U.S. History 1877-Present 5: Hydraulic Mining

Today we're learning about hydraulic mining, which was all the rage in the mid 1800s. Unfortunately it caused a lot of slickens, which meant slim pickens for farmers, which quickened legislation that eventually banned its use. Womp womp.

LanguageEnglish Language
U.S. HistoryU.S. History 1877-Present

Transcript

00:11

a crystal-clear California river.

00:13

If Sam sifts a nugget

00:15

from the water, he does a happy dance.

00:17

And unless he steps on a snail, [boot avoids squishing snail]

00:19

nature remains unscathed.

00:21

Of course, gold mining

00:23

might have started with guys like Toothless

00:25

Sam, but, uh, people quickly

00:27

figured out that panning for gold was like

00:29

looking for a needle in a haystack.

00:31

So folks started innovating techniques

00:33

like hydraulic mining.

00:35

And wouldn't ya know it? It worked like a charm.

00:37

Over three decades,

00:39

it yielded a cool 100,000,000 dollars'

00:41

worth of gold, which is worth about

00:43

7.5 billion dollars today.

00:45

Man, they're lucky they didn't

00:47

summon Smaug.

00:49

But despite all this

00:51

glittering success, the government put an end to the

00:53

gold party. Now why would the government

00:55

do something like that? Sheer

00:57

meanness? Bling envy? Well, probably

00:59

not. See, hydraulic mining

01:01

blasts water at rock or sedimentary

01:03

material to get it moving,

01:05

and then runs that water-sediment

01:07

flurry through gold separating devices.

01:09

Sounds nice and clean,

01:11

right? Like a high-powered shower

01:13

that gets you gold. Where can we buy

01:15

one of those? Sharper Image, perhaps?

01:17

Well, the problem is that hurling

01:19

high-pressured water at any land

01:21

scape, even one made of solid

01:23

rock, causes serious

01:25

erosion. Then there's the small

01:27

problem of millions of tons of water,

01:29

gravel, and sand streams

01:31

ready to run but with nowhere to go.

01:33

Well, thanks to hydraulic mining all over

01:35

the West, water systems got, uh,

01:37

a little scrambled. And a few

01:39

were probably even poached. For instance,

01:41

California's Sacramento area had

01:43

streams and rivers that were filled with

01:45

gravel and rocks. You know what

01:47

Pocahontas likes most about rivers?

01:49

Besides the whole, uh,

01:51

"can't step in the same river twice" thing?

01:53

She likes to have,

01:55

uh, what's that called? Yeah,

01:57

water. Yeah, water

01:59

in rivers. Well, waterways were

02:01

diverting, overflowing, and being

02:03

halted in their tracks. This

02:05

clogging-slash-overflowing situation

02:07

deprived people of water

02:09

and made it way harder to

02:11

navigate the area by boat, or

02:13

uh, pool noodle. All

02:15

the flooding that was happening wasn't

02:17

too cool either. A flood is

02:19

bad enough on its own, but these floods were

02:21

particularly destructive for farmers

02:23

because the waters were filled with silt and

02:25

sand. And you know the old saying:

02:27

"when a fellow's farm floods with sandwater,

02:29

he might as well become an accountant."

02:31

Uh, we might have made that

02:33

one up here at Shmoop, but it proves

02:35

the point. Yeah. Anyway, many farmers'

02:37

farmers quickly became unfarmable

02:39

after being doused in the

02:41

silty water known as slickens.

02:43

There's an appropriately

02:45

disgusting name, if we ever heard one.

02:47

Well, farmers started giving their local elected

02:49

officials an earful and filing

02:51

lawsuits left in right. Well, finally,

02:53

in 1884, federal circuit court

02:55

judge Lorenzo Sawyer mandated

02:57

that the mining industry stop

02:59

discharging its debris.

03:01

In plain English, he said,

03:03

"Hydraulics are off the table,

03:05

boys." With the Sawyer

03:07

injuction, the industry collapsed

03:09

and hydraulic mining became a thing of the past.

03:11

So the government didn't step in

03:13

to crush an industry just for the fun of it.

03:15

They stepped in to protect peoples'

03:17

private property. And even though

03:19

this wasn't pure environmental protection,

03:21

it planted the seeds for laws to

03:23

come. Also, it put Toothless

03:25

Sam back in the game, and somewhere,

03:27

he did a toothless jig.