Monday, August 8, 2022


Hydraulic mine waste released into the Yuba River, Sierra Nevada, California, 1867

Our little town, “a great place to live”, is now a heavily marketed tourist destination. There are frequent year-round events to attend and lunch will easily cost you $20 plus. Locals, unless they own a business here, don’t go downtown much. Stores and restaurants open and close at about the same rate they did during the gold rush. Business is certainly legitimate, but the link between greed and gold is another story altogether.

For the last 40 years I’ve researched documents and books about gold mining in the north central Sierra Nevada. I’ve located and recorded gold mining sites and seen their legacy first-hand – it’s time to honestly assess the benefits gained by a few at the expense of local degradation and anthropogenic havoc to the environment. Because the topic is huge, I’m focusing on hydraulic mining and its infrastructure, an engineering tour de force, but an environmental catastrophe, one that we’re still dealing with today. 

In the latter half of the 19th century the ideology of self-aggrandizement and laissez-faire capitalism legitimated, even encouraged, the single-minded pursuit of wealth at all costs and thus made many people susceptible to gold fever. A quick look at Google shows at least 16 books with Gold Fever prominent in the title –  I’m sure there are more, as well as hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles. In addition to Charlie Chaplin’s classic 1925 film The Gold Rush, filmed at Donner Pass, near Truckee, California, the two other films about gold mining that attracted popular attention were The Treasure of The Sierra Madre (1948) and Paint Your Wagon (1969).


Bogart, Huston & Holt feverishly plan

The Treasure of The Sierra Madre featured a speech about gold fever written by John Huston who also directed. It’s a wonderful film starring Humphry Bogart as Dobbs, Walter Huston (John Huston’s father) as Howard and Tim Holt as Curtin. The speech was delivered, with authority, by Howard the perennial prospector, and here are a few lines: 

“But I tell you, if you was to make a real strike, you couldn't be dragged away. Not even the threat of miserable death wouldn't keep you from tryin' to add $10,000 more. $10,000, you'd want to get 25. $25,000, you'd want to get 50. $50,000, a 100. Like roulette. One more turn, you know, always one more ... I’ve seen what gold does to men’s souls.”

Then in 1969 came Paint Your Wagon, a campy Hollywood musical, based loosely on You Bet, a former hydraulic mining town in the upper reaches of the Bear River in Northern California. This has been a favorite play for amateur thespians in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada for decades now and it is always performed with exuberance and joy. Clint Eastwood sings the last song of the film, Gold Fever. It hints at the obsession, and the strung-out delusional quality of gold fever when Clint sings, “Gold, gold, hooked am I – Susannah, go ahead and cry.”
These three films have helped create a superficial awareness of gold mining in the popular imagination. Most history buffs and casual readers don’t care much about the actual history and consequences of gold mining, but they love the stories, both factual and those made-up from a few strands of truth. It’s difficult for the reader to distinguish between the two, nor do they necessarily care to. They want entertainment. The late Ken Kesey, author and a historical figure himself, acknowledged it: “To hell with facts! We need stories.” Perhaps we will eventually present history with a human and an environmental perspective –  stories that engage the imagination and educate, or at least raise awareness? A good example of a history-based genre blending book is Shirley Dickard’s, Four Women, for the Earth, for the Future (2020).
Here in Nevada City, a former gold mining town located on Deer Creek, a tributary of the Yuba River, The Diary of a 49er by Chauncey Canfield (1906) is usually the first sampling of local history that newcomers to the area read. The book is actually a fictional diary of Alfred T. Jackson, during his days as a gold miner from 1850-1852. Canfield was a journalist with some grasp of local history and geography, but it’s no more than an entertaining story that gives some feel for mining communities in the northern mines of the Sierra Nevada in the mid-19th century. It’s not history, but it is appealing and entertaining. There are far better reads, like Louise Klappe’s Dame Shirley’s Letters and John Borthwick’s 3 Years in California, both of which are based on first-hand observations and are full of engaging stories.

Surface mining with a sluice 

 Another story that's in constant flux and modified in every telling, is the story of Josefa Loaiza (aka “Juanita”) who, in 1850, defended herself and killed a drunken white man in the process. She was the first woman hanged in California, and the hanging was condoned by a lynch mob. In the confused “ethics” of the overwhelmingly male crowd it’s possible that, had she not been a Mexican woman, she may not have been hanged. Racism was rampant. The story of Josefa is a rich tale with several sub plots that’s been told over and over so that, if you compare a few versions, you can see the dynamic of storytelling and how in each round of telling it is subtly reshaped by the teller. This will continue as long as the story is told (See my blog entry for June 28, 2019).

