Hydraulic mining in action. Note the size of the miner, lower left.
It’s hard to believe one could find a place that’s 45 minutes drive up a mountain on a very bad road by accident, but that’s how it happened. On my way to a rendezvous with a real estate mistake, I drove right through the picturesque remnants of the town of North Bloomfield and the surrounding area, a landscape forever changed after gold fever of the 19th century had it’s way with it, now collectively called Malakoff Diggins State Park.
I’d planned to visit the park on a day a tour was given. The website said Thursdays through Sundays, to coincide with the museum open days. I guessed, rightly, Thursday would be the least crowded but it turned suddenly into a disadvantage when Ranger Connie (not her real name) strode out and announced that, since I was the only one there, she wouldn’t be giving the full tour and “what do you want to know?” Struck dumb, unusual for me, I couldn’t think of an answer. I knew nothing about the town and park and figured a tour would tell me, not me needing to know what I wanted to know. A dilemma loomed.
The general store, complete with post office.
Connie had attitude, it was clear, but she also had a lot of information. And it was her information, she emphasized, she’d researched her subject, she said, and it was important I paid attention. Some was online, but much of what she’d be sharing was private label, not available to just anyone. She stopped talking when I wrote things down and I knew I wouldn’t remember it if I didn’t. The ranger lady had me right where she wanted me, off balance and duly impressed by her abilities in that regard. Just when I thought the whole venture might be hopeless, salvation in the form of a family arrived and our group was multiplied by a factor of 4. Dad was a talker, if not the brightest bulb, so things got rolling and I was left unnoticed from then on, to listen or not and take my pictures, relieved of duties as straight man for the Ranger Connie Show. Life is full of small favors. You just have to pay attention and notice them.
The saloon, drug store and Masonic Lodge.
After the interaction with ranger lady, the story I’d come for seemed a bit anticlimactic. The short version, placer miners look for larger returns, decide to blast mountains away using a new technology called hydraulic mining, beginning in 1853. Water for the hydraulic operations is piped down from higher elevations, fed into ever narrower conduits to build pressure, fire-type hoses blast away the landscape. Lots of gold but at what cost. Damage and pollution downstream as silt clogs creeks and rivers all the way to San Francisco Bay. 1884, the country’s first environmental law, the Sawyer Decision, passes to shut down the country’s largest hydraulic gold operation. But the damage is done and what’s left of the mountains are miles of gravel piles. The town, first called Humbug, meaning a played out mining area, changes it’s name to Bloomfield, post office insists on North Bloomfield, to distinguish it from the other one. Originally built to supply miners, the town is deemed a nice place to live and survives. Ultimately population dwindles until, in 1965, the area becomes a state park for lowlanders to visit and be educated about the environmental price of greed and to have a cool mountain spot to visit until the snow comes. If the snow comes. It once did and we hope it will again, so those farmers downstream can have another happy ending.
For a more comprehensive version of the fascinating Malakoff Diggins -
North Bloomfield story, click here for the park brochure.
More of the town of North Bloomfield.
Monitors similar to this one were used to wash the gold from the gravel mountains.
One of several cabins in town to rent, below,
complete with apple tree. $40 a night, what a deal!
Click here for cabin and camping information.
The forest is returning, but one can still see the devastating effects of
hydraulic mining that remain after a century and a half and always will.
This is a map of the area included in the series, Gold Country California.
Click here for links to all the chapters.
For a complete listing of PortMoresby's contributions, click here.