Fifteen Events That Have Shaped California’s Human Landscape



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The Discovery of Gold at Sutter’s Mill, January 24, 1848


The story of the California Gold Rush with its compelling and romantic character is one of the most exhaustively researched topics in the West. Its inauspicious start, its ephemeral and unbalanced economic focus, and the mania that drew 250,000 people to the state in less than three years have become part folklore, part cultural genealogy (Gressley 1999; Holliday 1999; Paul 1947; Rohrbough 1997). Nobody denies its profound historical consequences not only for the region, but also for the nation and the world. Yet, two years ago, on the occasion of its sesquicentennial, several historians disputed its lasting effects on the modern state. Richard White (1998) posited that its immediate effects were superseded by later economic, demographic, and political processes. Others added that the transport, agriculture, and industry it brought would have come anyway to such a resource rich state (Bethel 1998). However, the discovery of gold ignited processes of economic development, settlement, environmental modification, and political adaptation that have spatial and visual resonance in California’s landscape of today.

The most recognizable landscape legacies of the mining era are the mines, towns, water systems, and transport links that litter the foothill and desert districts of the state. Mining directly established the settlement framework in those otherwise undesirable nineteenth century locations. In Amador, El Dorado, Nevada, and Placer counties, the major towns, including all four county seats, and the roads that link them, began as parts of the gold rush infrastructure (Dilsaver 1982, 400-103). The historic character of towns like Auburn, Nevada City, Sutter Creek, and Sonora has made the Sierra foot hills the fastest growing part of the state (Figure 3). Even abandoned towns, like Bodie and Columbia, entertain thousands of tourists and sustain a nostalgic idyll that draws the new rush of mobile workers and retirees. Mining towns are among the most recognized of historic landscapes in the country. They display a convoluted morphology and historical authenticity that stem from their adaptation to geomorphology and their unsuitability to functions other than tourism and telecommerce.

The abandoned infrastructure of mining is also present in these zones. The ruins of conveyors, mills, sluices, and equipment, and tell-tale piles of debris spotlight thousands of former mines. Due to their structural instability and the frequent presence of dangerous chemicals, state and federal agencies seek to identify and rehabilitate these sites. The Bureau of Land Management (1996) estimates that its lands alone (13.8% of the state) contain 11,500 “Abandoned Mine Land” sites. Miners dug or constructed more than 7000 miles of ditches and flumes, among the earliest in the state. In many cases these also lay in ruins. However, these early water engineers also included sources and water transport routes in the mountains that have been adapted for modern use by towns and agriculture (Rohe 1983). Their accession to high mountain water sources and elaborate distribution systems helped pave the way for California’s adoption of appropriation and massive agricultural irrigation a few decades later.

Mining also helped plot the settlement pattern and urban character of California. Gold mining established the relative importance of Sacramento, San Francisco, and Stockton. Sacramento became the state capital based on its role as a mining supply center. San Francisco dominated banking and mining finance. The presence of mining wealth drew entrepreneurs who brought the state’s earliest industry to the Bay Area and shaped its characteristics of light to medium assembly and consumer products (St. Clair 1998).The crowded and vertical financial district of today’s San Francisco lies atop sunken gold rush ships. Limerick (1998) suggests that California’s urban focused population also stems from the entrepreneurship and manufacturing derived from the mining industry. Furthermore, the distinctive Asian landscapes within California’s largest cities ultimately owe their origins to Chinese gold-seekers.

The environmental effects of mining have been the topic of intense study and comment since the time of the gold rush. Grove Karl Gilbert (1917) calculated that the industry, especially through hydraulic mining, had deposited more than 1.6 billion cubic yards of sediment dwarfing the amount generated by natural processes and other human causes such as agriculture, grazing, and deforestation. The channel bottoms of some mountain streams rose several inches per year. In some cases river channels moved. Vast outwash deposits lay over the Sierra Nevada piedmont. Towns and agricultural fields flooded. The bed of San Pablo Bay rose more than three feet and 9000 acres of tidal mudflat were created around its edges. Mine sites like Malakoff Diggings at North Bloomfield became moonscapes as hydraulicking carved away these vast sediment loads (James 1994; Rohe 1983; USGS 2000).



Figure : The historic landscape of the Mother Lode is well represented by the town of Sutter Creek. Photograph by L. Dilsaver.

Modern research has shown that erosion and revegetation have ameliorated much but not all of this amazing landscape disruption. Rohe (1983) suggests that six feet of debris along the Yuba River is probably permanent. James (1994) found terraces formed by mining debris where rivers recut their channels into the raised beds. He concurs that they are “permanent over centennial time scales.” All modern researchers agree that many millions of cubic yards of sediment still line Central Valley rivers (USGS 2000). Dredging overturned much of that sediment and left it in parallel rows of man-made eskers. Dredge spoils cover dozens of square miles along Sacramento River tributaries. At hydraulic mine sites, vegetation has reclaimed some cuts and tailings while others remain largely barren.

Mining introduced many other environmental impacts, some of which shaped the landscape in unexpected ways. Dasmann (1999) found that the mining era wiped out much of the large mammal population, especially bears. The latter are noteworthy because they function as ecosystem engineers in their natural habitats moving soil, uprooting trees and logs, dispersing seeds, and preying on other species (Lawton and Jones 1995). Mining, like no other function, impacted the fauna of mountainous areas where many minerals concentrated. At Grass Valley the collapse of shafts and slopes in the Empire Mine caused surface subsidence noticeable to anyone driving its streets. Most of the deforestation that raised the foothills tree line by up to 2000 feet and decimated the Tahoe area has been reversed. Yet the forest composition has been altered. In semiarid areas chaparral and digger pine often replaced ponderosa pine (Rohe 1983).

The gold rush also shaped the politics and culture of the state in ways that show in the landscape. The rush drastically accelerated Indian displacement or elimination. The widely scattered distribution and small size of reservations in California are byproducts of the geographically expansive search for wealth (White 1998). The international character of the rush brought large numbers of Chinese to California, resulting in enclaves of mixed Chinese and American appearance in most major cities.

The disorganized society of the early mining camps led to social attitudes and laws that have landscape expression. Batabayal (1998) suggests that they spawned an “economic liberalism” that decries government influence in use of public lands. Later Congress institutionalized this in the Mining Law of 1872 (30 USC 21-54 as amended). Among the effects of this sweeping law are more than 27,500 extant mining claims on federal land in California (BLM 1996). The California Division of Mines and Geology reported 917 active mining operations in the state during 1995 (Youngs 1996). Individuals hold most of the remaining claims. As early as 1944, the Forest Service reported that 21 percent of the claims on its lands were used for residential or commercial purposes (Friedhoff 1944). The agency now estimates that more than half the mining claims in the national forests are used for these purposes (Stone 2000). Thus, much of the infrastnrcture on California’s federal lands owes its existence and distribution to a system of egalitarian and economically liberal laws devised hurriedly amid the placer mines of the state.

One final impact of the gold rush’s legal legacy can affect the landscape in ways as startling as the hydraulic operations of twelve decades ago. Major corporations use the gratuitous Mining law of 1872 to open-pit mine for gold. Some companies confidently plan to pulverize entire hills and retrieve the gold by a chemical process known as heap leaching. A landscape left behind by this operation will have its physiography, soil profile, and biota dramatically altered. Furthermore, as scientists ponder the significance of the world’s most acidic water at Iron Mountain near Redding, both the landscape and the health consequences of mining’s chemical residue remain unknown.


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