Major Downie, in his reminiscences (Hunting for Gold) cites part of the Downieville – Goodyears Bar mining code: “… none but native and naturalized citizens of the United States shall be allowed to hold claims” and “that the word ‘native’ shall not include the Indians of this country.” Well, what about the native Nisenan people who cared for this ecosystem for centuries? They were hunters and gatherers who were aware of gold, which was not scarce, but found it useful only as net weights and throwing stones. 


Imagine this: Is it possible that in places where the streams ran wide and shallow, with their gravel beds clearly visible (the same places that salmon prefer for their redds), when the sun was low in the sky, might the sun have reflected the visible placer gold in the gravel causing the streams to glow, or at least glitter? It’s my fantasy and it may have been shared by many miners, however, except for a few, they got here too late. If it actually happened, the Nisenan enjoyed sparkling streams for centuries prior to the gold grubber’s arrival.


Appreciation of hunting-gathering lifeways by archaeologists and anthropologists changed substantially in the late 1960s and continued at an accelerated pace into the present. Hunter-gatherers are now more commonly seen as master ecologists, people with sophisticated relational social structures and advanced interactive environmental strategies. They had a sophisticated, specific and intimate relationship with the land upon which they lived, and still do. This kincentric orientation is based, not on child-like instinctual/quasi-mystical interaction with their natural surroundings, but on acute observation of the environment, which is recognized as part of an integrated whole. In hunter-gatherer cultures knowledge about the environment is transmitted from generation to generation over thousands of years, resulting in a detailed corpus of vital environmental knowledge and extremely successful economies. 


Gold mining is gambling. Victorian white men, at least those invested in middle-class values, had some difficulty accepting mining as a proper profession. It was rough, dirty work characteristic of the working class and secondly, they questioned their ability to handle the physical work and extremes of weather. Mining required a transformation in values and a return to brutish behavior. Those who felt guilt about leaving their families or had some reservations about the pursuit of wealth for its own sake, could calm their anxieties by trusting in the ethnocentric concept that they were serving the higher purpose of fulfilling the nation's Manifest Destiny.


Miners feverishly looked to new technologies to make the task of moving the earth easier and producing more profit. There were constant innovations – some ideas worked, and some didn’t. One invention, or insight, that did work was the application of pressurized water against an auriferous bank, collapsing it and performing the work of many men with hand tools. It was called the hydraulic process. Hydraulic mining’s impact is still with us although many people think that the problem ended with the Sawyer Decision of 1884, which is often described as the “first environmental legislation.”


Judge Lorenzo Sawyer, who wrote the Sawyer Decision, was once a gold miner in Nevada City himself. When he arrived in December of 1850 he wrote in his diary, “Beauty, grandeur, sublimity characterize every lineament of this vast scene.” But as he looked closer, he noted:

“Deer Creek, Little Deer Creek, Gold Run, and many others, see their beds to a great extent thrown up, behold the pine, the fir, the cedar, the oak, these monarchs of the forest undermined, uprooted and for a long distance piled upon each other in the utmost confusion – this is the work of man. Again, cast your eye along that broad belt of earth newly thrown up extending five or six miles along the base of the mountains, observe the thousands of shafts sunk deep into the earth, descend to the depth of one hundred feet, pursue the subterranean from shaft to shaft, ‘tis the work of man, hither has he traced the glittering dust, and in its pursuit penetrated the bowels of the earth, excavating passages in every conceivable direction. And all this has been accomplished in the space of one short year.”

The environmental degradation that Sawyer witnessed was accomplished with picks, shovels, pry-bars, saws and sluices. The hydraulic process, which is far more efficient, would not be developed until 1853. It too, originated in Nevada City. Sawyer, in his 1884 landmark decision, defined hydraulic mining this way,  “Hydraulic mining is the process by which a bank of gold-bearing earth and rock is excavated by a jet of water, discharged through the converging nozzle of a pipe, under great pressure, the earth and debris being carried away by the same water, through sluices, and discharged on lower levels into the natural streams and water-courses below.”

