The North Bloomfield Mining and Gravel Company operated in the area that is now Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park. The area was a major hydraulic mining operation, using an extensive network of canals and flumes with 7,800 foot drainage tunnels through solid bedrock. North Bloomfield mine was reported to be the world’s largest hydraulic mining operation.
Of the many innovations that came from the Gold Rush, none were as controversial and environmentally damaging as the practice of hydraulic mining to extract gold flakes from deep within the Sierra Nevada mountains. By the 1860s and 1870s, the mining industry was declining. Hydraulic mining was an effort to revive the industry by using powerful and destructive technology to quickly recover the gold flakes.
Mountainsides were blasted with high pressure water jets that sent tons of mud and debris down river to the Sacramento Valley below. Hydraulic mining saturated towns with a sticky muck, overflowed and polluted rivers, and caused incalculable environmental damage to habitat and wildlife. The debris killed fish and rendered the Sacramento and Yuba Rivers un-navigable for ocean going vessels for more than 100 years. Farms and farm communities were flooded. The silt reached as far as San Francisco Bay.
Wealthy San Francisco investors were the primary financiers for this highly profitable and hugely destructive endeavor. A steam powered rock drill that supported a device that applied pressure equal to a 500 foot column of water into the mountain. 50,000 tons of gravel were processed per day, seven days a week. The Malakoff mine pit was created from moving some 41 million yards of earth. This is what visitors see at the canyon overlook.
Farmers in Yuba City attributed losses from hydraulic mining along the Bear and Yuba Rivers to be $5.5 million in 1875. In one year, an estimated 40,000 acres of farmland and orchards were destroyed, and another 270,000 acres severely damaged. A total of 12 billion tons of earth were blasted off mountains and swept into rivers across the Sierra Nevada range.
The North Bloomfield Mine was the principal defendant in the 1883 anti-debris case brought by Marysville farmer, Edwards Woodruff. Judge Lorenzo Sawyer rendered a decision in favor of Sacramento Valley farmers in January 1884 in a 225-page document. Anxious Californians waited at their local telegraph office for news of the decision. The bitter battle between farmers and miners was finally over. Farming communities around the state – Bakersfield, Chico, Colusa, Merced, Red Bluff, Stockton and Wheatland – celebrated.
The Sawyer decision changed the course of California mining history and was considered the first major environmental decision to be rendered in the United States.
Today, visitors to Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park follow the main park road and veer to the right at the park sign to see the remaining buildings of the former town of Bloomfield. A little farther down the road on the right is the canyon overlook: 7,000 feet long, 3,000 feet wide and nearly 600 feet deep at the peak of mining activity. The canyon walls are brilliantly colored layers of rock carved by hydraulic mining. The park is open for picnicking and camping.
The historical marker is located inside Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park at the canyon overlook. The park is accessible from Tyler Foote Crossing Road, 28 miles north of Nevada City.
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.