Malakoff Diggins historical erosion and devastation of Sacramento Valley

Malakoff Diggins looking east.

To see the combination of man’s greed coupled with a complete disregard of nature or other people, travel to Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park to see the results of hydraulic mining. After the easy gold was panned out of the stream beds, more innovative miners turned large scale excavation to extract gold dust mixed in ancient river bed in the 1850’s – 1880’s

Just as any small boy will tell you, there are few things as fascinating as washing away dirt with an open hose. That is essentially what they did at Malakoff Diggins. After the hydraulic mining was stopped by court order in 1884, we are left the historic scar to wander around.

When ever I visit a historic place I try to put all the pieces together. I am fascinated by the logistics, engineering and aspects of daily life scattered about. When you stumble upon a historic place like Malakoff Diggins you often wonder, “How in the hell did they find this place?” There are plenty of sources of historic information on Malakoff Diggins. I just wanted to pose some questions and offer some photos that I took of our experience.

130 years after the water cannons were silenced, significant scarring remains. Willows trees and brush, phreatophytes, are growing thick (I got lost in them) and trying to reclaim the pit. We are still left with a 7,000 foot drain tunnel and the lingering effects on the Sacramento Valley from the elevated river bottom that all of the hydraulic mining drained into.

I have lots of questions, so if you have lots of answers, please feel free to add a comment.

1. What is the parent material of the exposed eroded soil? The soil is a light gray or white. It almost looks like the parent material was volcanic ash. The rocks and pebbles in the pit are mostly round and smooth so they were obviously in moving water long before they were left high and dry in Nevada County.

2. What iron alloy was the penstock pipes made out of? Look closely at the large pipes scattered along the pit floor and you’ll notice they were flat sheets rolled and seamed to make the pipe. Additionally, all of the connections and fabrications were done with straps and rivets? Arc welding, was not universally available until the late 1870’s. Certain steel can’t be easily welded anyhow. There is one flange that has welding marks but I don’t know if it was from the period or from after the mine closed. The welding is and cutting of the flange is pretty crude, so it might be from the 1870’s.

It took a while, but I finally found some information about the termination of the 7,800′ drain tunnel. On our next trip up to Malakoff, we’ll hike down to the exit to take pictures. However, walking through the Hiller tunnel was fun. The red clay soil sticks to everything but the white powdery soil washes off easily.

I almost feel guilty revelling in the history of Malakoff Diggins. The heart ache and misery this mining operation caused to farmers in the valley and destruction to our rivers and San Francisco bay was enormous.

Click on thumbnails to enlarge photos.

Historical hydraulic mining photos acquired in 2014

Here are some additional resources.

Wiki history

Pipe history rolled and rivited steel or cast iron pipe

History of welding

Bloomfield Drain Tunnel entrance exit Humbug creek

north bloomfield drain tunnel exit.

2008 article on Humbug creek hike and drain tunnel

Oxy Acetylene welding and cutting torch