“The hydraulic”, as the miners called it, came just in time because the gold rush (1849-1854) was winding down. A population of over 250,000 was realized in 1852, which was also the year of peak production at $81 million. But the era of easy pickings was definitely over. Volume steadily declined after 1853 and so did average daily earnings. This was especially hard on the small independent “companies” whose members split the take. They were forced, in most cases, to abandon their semi-socialist ways to become wage earners. Hydraulic mining, together with quartz mining, revived the declining California gold industry and set in motion the second major era of mining activity that, in terms of duration, industrial construction and gold produced, surpassed the early gold rush period. Keep in mind that the gold rush lasted five or so years while hydraulic mining reigned for about thirty years.

Unidentified Diggings
Andrew J. Russell. Photographer for Southern Pacific Railroad

Gold rushes end not necessarily when the gold runs out, but when the gold becomes less accessible and major companies employing wage labor totally dominate what happens next. This is a pattern that became commonplace in the hydraulic mining industry. Commercial banks were not really needed until the arrival of Comstock silver wealth (1859), which virtually demanded financial institutions whose primary function was extending credit to businesses. Consequently, state laws were amended. In 1862, incorporated commercial banks came into existence paving the way for foreign as well as domestic investment in hydraulic mining, particularly in the 1870s when hydraulic mining accelerated and extended its scope. The vast infrastructure of dams, flumes, and reservoirs requiring ever-increasing investment for growth, was provided by investors in San Francisco, New York and London. Distant investors had no interest in the problems that they were increasingly creating for people and ecosystems downstream.


After the Civil War came an era of technological vision and innovationThe promise of wealth attracted young, intelligent and energetic engineers and mine managers with the gumption and daring to try new things. Innovations included the undercurrent, the inverted siphon and the hydraulic elevator, to name but a few. The mining conglomerates with their own water conveyance systems became proficient at dam building and transport with numerous ditches, flumes and reservoirs including the 80-mile long Milton Ditch. At the Malakoff Mine near North Bloomfield a single monitor (water cannon) with an eight-inch nozzle could deliver 16,000 gallons of water a minute. It could tear away 4,000 cubic yards of earth from the hillside every day.


Efficient engineering meant more effective earth moving and an increased volume of mine waste in the form of boulders, cobbles, sand, mud and contaminates. This productivity was at the expense of plant, animal and human habitat and contributed to the overall ecocide of the native Nisenan people caused by gold mining. Lorenzo Sawyer, when he was a gold miner, commented that “mountains themselves are removed”, while journalist, Bayard Taylor, wrote that in North San Juan he saw, “the very heart of a mountain removed”. Oustamah Hill, Pontiac Hill and other hills were eradicated in Nevada City, while at North Bloomfield most of Virgin Valley was washed away. The Bear River and its tributaries, Greenhorn and Steephollow Creeks, were choked with gravel and contaminants and remain so today.

You Bet Diggings

For nearly three decades, hydraulic mining dominated northern California as had no other form of mineral extraction. Yet, hydraulicking was the first effective technique for mass-mining of lower-grade deposits, and it set important precedents for the industry. It also stimulated the development of significant ancillary industries in California, systems for impounding and diverting water, both for irrigation and urban use.


The Yuba and Bear River watersheds suffered the most damage. In Nevada County the greatest density of hydraulic mines was on the San Juan Ridge, including the Malakoff Mine at North Bloomfield. To the north, in Sierra County, the highest concentration of hydraulic mining was in the drainages of Canyon and Slate Creeks, both tributaries of the North Yuba. Mining communities like Poker Flat, Poverty Hill, Port Wine, Saint Louis, Brandy City, Gibsonville, Whisky Diggings, Fair Play and others did not have extensive water conveyance systems but their production between 1855 and 1883 was in excess of $60,000,000. 


 Geneticist and environmental activist David Suzuki, famously observed that “We all live downstream.” But the water flowing downstream to the valley floor from the 19th century hydraulic mines in the hills above was too muddy for irrigation or for livestock and siltation carried by the stream covered thousands of acres of cultivatable land.


A series of winters with heavy precipitation brought the problems created by hydraulic mining into sharp focus. The flood of 1861-62 is still the most extreme on record and alarmed the farmers and land owners of Marysville because it released all the mining debris that had accumulated on the banks and in the beds of the hundreds of tributaries where miners had disposed of their industrial waste. Marysville, located in the Sacramento Valley where the Yuba River joins the Feather River, responded to continually rising stream beds by constructing levees in 1868, but despite their efforts the town was flooded in 1875. Sacramento, the state capital, was flooded in 1878 and 1881 creating even more awareness of the debris problem.

