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