The Gold Rush didn't end with the Sawyer Decision

Hydraulic operations reopened with the 1893 Caminetti Act

Hydraulic Mining Never Ended. The Truth about the Sawyer Decision


Above. Working the monitor.

Hydraulic Mining Legally Continued well after the Sawyer Decision

The myth they want you to believe is the Sawyer Decision of 1884 banned hydraulic mining. In court testimony the State of California has presented this opinion, and even labeled the Sawyer Decision as the first environmental law case. Most of us miners know the Sawyer Decision didn't ban hydraulic mining. Some of us know the Caminetti Act restarted hydraulic mining and a few of us know the end of hydraulic mining was driven by better technologies for recovering gold.

The chart on the opposite page shows the value of California gold production over time, compared to historical events. It's clear no time in history could match the few short years where gold could be picked up by the hatful on the river banks. After that it became real work.

Hydraulic mining was merely an attempt to extract previously unreachable gold by efficiently washing away hundreds of feet of overburden and then working the pay layer through sluice boxes. Even at the height of hydraulic operations gold production was mere fraction of pick and shovel days. The reality is the easy gold was gone.

This isn't to say the mines which were operating weren't profitable. Some were, some weren't.

The Sawyer Decision actually had very little long term impact on gold production. Miners switched to other methods of mining including the floating gold dredge which increased gold production to pre-Sawyer Decision levels.

As the chart shows, just prior to World War II gold production in California began to reach 1849 levels once again with the increased production from gold dredges and hard rock mines. It's likely, with the passage of Caminetti Act amendments, that gold production by the end of the 1940's would have surprassed the levels of 1849.

The 1940 amendments to the Caminetti Act authorized the building of large debris reservoirs, such as Bullards Bar, to capture the tailings from upstream hydraulic operations, eliminating the expense of individual operators to build their own impoundments.

The relief from the Caminetti amendments was short lived, and no sooner did operation begin the process of restarting than the government closed down the gold mines as non-essenial to the war effort. After so many starts and stops the hydraulic mines never recovered, even though the infrastructure to capture their tailings was completed by the California Debris Commission and stand yet today, awaiting the tailings which never arrived.

By the time the infrastructure was completed, and gold operations were allowed to restart, there was no water available to run the mines. The companies who owned the water rights had sold them off to irrigation districts over the past 50 years and when finally everything was in place to mine, the hydraulic operators found the flumes and water ditches dry.

The Sawyer Decision didn't end hydraulic mining. It never stopped on the Klamath and Trinity, and in the areas where there was an injunction Congress stepped in and authorized the building of impoundments to capture the tailings. It wasn't the Sawyer Decision, it was the start and stops, the regulatory environment, and finally the lack of water.

However, it's unlikely the hydraulic operations ever would have reached pre-Sawyer Decision operations even under the best of circumstances. Technology had replaced the need for hydraulic monitors. Improvements in mining technologies, to include the gold dredge and better pumps, allowed the miners to once again reach unworked gravels.


Above. California gold production compared to historical events

For the prospector interested in remaining unworked channel deposits you need only look at the above chart. It's clear prior to World War II gold production was increasing rapidly and would soon have surpassed the levels of 1849. Those mines are still there. Likely the portals are collapsed and significant work would be needed to reshore up the tunnels, but they're still there. It wasn't for lack of gold these mines were shut down.

This year, the Western Mining Alliance abandoned claim information shows several large chunks of channel claims available. If you're interested in trying to restart a mine on remaining unworked channel this may be your year. Do your homework but there are thousans of acres lying idle since World War II.

Although your chances of permitting a hydraulic mine probably aren't good, it may be possible to open a drift mine, or one of the old lode mines which dot the hills. We were just reading a report last week, written in the 1960's, on a proposal to re-open some unworked channel in Sierra County. The author was the son of a claim owner who was shut down prior to World War II and he knew this old mine still was on the gold when it was shut down. He submitted the report to some investors who turned it down. The majority of the land he was interested in is lying unclaimed today except for a few small dredging claims, but his interest wasn't the creeks, it was the ridge.

The gold production graph gives you a hint at the potential of California deposits. Imagine, if the pre-World War II production continued at the pace it was on how many mines would be operating today. You can only conclude they were on the gold and hitting their stride prior to World War II, the gold is still there.

Although it's possible to permit a hydraulic operation, and the Sacramento Army Corps of Engineers would have the jurisdiction, it's unlikely you would need a monitor to work the deposits today. There's plenty of gold left, and you don't need monitors or dredges to get it, but you may need some serious investment.

Good luck out there.