Remains of a sluice buried under gravel on Greenhorn Creek

Although hydraulic mining has ended we are still coping with the contamination of the debris and water quality by mercury, arsenic and other hazards. These issues were of no concern in the 19th century, mercury, or quicksilver, was essential to the recovery of gold  and was lavishly used in sluices. It was an expense for miners, so they tried to conserve it, but a huge amount got away and much of it is still with us today. The Blue Lead Mine, near Smartsville, in 1866, used three tons of mercury in four miles of sluices A decade later the North Bloomfield Company lost 21,512 pounds of Mercury between 1876 and 1881. (Mercury contamination is not the focus of this piece. See Fraser Shilling’s, Mercury Contamination in the Yuba and Bear River Watersheds.


When the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, it transported California’s agricultural bounty eastward and during the 1870s agriculture replaced mining as the leading sector of the state’s economy. By late in the decade the annual value of the dry-farmed wheat crop alone reached $40 million, more than double that of the dwindling gold output.


After a decade of contentious litigation between agricultural interests in the Sacramento Valley and the mining interests in the mountains one case, Woodruff v. North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Co., was gaining traction. The suit was complex and drawn-out with proceedings occurring over several years involving 200 witnesses and 200,000 pages of testimony. According to the evidence presented, over 100,000,000 of cubic yards had been washed (sluiced) by the hydraulic process, and the debris (mine waste) was deposited in the Yuba River and its tributaries. Another 700,000,000 cubic yards remained. In 1883 an estimated 15,000 acres, or an area twelve miles-long, along the Yuba River, by two miles-wide, had already been buried or destroyed.

Hirschmans Diggings, Nevada City, CA
Courtesy of the Nevada County Historical Society

Following a two-year study, the Office of The California State Engineer, created specifically by the debris dispute, had recommended a comprehensive flood control system consisting of brush dams in the Sierra Nevada foothills and extensive levees at key locations in the valley. The legislature subsequently passed the Drainage Act, a reclamation project to be funded by state-wide taxation and the charge of one half cent on each miner’s inch of water used by every hydraulic mining company. Work began almost at once as levees were thrown up along the banks of the Sacramento and dams built across the Yuba and Bear rivers. Debris-restraining dams, comprised of brush, wire, and logs, spanned canyon mouths at the edge of the Sierra Nevada foothills. Farmers and miners alike assumed their debris problems were over. 


But there’s no controlling the weather. The winter beginning in January 1881, saw a succession of storms unload on northern California. By early February flooding was extensive and, according to the Marysville Appeal and the Sacramento Bee, it was the most devastating ever. The flood control system had clearly failed. Furious and frustrated, farmers and townspeople revived their objections with renewed vigor, hydraulic mining had to be abolished – no compromise was possible. 

A stereo photo set of the Rudyard, or English, Dam, 1871
Carlton Watkins

But the flood with the most long-lasting repercussions occurred on June 18, 1883 when the English Dam on the Middle Yuba River burst. It wiped out every bridge crossing from the dam to Marysville, destroyed every stream-side mining operation, several men lost their lives and, because it was the source of the Milton Ditch, shut down hydraulic mines at Badger Hill, Manzanita Hill, Birchville and French Corral, putting about 100 men out of work. H. C. Perkins, supervisor of the North Bloomfield and the Milton Companies claimed it was sabotage, which was never proven, and posted a $5,000 reward. Sacramento Valley residents claimed the dam was over-topped and incapable of capturing the seasonal snowmelt. Regardless of the reason, the English Dam break affected the Sawyer Decision.

Tail sluices dumping into the Yuba River near Timbuctoo Bend.
 Men are unloading wood blocks used as riffles in the sluices.
Photo by Lawrence & Houseworth, 1867

On Jan 7, 1884 Judge Sawyer delivered his precedent setting perpetual injunction. The hydraulic mining companies, “their servants, agents and employees, are perpetually enjoined and restrained from discharging or dumping into the Yuba River, or any of its forks or branches …tailings, cobble stones, gravel, sand, clay or refuse matter.” The debris, the flooding, which reduced navigability of waterways, and the tax burden created by the expense of the levees, left the court with little choice but to enforce the rights of the downstream landowners.

