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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Gold Rush Legacy, Part I

Air Date: Week of

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold in California's Sierra Nevada mountains. Cheryl Colopy of member station KQED in San Francisco reports on the legacy of the Gold Rush on a landscape that was virtually untouched before gold was discovered.


CURWOOD: This year, California is commemorating the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada. The Gold Rush of 1849 turned a barely-explored US territory into a promised land of sorts. But the wealth it generated is only part of the story. The gold diggers also degraded the environment and decimated native peoples. Cheryl Colopy of member station KQED in San Francisco has this special report on the legacy that remains 150 years after they went for the gold.


COLOPY: The banks and skyscrapers of San Francisco are literally built atop the rubble of a boom town. Each time a new building goes up, archaeologists swoop in first and unearth coins, pots and pans, sometimes even entire rooms relatively intact from a century and a half ago. In 1847 this was the tiny village of Yerba Buena, but in 1848 gold was discovered in the foothills of the nearby Sierra Nevada, and within a year a quarter of a million people were headed to California by wagon train, by ship, even on foot. Almost overnight the Gold Rush transformed Yerba Buena into the teeming port of San Francisco. And soon after, California became a State, well on its way to becoming what it is today: the world's seventh largest economy and a global symbol of wealth and opportunity.

(Lapping waves)

COLOPY: But the Gold Rush also cast a shadow over California. All around San Francisco Bay, men cast fishing rods into the water next to signs that warn in 6 languages that the fish here contain chemicals at levels that may harm your health. One of those chemicals is mercury, washed downstream from gold mining operations more than a century ago. It's just one part of the environmental legacy of the Gold Rush.

It all began at Sutter's Mill on the American River.

(Background music)

MUSEUM TOUR VOICE: My eye was caught by a glimpse of something shining in the bottom of the ditch. I reached my hand down and picked it up. It made my heart thump. I felt certain it was gold.

COLOPY: An audio tour of an exhibit on the Gold Rush mounted by the Oakland Museum of California recreates the moment when James Marshall found that first nugget of gold not far from present-day Sacramento.

MUSEUM TOUR VOICE: This tiny piece of gold would inflame the world with gold fever.

COLOPY: The first miners could pluck gold right from the river beds, but that was soon gone and they turned to more destructive mining methods.

(Walking on gravel)

COLOPY: At Malakoff Diggins State Park, visitors stride up to the edge of a wide canyon ringed by rusty red cliffs. With its pillars and spires, it looks like parts of Utah or Arizona. But before the Gold Rush, this would have looked like the rest of the region: rolling hills dotted with trees.

HUIE: The pit that we're looking at is about a mile long, and three quarters of a mile wide. During the mining period from about 1865 to -- oh, around the turn of the century, they took out 41 million cubic yards of soil.

COLOPY: Ken Huie is a ranger at the park. He says this was once the largest hydraulic mining operation in California. Miners blasted the hillsides with huge water cannons.

HUIE: It was almost deafening, I guess, the sound that they had just walking to the rim and listening to all the water, and the rocks, you know, flowing down the sides of the hills and down through the sluices. The gold concentration was about 12 cents per cubic yard, so hydraulic mining was the only efficient way of moving enough soil to get gold of any value out of it.

COLOPY: And then came the mercury. In a process still used in some parts of the world, miners used mercury to bind together the tiny flakes of gold jarred loose from the hillsides, then heated the amalgam to remove the gold and dump the waste in the rivers.

(Flowing water)

COLOPY: Spring runoff rushes through an old tunnel built to carry the polluted water away. Throughout gold country, mining companies spent millions of dollars on operations like this. They cleared the hillsides of trees, built dams, and dug thousands of feet of tunnels. According to some estimates, this kind of hydraulic mining unearthed hundreds of millions of dollars in gold, but it also led to its own demise.

FRY: The river bottoms filled up, and you couldn't get large ships up the river.

COLOPY: Tom Fry is the director of the sesquicentennial Gold Rush Project at the Oakland Museum.

FRY: Which meant that the grain farmers and others who depended on ships for the grain trade couldn't move their produce, and it created the epic battle between the farmers and the miners in California.

COLOPY: In 1884 a judge ruled that the dumping of mining waste in rivers was illegal because it threatened the state's burgeoning agricultural industry. Gold mining was never the same after that, but it had already rearranged California's landscape. Entire forests had been cut. Rivers were dammed. Plants and animals that had thrived for eons struggled to survive. And San Francisco Bay was smothered by millions of cubic feet of sediment contaminated with hundreds of tons of mercury. About a third of that sediment remains today, and mercury continues to threaten wildlife and people here.


BROWN: All right. Now, we're at the front gate of the mercury mine. This is a Superfund site. It was put on the priorities list in 1990.

COLOPY: Raymond Brown, Jr., is an EPA field representative. He's also a member of the Elem tribe, whose ancestral home is here at the edge of Clear Lake, north of San Francisco. Some of the mercury mined to extract Sierra gold came from here. An 8-foot fence surrounds the old mining area, but Mr. Brown says kids sometimes climb over it. Except for a few scrubby patches of grass, the ground is bare, too poisoned, he says, for plants to grow.

The EPA has removed more than 3,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil from the nearby Elem reservation, but a lot more remains. And a huge mining pit is filled with a toxic soup of mercury and arsenic. During the rainy season it sometimes overflows into the lake.

BROWN: I haven't ate fish out of this lake for probably the last 10 years. We used to eat the tules, which is a root that grows out of the water.

COLOPY: Raymond Brown says his tribe's been warned to limit consumption of fish and plants from Clear Lake.

Here are some new ones coming up.

BROWN: These are the shoots right here that you can peel right here. You just peel them down. Do you want to try it?


BROWN: Try it.

COLOPY: Oh, yeah. It's nice.

BROWN: My grandfather used to always take salt, and…

COLOPY: A few bites of food from Clear Lake seem harmless, but too much could be dangerous. Mercury damages the brain and nervous system and exposure is particularly dangerous for children and pregnant women.

BROWN: Our tribe, the Elem Indian Pomo people, are no longer water people because of the fact of the contamination.

COLOPY: It will be years before the contamination is cleaned up here. In the meantime, Mr. Brown worries about the future of his tiny tribe. The mercury contamination of Clear Lake and San Francisco Bay, and the manmade canyons in the Sierra foothills are all tangible legacies of the Gold Rush. Some historians say another legacy persists in California's culture. Heather Huxley is the co-director of the Gold Rush Project at the Oakland Museum of California.

HUXLEY: There was this spirit of an extractive nature. You could come and you could rip the land apart. You could tear out whatever was valuable there, whether you found it in the metal gold, or whether you found it in some commercial venture, or whether you found it in cutting down all the trees. And I think that's an attitude that continues to color our attitude towards the environment today.

COLOPY: That attitude may be the dark side of the California dream. But the Gold Rush reflects the bright side as well, and that dream still draws millions of immigrants to the state. J. S. Holliday is the author of Rush for Riches, a history of California in the Gold Rush era.

HOLLIDAY: This wonderful image of opportunity, of freedom, of wealth, of no constraints, of acceptance of eccentricity of behavior. What a place to go to. California is today, was then, has been ever since, a place where you can come and make a new beginning, and where the rules are different than those at home. You leave your family and you come out here. The freedom of anonymity.

COLOPY: It may be one of California's essential contradictions, and it's one that the state is still trying to resolve, 150 years after the Gold Rush.



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