Mining and the Gold Rush Era

Gold. This innocent nugget of stone, used by Nisenan boys in sling shots for bird hunting, caused the great rush of emigrants who changed the Bear River forever.

The miners' stories are as rich and varied as all of human experience, brimming with adventure, strength and effort, perseverance, success and failure, praise and blame, fame and ill-repute. The Gold Rush lore is embedded in the Sierra foothill culture of today and is the foundation for a robust tourist economy. Among the best places to learn those stories of perseverance and hard work are at the Empire Mine State Park in Grass Valley or the Golden Drift Museum in Dutch Flat. Then take the time to walk amid the historic sites along the river.

What happened to this great river during the Gold Rush era?

The Bear River is in the heart of the ancient gold-bearing Ancestral Yuba River gravel deposits. The first wave of miners transformed the watershed. Panning and small scale digs proliferated along the river, and forests were cut for fuel and building materials. However, what started as individuals panning and digging soon evolved into companies that harnessed manpower and waterpower, changing the Bear River for all time.

Mining corporations soon developed hydraulic methods of washing whole hillsides into great sluice boxes, where the heavy nuggets would drop to the bottom. River water was diverted from higher and higher elevations, and brought to the diggings via huge canals dug into the hillsides and wooden flumes spanning deep ravines. Water companies grew with the gold companies, and the whole river was diverted for one purpose: the profits from hydraulic mining. Miners used sluice boxes (some up to half a mile long) to separate the gold from the gravels. The process worked even better when mercury was added at the top of the sluice box. The gold was pocketed by gold companies, who paid their workers scant wages.

The great water streams forced through canon-like monitors turned the Sierra foothills to slurries that gushed through the sluice boxes, filling in the Bear River with over 100' of gravelly silt, and sloshing all the way to the farms in the valley and even to the Delta and the San Francisco Bay. People downstream were not happy.

Farmers in the valley faced unprecedented flood conditions — the diggings filled in the river channels, and deposited gravels in farmers' fields. The Bear River's valley course was totally filled in, forcing the river to cut a new channel miles to the south. Shipping channels far downstream through the Delta and the Bay choked with the hilltops of Greenhorn Creek, Steep Hollow Creek, and many other tributaries of the Bear (160,000,000 cubic yards of mining sediment filled the riverbed, enough for 32 million 5-cubic-yard dump trucks, which is a bumper-to-bumper lineup of trucks circling the globe one and one-half times). The first lawsuit to remedy this condition was brought by valley farmers against more than 30 Bear River mining companies. While that suit ultimately failed on technicalities, others succeeded and hydraulic mining was halted.

Strangely, hydraulic mining itself was never made against the law and is legal even to this day. It was the impact that became illegal. Some early efforts to revive hydraulic mining were made by building large dams to hold back the silt, but it could not be done, and the practice of hydraulic mining came to an end. However, its legacy lives on and will for future generations. Silt and gravels fill the Bear River and the valley below and provide the material for six present day sand-and-gravel mining operations. Mercury continues to pollute the environment, flowing with water and silt downstream and moving up the food chain to fish tissue becoming a hazard for humans and wildlife.

The vast ditch system developed for mining was turned to other uses. The network of ditches was even expanded by hundreds of miles to serve water to farmers, towns, and power plants.

Read more about the impact of mercury in Mercury Contamination