Ferdinand Hauss, Orchardist, Yuba City
Photo courtesy of Sutter County Museum

Judge Sawyer felt that the community had a right to demand that the general welfare take precedence over the unrestrained use of private property. But was it really environmental legislation? The Yuba River as an ecosystem, with its fisheries, plants and animals, was never directly addressed. California at the time of Woodruff vs. North Bloomfield was a battleground for two conflicting modes of capitalist production, gold mining and agriculture or, “Gold vs. Grain”. At the time what conservation consciousness existed was focused on destructive and irresponsible forestry and grazing practices and the creation of forest reserves.


In retrospect, the eventual restraining of mining activities, while it had environmental benefits, did not come from an environmental impulse, nor was the environment its focus. The same lack of attachment to place, the same lack of community, the same short-sightedness, and the same obsession with profit characterized both mining and agricultureWhile this important legislation restrained lassie faire capitalism it’s a stretch to call it environmental, but it is a big step in that direction. Following upon the Sawyer Decision was the Rivers and Harbors Act, aka the Refuse Act (1899), which criminalized the dumping of “any refuse matter of any kind” in navigable waterways. Later, in the 1960s and 1970s, when significant environmental law was being crafted, the Refuse Act was evoked frequently to point out injurious conduct.


Miners had complete disregard or lack of awareness regarding the biota or landscape downstream, with small farmers and landowners suffering the (financial) consequences. By the time that the Anti-Debris Association was formed large-scale commercial farmers were involved. They were influenced by one of the largest and most efficient engines of economic development in California, the Southern Pacific Railroad owned by Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington, and Leland Stanford. The “Big Four”, as they were known, had already decided that California’s economic future was in agriculture rather than mining. By the latter decades of the nineteenth century food production was becoming a capital intensive, highly mechanized industry itself, much in the same way that mining had. 


After the Sawyer Decision, when wheat farming began to replace mining as California’s primary industry, it too was ecologically transformative as native grasslands and wetlands in the Sacramento Valley were transformed into agricultural fields. Rodman Paul, one of the leading historians of the California gold mining era, observed that, "agrarian frontiers shared with the mining frontiers a persistent American restlessness, an equally pervasive addiction to speculation and a desire to exploit virgin natural resources under conditions of maximum freedom. (Mining Frontiers of the Far West).”


In 1891 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducted a year-long investigation of the California debris problem and recommended to Congress that hydraulic operations be allowed to resume if adequate restraining works first were constructed. The idea was to restrain the debris behind dams. A hopeful stance, at best. Once again engineers insisted that it would work, and the state legislators were complicit, if not behind it, because they wanted the money that hydraulic mining generated.

Missouri Canyon, a tributary of Greenhorn Creek, Bear River

Two years later, legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives to create a federal agency for the purpose of regulating hydraulic mining in the Sacramento–San Joaquin drainage system. Congress subsequently passed the so-called Caminetti Act in 1893, and under supervision of the Army Corps of Engineers, permits were granted to applicants who had already built debris dams below their mine sites. Hydraulic mining was allowed to resume only if the debris was impounded behind dams, which were licensed and subject to inspection. Agents of the California Debris Commission were sent into the hills to assure that the new regulations were being followed. In the mining region they were often refused service, openly harassed and one agent, while visiting North San Juan, was badly beaten. They were referred to as “spies” and their whereabouts were reported by telephones and newspapers. Nevertheless, after a few high-profile cases, resulting in high fines and nervous investors most hydraulic mining ceased.


Despite desperate measures to resuscitate hydraulic mining the heavy snows of the early 1890s destroyed many miles of flume and ditch which, with the investors scared off, would not be rebuilt. Chinese miners who leased the Omega hydraulic mine in the 1890s built a debris dam on Scotchman’s Creek, a tributary of the South Yuba River. It was enthusiastically approved by an inspector for the Debris Commission who called it “the best in the state”, but it burst in January of 1896 releasing 100,000 cubic yards into the river, while killing three men.


A few small mines in the Yuba River watershed, like Relief Hill and Jouberts Diggings, were able to limp along but the infrastructure of dams, reservoirs, ditches and flumes continued to deteriorate due to lack of maintenance. It had become obvious that there would be no revival of the glory days of hydraulic mining. This era represents the beginning of statewide water management in California.


Hydraulic mining yielded several billion dollars in gold. But it also produced a debris flow of tidal wave proportions burying thousands of acres of farmland under infertile mud, sand and cobbles. The legacy of hydraulic mining is profound, transforming the landscape by processes that are geologic in nature and scope. 

