Alpha Hydraulic Diggings (No. 628 California Historical Landmark)
Photo © mtbsingletrack.com
Nearby the town of Washington, California on State Route 20, the towns of Alpha and Omega were both hydraulic mines popular in the 1850s. Today, a view of the Alpha Hydraulic Diggings can be seen from a distance at a roadside rest stop. Some of the old trails through the Alpha and Omega Diggings area are considered some of the best mountain biking trails in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
Alpha was the birthplace of famed opera singer, Emma Nevada. The Yuba River flows at the bottom of the canyon view, some 2,000 feet down. Alpha and Omega never grew to become large towns. The hydraulic mining activity eventually overwhelmed the towns and they disappeared.
The Sawyer Decision to end Hydraulic Mining
Hydraulic mining during the Gold Rush used high-pressure water jets to wash away gravel from a mountainside in order to extract gold from the rocks. Although hydraulic mining was popular with mining companies, the environmental effects were devastating.
This practice seriously eroded mountain bluffs as gravel washed away. Water coming from high elevations flushed enormous amounts of sediment into the rivers flowing downstream. Rivers flooded in winter and riparian habitat was destroyed.
The ”anti-debris” case went to trial in June 1883. On July 1, 1884, Judge Lorenzo Sawyer’s decision to end hydraulic mining became one of the first environmental decisions in the nation. All hydraulic mining activities throughout the Mother Lode ended abruptly, leading to a sharp decline in population at any camp or town where hydraulic mining was the primary method of extracting gold. People moved on to other diggings and the places they left behind stood abandoned.
The historical landmark is located at the Omega Rest Area on State Highway 20, 6 miles east of Washington Road in the town of Washington.
Nevada means “snow-covered” in Spanish. During winter months, Nevada County’s eastern border is wholly engulfed in the snows of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. In the 1840s and 1850s many emigrants arrived in California via the Overland Emigrant Trail which threaded through the infamous Donner Pass.
California Historical Landmarks Program
Historical Landmarks are sites, buildings, features, or events that are of statewide significance and have anthropological, cultural, military, political, architectural, economic, scientific or technical, religious, experimental, or other value. Historical Landmarks are eligible for registration if they meet at least one of the following criteria:
1) Is the first, last, only, or most significant of its type in the state or within a large geographic region
2) Is associated with an individual or group having a profound influence on the history of California
3) Is a prototype of, or an outstanding example of, a period, style, architectural movement or construction or is one of the more notable works or the best surviving work in a region of a pioneer architect, designer or master builder.
California’s Landmark Program began in the late 1800s with the formation of the Landmarks Club and the California Historical Landmarks League. In 1931, the program became official when legislation charged the Department of Natural Resources—and later the California State Chamber of Commerce—with registering and marking buildings of historical interest or landmarks. The Chamber of Commerce then created a committee of prestigious historians, including DeWitt Hutchings and Lawrence Hill, to evaluate potential landmark sites.
In 1948, Governor Earl Warren created the California Historical Landmarks Advisory Committee to increase the integrity and credibility of the program. Finally, this committee was changed to the California Historical Resources Commission in 1974. Information about registered landmarks numbered 770 onward is kept in the California Register of Historical Resources authoritative guide. Landmarks numbered 669 and below were registered prior to establishing specific standards, and may be added to the California Register when criteria for evaluating the properties are adopted.
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Time Period Represented: 1850s