Gold Run and Dutch Flat - The Wake of Hydraulic Mining
Photo © David Wiltsee
Steeped in mining and transportation history, now-peaceful Dutch Flat and Gold Run buzzed with activity from 1851 until 1884, when hydraulic mining was outlawed by a federal court. Hydraulic-mined gold fields show the lasting effects of destructive mining well over a century later.
Founded in 1851 by a German miner, Joseph Dornbach, Dutch Flat was one of several busy mining camps in the vicinity, including Cold Springs (later Gold Run), Little York across the Bear River in Nevada County, and Green Valley. Miners were mostly solitary gold panners working small claims on the Bear and North Fork American Rivers. The camps were supplied by mule train from Illinoistown (later Colfax).
In 1859, two canal systems were constructed into and through the area, thus facilitating more hydraulic mining of the gravel-laden (gold-bearing) alluvial hills. The same year, Dr. Daniel Strong of Dutch Flat invited Theodore Judah, chief surveyor and engineer for the Central Pacific Railroad, to evaluate a route on the ridge for the planned transcontinental rail line. One of the water canals showed the feasibility of a rail grade uphill to Emigrant Gap, convincing Judah that this was the superior alternative rail route.
Judah convinced the Central Pacific's owners, the "Big Four", to adopt this route. In addition, the owners determined to construct a road parallel to the alignment as a toll road and construction supply route during rail building up and over the Sierra Summit. This road, at one time viewed as a competitor to a rail line, was authorized by the State and built as the Dutch Flat Donner Lake Toll Wagon Road. Wagon tolls proved profitable from 1864-68, supporting rail construction when bond sales lagged (To Donner Pass from the Pacific, Jack E. Duncan, 2001). The DFDLTWR later became an automobile route, and was designated a segment of the Lincoln Highway (1913 ).
Dutch Flat became a local staging and supply hub, thanks to the toll road and the resulting improved east-west transportation. In 1866, however, as the railroad came through and continued eastward, a new supply point established at Cisco undercut Dutch Flat's role.
Hydraulic mining reached a fever pitch in the 1870s, attracting more miners and activity to the area. Corporate interests bought up claims and financed large scale activity. High pressure water cannons, or monitors, blasted entire hills away to get at alluvial gravel and sands bearing gold. Mercury processing was used to isolate the gold from other materials.
From the 1850s into the 1870s, Dutch Flat had one of the largest Chinese settlements outside of San Francisco (estimated at 3,500 in 1853, or a total population of 6,000).
Tailings (waste materials) were allowed to wash into streams and rivers, affecting water quality and dramatically altering water courses, destroying wildlife, and causing heretofore unprecedented flooding. Silt deposits as far as San Francisco Bay were reported to be as deep as 20' in places.
Today, the dramatic results of hydraulic mining dominate the landscape north of Dutch Flat, toward the Bear River.
Conflict between hydraulic mining and the railroad occurred when, at Gold Run, mining had narrowed the ridge of the rail line so badly as to threaten its collapse. The railroad was forced to send armed guards from "back east" to prevent further mining. The site of this incident is visible on one side from atop the Gold Run ridge looking down into the abyss from Lincoln Road. The other side is visible from the westbound I-80 rest area at Gold Run (see water monitor pointed at hillside, flume along hillside, and interpretive exhibit on a path from parking lot).
A visit to the Dutch Flat - Gold Run area offers a rich glimpse into the life and times of 19th century California, and of the events that profoundly shaped the Tahoe-Emigrant Corridor. Much more might be said about 19th century lumber operations (Towle Bros. Lumber and narrow gauge railroad), sophisticated "culture," and even a visit by Mark Twain; these will be left to the traveler to discover.
The Dutch Flat Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and encompasses 480 acres and 45 buildings.
To enhance the travel experience to Gold Run and Dutch Flat, the following are suggested:
- Visit the Golden Drift Museum in Dutch Flat for touring ideas
- Read The Golden Corridor, Jody and Ric Horner, Pilot Hill Press, 2005 *Read To Donner Pass from the Pacific, Jack E. Duncan, 2001
- Arrange a stay at the historic Dutch Flat Hotel
- Get off the beaten path and travel the old Lincoln Highway and Historic Route 40 (free tour guide materials available at Placer museums)
- Visit the Monte Vista Restaurant at I-80 Dutch Flat exit, a local landmark for 80 years
Time Period Represented: 1851 to 1884
Hours Open: Open Memorial Day thru Labor Day, Wed.: Noon – 4 p.m. Sat. & Sun.: Noon – 4 p.m.
Visitor Fees: Free