Middle Yuba tailings

Additional reading:

Beesley, David. Crow’s Range: An Environmental History of the Sierra Nevada. (University of Nevada Press. Reno, 2004).

Greenland, Powell. Hydraulic Mining in California: A Tarnished Legacy. (Spokane, The Arthur H. Clark Company, 2001)

Hagwood, Joseph. The California Debris Commission: A History. Army Corps of Engineers. (Sacramento 1981).

Kelley, Robert L. Gold vs. Grain: The Hydraulic Mining Controversy in California's Sacramento Valley (Glendale, Calif.: A. H. Clark, 1959).

Sawyer, Lorenzo. Way Sketches: Containing Incidents of Travel Across the Plains from St. Joseph to California in 1850, with Letters Describing Life and Conditions in the Gold Region. (New York: Edward Eberstadt. 1926).

Vigars, Kaitlin N., Buried Beneath the Legislation It Gave Rise to: The Significance of Woodruff v. North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Co., 43 B.C. Envtl. Aff. L. Rev. 235 (2016),




Wednesday, May 18, 2022



Were there wolves in Grass Valley? Yes, gray wolves (Canis lupus) lived throughout much of North America until the early 1900s, when they were almost eliminated by predator-control programs throughout most of the contiguous United States. They were certainly present in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and the Sacramento Valley where their main prey items were deer, tule elk and pronghorn, an animal similar to an antelope. When the landscape of the Sacramento Valley became soggy in winter ungulates found it more difficult to range and escape predators because their sharp and narrow hoofs sunk into the ground, so they migrated into the foothills where they encountered indigenous hunters who were well aware of this pattern.



Wolf Creek is the main feature of a small foothill watershed that begins on the southwest slope of Banner Mountain, in Nevada County, at 3,400’. Every year there’s some snowfall at this elevation, but not much lately. The creek is about 23 miles long with 18 named tributaries. It contains a variety of life zones, but its upper reaches are predominantly in the lower ponderosa pine, incense cedar and black oak belt, with Douglas fir in its upper reaches. Grass Valley’s downtown, at 2,410’, was a gold mining town, but it’s becoming a tourist destination featuring historic buildings. 

Wolf Creek Entering Downtown Grass Valley

In the downtown area Wolf Creek and South Fork Wolf Creek [sic] are confined to puny channels and big culverts that were buried under tons of asphalt when the freeway between Grass Valley and Nevada City was completed in 1969. Wolf Creek flows out of Grass Valley, past the former North Star powerhouse, now a museum, and past a tributary called Little Wolf Creek, before it turns south and assumes a wilder look. 

Wolf Creek Flowing Parallel to Tin Loy Street in Downtown Grass Valley

Most of the southern portion of Wolf Creek is private property and I’ve visited very little of it, although according to John Schaffer’s 1850 diary, “Wema’s village” was a mile downstream from Grass Valley and, based on another source (Crawford:2017) there is a salt marsh on a tributary downstream, which was probably used by the Nisenan and was considered a valuable trade commodity.

Usually, towns built along water courses are built near the mouth, at a confluence with other streams. But Grass Valley emerged close to the headwaters of Wolf Creek because gold was discovered at this location in 1849. From Grass Valley, Wolf Creek flows south to the Bear River at about 1,000’, which is in blue oak-savannah country close to the Nevada–Placer County boundary and just above Camp Far West reservoir. Bear River continues flowing to the Feather River in the Sacramento Valley where it flows south to the Sacramento River and eventually to the San Francisco Bay.

South Fork Wolf Creek is a three-mile-long tributary that begins near the Idaho-Maryland Mine on Brunswick Road. It parallels East Bennett Street on its north side. It originally joined Wolf Creek in a meadow-wetland environment. Today it disappears under asphalt and concrete in the flat area at the intersection with the freeway on-ramp and reappears squeezed between the freeway and the back of Safeway in downtown Grass Valley.

Grass Valley in 1851. Painting by Edward Fanshawe




I looked at drawings, lithographs and maps depicting this valley, hoping to get a glimpse of how it looked 173 years ago when cattlemen and gold miners first arrived. In illustrations and verbal descriptions Grass Valley is consistently depicted as a gently rolling meadow area surrounded by conifers and hardwoods with riparian environments and intermittent wetlands.


The Nisenan are the indigenous people of the Wolf Creek watershed, who were hunter-gatherers with several camps and important settlements in the Grass Valley area. The prevailing  landscape was the conifer forest surrounding meadows, wetlands and riparian stretches. 

Areas where two ecosystems meet or intermingle creates a phenomenon known as the “edge effect.” It’s also known as ecotone. These overlapping life zones are typically very diverse and productive. The Nisenan were well aware of this process and managed the landscape to create small open meadows by burning and thinning. There is still a meadow out Bennett street on Empire State Park land (public land) and the former Loma Rica Ranch meadow, which is currently being converted into housing. Today, meadows are simply real estate to be profited from – that’s the way we live.

Meadow on South Fork of Wolf Creek (Bennett Street)

There were numerous wetlands in the flats of the Grass Valley area. The native people created other ecotones where there were willows and other plants for basketry as well as habitat for plants, animals, fish, birds and invertebrates that made this a superb place to camp or settle.


There were also ecological niches that were much appreciated by the Nisenan. An example is the outcropping of serpentine located on Spring Hill, in the area of the Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital, where, because of its unique chemistry and shallow soils, support particular plant species used as herbs and medicines. Also, on Spring Hill there are stands of gray pine, which produced highly desirable nuts. Typically, gray pine appears 10 or 15 miles downslope to the west. There is another serpentine outcrop west of town where Ridge Road meets the Rough and Ready Road.

Wolf Creek Flowing to Grass Valley

Still another area, rich in biodiversity, was the Brunswick basin, a place that had seasonal streams, meadows and wetlands, which for thousands of years, flowed to Wolf Creek via Olympia Creek. In the historic period, a community gathering place was created here by damming the stream in the southwest portion of the basin and calling it Lake Olympia. Now it’s a shopping center and most of its former grassland-meadows and riparian habitat are paved with heavy construction going on in this area as I write. Just over the northern ridge bounding Brunswick basin (now Banner Mountain Road) are Gold Flat and Nevada City in the Deer Creek-Yuba River watershed.


As Wolf Creek leaves downtown Grass Valley and turns south, Little Wolf Creek enters from the east. This is a two-mile-long-creek that drains the low hills in what is today the Empire Mine State Park. Beyond the Little Wolf Creek culvert the channeling of Wolf Creek ends and it begins to resume its wild character.


South Fork Wolf Creek With Animal Statuary


Grass Valley was the richest and most famous gold mining district in California. “The value of the total output of the lode mines is estimated to have been at least $300 million” (Clark 1992:54). In the early historic period the flatlands of Grass Valley were used for placer mining and sawmills, with some agriculture and orchards (there are still pear and apple trees around). 

Former North Star Powerhouse on Wolf Creek. It's Now a Museum.

In 1850 gold was discovered in a quartz outcropping on Gold Hill in Grass Valley and underground mining became all the rage prompting investors to build stamp mills and other mining facilities with limited knowledge about underground mining or any experience in separating gold from quartz. Despite being California’s highest producing lode mining region in 1855 this type of mining was in its infancy. To paraphrase a contemporary observer, mine managers were amateurs operating untested equipment. This led to poor performance and soured a taste for investment in the mines of Grass Valley. But, by the 1860s, a steady accumulation of experience, persistence and a high-grade ore body made the Wolf Creek watershed one of the most heavily mined watersheds in the world, renowned for innovation and production. Mined until 1957, Wolf Creek once had the greatest concentration of large hard-rock mines of any watershed in California. 


The local tourism industry usually includes a shallow retelling of stories about the gold rush, which by the way, was over by the mid-1850s, “Mining is not a folk industry” said geographer, Richard Francaviglia. “By the early 20th Century all but the most marginal operations were either influenced by or came under the ownership of large multi-national corporations or mineral cartels.”


An Underground Map Showing a Cross-Section Near the North Star Mine Mine.
The Tiny Dimple in the Top-Center of the Map is Wolf Creek


Mining disturbance in the Wolf Creek watershed is well documented. Internationally renowned gold mines like the Empire, the North Star and the Idaho-Maryland and numerous smaller mines released mine waste and toxic contaminants into Wolf Creek and residual toxins continue to erode into the stream. Meanwhile, if you can believe it, the Idaho-Maryland Mine, at the head of South Fork Wolf Creek, is currently requesting a permit to resume mining for an 80-year period. the decision is up to the five member County Board of Supervisors.


A Segment of the Wolf Creek Trail


Grass Valley’s citizens are becoming more concerned with the health of Wolf Creek than the vague prospect of jobs by investors from a foreign country. Reopening the Idaho-Maryland mine is a project that will severely impact Wolf Creek and the town’s well-being. The Wolf Creek Community Alliance ( was formed to advocate for Wolf Creek in 2004 and in 2006 the City of Grass Valley approved the Wolf Creek Parkway. Today there is a small, but well-used, trail that genuinely contributes to the vitality and environmental awareness of Grass Valley. Even as I write, there is an ongoing public art performance ( that merges with educational and scientific perspectives about consciously living in a biome. The first of many creative exchanges of ideas, I hope.

• • •


Crawford, Josie. Wolf Creek Watershed Disturbance Inventory & Assessment of Conditions: Part 1 Physical Abiotic Conditions (2017).

Clark, William B. Gold Districts of California, Bulletin 193. (1970).

Johnston, W.D. North Star Mine Geologic Cross Section [Map] USGS (1940).

Francaviglia, Richard V. Hard Places: Reading the Landscape of America’s Historic Mining Districts. (1991).

Friday, March 4, 2022


It’s been awhile since my last post because I’ve been working hard helping my friend, Tanis Thorne, finish her most recent book, Nevada City Nisenan. Collaborating on this book has been demanding, but illuminating, and worth every hour invested. 


Nevada City Nisenan is the story of an Indigenous population’s survival in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California. A story that underscores the importance of place and the resilience of Nisenan Cultural institutions. It tells how the Nisenan of Oustomah (Us tu ma) and Wokodot, living in the watershed now known as Deer Creek were able to remain in their ancestral homelands. The topographies here, with the advent of gold mining, were penetrated by shafts, adits, tunnels and trenches. Hills and canyon walls were dissolved by high pressure water cannons, sending everything but gold downstream. Waterways were stripped of vegetation and wildlife, filled with siltation, dammed and diverted and contaminated, while life-giving salmon choked on opaque and muddy water 


The topography today retains its industrial features but is softened by attrition, landslides, precipitation, wind and vegetation, which with needles, leaves and litter begins to create soil to cover the rawness and memories of violence to the geography and ecosystems. A landscape/garden that was subtly, but effectively and with respect, cultivated to yield desired results.


The campy mythology of the superior and rugged individual moving westward and opening the frontier is still very much alive in Nevada City, a town that, today, depends on tourism. The frontier thesis was fostered by historian Frederick Jackson Turner in the late 1890s in his influential book, The Frontier in American History (1921). In it, he explains how the availability of very large amounts of nearly-free farm land promoted agriculture, pulled ambitious families to the western frontier, and created an ethos of unlimited possibilities. 


In 1987, historian Patricia Limerick wrote The Legacy of Conquest:The Unbroken Past of the American West in which she reveals that this is a privileged white male perspective that sees the West as a land of conquest and open opportunity. Furthermore, she points out that the frontier is more than a concept but a place with, “many complicated environments occupied by Natives who considered their homelands to be the center, not the edge.”


The Nisenan, who had lived here for thousands of years, had deep and enduring relationships with the land and an awareness and delight in belonging to this place. So skillful were their manipulations and enhancement of their habitat that virtually every invasive explorer, trapper and gold miner was fooled into thinking that the land was a wilderness unaffected by humans. Stephanie Lumsden wrote in “Settler Law” (Notes from Native California, Summer 2014), “The cultural practices that accompany the traditional environmental knowledge of California Indians are more that common-sense strategies for sustainability; these are expressions of indigenous cosmologies which center on belonging to the land.”


Those early gold seekers who made the arduous journey to California had no intention of settling here. The goal, for most, was to make a “pile” and return home better-positioned to attract the most desirable wife available – for others getting rich was sufficient. But the easy to find surface gold was gone by 1852 requiring new technologies, like hydraulic mining, that involved earth moving and water contamination on a scale never before imagined. This was not a folk industry, but rather progress in its most virulent form: environmentally destructive mining on an industrial scale.


These two perceptions of land use could not have been more different. Why and how the Nevada City Indigenous community survived into the twenty-first century is noteworthy, Nevada City was no remote outpost, but viable mining ground, rich in gold with international financing attracting some of the best minds of a generation – the foothill town and mining district became an internationally known center of engineering and innovation. Today there is no gold mining in Nevada City but the Nisenan are still here.

Find out more about the availability of this book and an upcoming book signing at: