The Hidden Treasures of Mother Earth

Thousands of years ago, before the time of which we have any history, there were rivers in California, - rivers now dead, - whose sides were steeper and whose channels were wider than those of the rivers in the same part of the world to-day. Rapid streams they were, and busy, too; washing away from the rocks along their sides the gold held there, dropping the yellow grains down into the gravelly beds below. After a time there came down upon these rivers a volcanic outflow; great quantities of ashes, streams of lava and cement, burying them hundreds of feet deep, until over them mountain ridges extended for miles and miles.

Other changes in the earth's surface took place, and in the course of time our streams of to-day were formed. As they cut their way through the mountain ranges, some of them crossed the channels of old dead rivers, and finding the gold hidden there, carried some of it along, rolling it over and over, mixed with sand and gravel, down into the lower lands under the bright sunlight. Here it was found by Marshall and the gold hunters who followed him. These were the placer mines of which we read in Chapter VII.

Gradually the best placer mines were taken up and the newcomers to the gold fields traced the precious metal up the streams into the gravel of the hillsides. Then was begun hydraulic mining, where water did the work. In the canons great dams were constructed to catch the flow from the melting snows of the mountains, and miles of flumes were built to carry the water to the mining grounds. Immense pipes were laid and altogether millions of dollars were invested in hydraulic mining. The water coming down under heavy pressure from the mountain reservoirs passed through giant hose which would carry a hundred miner's inches, and, striking the mountain side with terrific force, washed away the earth from the rocks. Down fell the sand and gravel into sluices or boxes of running water where cleats and other arrangements caught and held the gold, which was heavy, while the lighter mixture was carried out into the canyon.

The material thus dumped on the mountain side was called debris, and to any one living in the mining region of the state that word means trouble - means fighting, lawsuits, ruin. For the debris did not stay up in the canyon, but was washed down into the rivers, overflowing farm lands, spoiling crops and orchards, and making the streams shallow, their waters muddy. So great was the destruction this process caused that, in 1893, the Congress of the United States enacted a law which provided for the creation of a Debris Commission to regulate the business of hydraulic mining in California. The result of the investigations of this commission was to put a stop to all hydraulic mining in territory drained by the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers, or any other territory where the use of this form of mining should injure the river systems or lands adjacent. Thus, almost in a moment, the important industry was stopped.

It is estimated that over one hundred million dollars were invested in hydraulic mining. Much of this was entirely lost, as the expensive machinery rusted and the water system fell into ruins. It was very hard for the miners, as well as for the commerce of the state, but the act of the government was based upon the principle that one man's business must not damage another man's property. Clever engineers in the pay of the government are still trying to find some way by which the debris can be safely disposed of in order that this valuable system may resume operation.

Deprived of the use of water as their agent, gold hunters next tried mining by drifts; that is, by tunneling into the mountain's side until the bed of a buried river is reached. These tunnels are often five thousand to eight thousand feet long. The gold is brought out of the ground before it is washed clean of the gravel. Sometimes it is mixed with cement, when it has to be crushed in rollers before it can be cleared of other material. The counties where drift mining is most in operation are Placer, Nevada, and Sierra.

Quartz mining is the most expensive manner of getting out gold, and a great deal of valuable and complicated machinery has been invented for this branch of the business. The quartz mines of California are among the richest in the world, and some of the greatest fortunes of modern times have been made from them.

In a mine of this kind there is generally a shaft, or opening, extending straight down into the earth, from which, at different levels, passageways branch out where the veins of gold are richest. The openings must be timbered to prevent caving in, and there must be pumps to remove the water as well as hoisting works to take out the material. Then on the surface, as near as possible to the mouth of the mine, must be located the quartz mill. When possible, a tunnel is used in this mining, which makes the handling of ore less expensive, for then there need be no hoisting works or pumps, since the tunnel drains itself.

Gold in quartz rock is generally in ledges or veins, one to three feet in width. Digging it out is not very hard, save where there is not enough room to stand upright and use the pick, or when, in a shaft deep in the ground, the heat makes it difficult to work. A California boy at the mines wrote recently: "Mining is not so bad; that is, if I could get along without the occasional whack I bestow upon my left hand. Last week I started a little tunnel and pounded my hand so that it swelled up considerably. Drilling is not hard, and loading is a snap, but it's all interesting work and there is the excitement of seeing what you are going to find next."

When the ore reaches the surface it is sent to the mill, where it is first pulverized, then mixed with a chemical which goes about catching up the grains of gold - arresting and holding them fast. It is quite a long process before the gold is completely separated from all other material and ready for shipment. Often the quartz contains other minerals of value, the separation of which requires much work.

There is a very rich mine in Nevada called the Comstock, which some years ago had sunk its shafts so deep into the earth that it became almost impossible for the miners to work on account of the great heat, the bad air, and the quantity of water which had constantly to be pumped out. How these troubles were remedied is the story of one of California's greatest and best citizens. Adolph Sutro was a Prussian by birth, and his adopted state may well be proud to claim him. He had built a little quartz mill in Nevada, near the Comstock mine. Seeing the suffering of the workmen in all the mines on that mountain side, he thought of a plan for the construction of a large tunnel which was to begin at a low level at the nearest point of the Carson River and run deep into the mountain so that it could drain all the rich mining section, give good ventilation for the deep underground works, and afford a much cheaper and more convenient way of taking care of the ore. It was to be four miles long, with branches extending from it to different mines. Its height was to be ten feet; width, twelve, with a drainage trench in the center to carry away the waste water to the Carson River, and tracks on each side for the passage of mules and cars.

At first the mine owners were pleased with the project, and Mr. Sutro succeeded in forming a company to build the tunnel. Then he went to Washington, where the government became so interested in his plans that on July 25, 1866, there was passed an act of Congress granting Sutro such privileges in regard to public lands as would safeguard his work. About the time that the news of this action reached the West, the men who owned the mines and had made an arrangement for the use of the tunnel, decided that they did not want the work done; it is said, for the reason that they found Mr. Sutro too wise and far-seeing for them to be able to manage him. At all events, with all their wealth and power they tried to ruin him. They said that his plans were worthless, and any one was foolish to invest in the tunnel company. Then Mr. Sutro, by means of lectures upon the subject, appealed to the people. In California, Nevada, the Eastern states, and even Europe, he told what his plans would do for the miners and the good of the country. It was not long before he gained all the help he needed, and the great work was begun.

As the workmen progressed into the mountain side there were many difficulties to overcome. Day and night without ceasing the work went on. Laborers would faint from the combined heat and bad air, and be carried to the outer world to be revived. Carpenters followed the drillers, trackmen coming closely after. Loose rock, freshly blasted, was tumbled into waiting cars and hauled away over rails laid perhaps but half an hour before. Constantly in the front was Sutro himself, coat flung aside, sleeves rolled up. In the midst of the flying dirt, great heat, bad air, dripping slush, and slippery mud he worked side by side with the grimy, half-naked miners, thus showing himself capable not only of planning a great work, but of seeing personally that it was well done, no matter with what sacrifice to his own ease and comfort.

After the tunnel was completed, Mr. Sutro sold his interest in it for several millions of dollars. How that money was expended, any visitor to San Francisco well knows. With it were built the great Sutro baths, with their immense tanks of pure and constantly changing, tempered ocean water, their many dressing rooms, their grand staircases, adorned with rare growing plants, their tiers of seats rising in rows, one above another, with room for thousands of spectators, and their galleries of pictures and choice works of art. Over all is a roof of steel and tinted glass. Nowhere else in America is there so fine a bathing establishment.

Besides this there are the lovely gardens of Sutro Heights, developed by Mr. Sutro's money and genius from the barren sand-hills of the San Miguel rancho. In addition to these is the choice library of about two hundred thousand volumes, which is of great use to the people of San Francisco. Perhaps neither San Francisco nor California has yet quite appreciated the value of the work of Adolph Sutro.

Since 1848 the state of California has sent to the United States Mint over one billion dollars in gold. Of this, little Nevada County, which seems to be worth literally her weight in gold, has sent over two hundred and forty million. The Empire Mine is the leading producer of California, but there are others nearly as rich. Nevada City is in the center of this mining country. The streets are very hilly, and after a heavy rain people may be seen searching the city gutters and newly-formed rivulets for gold, and they are sometimes rewarded by finding fair-sized nuggets washed down from the hills above.

A visitor to one of the deep mines of California says: -

"We descended to the seven hundred foot level, where the day before a pile of ore had been blasted down. A little piece of the quartz, crushed in a mortar panned out four dollars in gold. I picked out one piece of rock, not larger than a peach, and the manager, after weighing and testing it, announced that it contained ten dollars in free gold. The kick of a boot would reveal ore which showed glittering specks of pure gold."

In the estimate of many people all very valuable mines are supposed to be of gold, but this is a mistake. While gold is king in California, copper mining is rapidly becoming of great importance. A continuous copper belt, the largest yet discovered in the world, exists under her soil, and while a comparatively small depth has been so far attained, the profit has been considerable. One of the largest quicksilver mines in the world is at New Almaden. The value of the output of the borax mines is over a million dollars a year. There were mined in California in 1907 over fifty different materials, most of them at a value of several thousand dollars a year, with some as high as a million and over.

The mineral product of California outranking gold in value is petroleum, which has added greatly to the wealth of the state. Natural gas and mineral waters are also valuable commercial products.

To many, the most interesting class among minerals is the gems, of which California yields a variety. The beautiful lilac stone, Kunzite, was discovered near Pala, San Diego County. This county has also some fine specimens of garnets, and beautiful tourmalines are being mined at a profit. San Bernardino County yields a superior grade of turquoise from which has been realized as much as eleven thousand dollars a year. Chrysoprase is being mined in Tulare County, also the beautiful new green gem something like clear jade, called Californite. Topaz, both blue and white, is being foun d, and besides these, many diamonds of good quality have been collected, principally from the gravels of the hydraulic mines. In 1907 there was discovered in the mountains of San Benito County a beautiful blue stone closely resembling sapphire, more brilliant but less durable. It was named, by professors of mineralogy in the state university, Benitite, from the place where it was discovered.

Perhaps the most valuable of all the products of California is its water supply, either visible as in springs and streams, or underground as in artesian water. Of its use in irrigation, we have already spoken. In the production of electricity it is coming to be of the greatest importance, making possible the most stupendous works of modern times. Such is the undertaking of the Edison Electric Company in bringing down to Los Angeles, over many miles of the roughest country, power from the Kern River, tapping the tumultuous stream far up in the Sierras. The taking of the necessary machinery to those heights was in itself a wonderful labor. The power thus created is a blessing to a wide region.
Copyright © 2006-08 Claud "Sonny" Rouch, all rights reserved. Website by OACYS Technology. Cover photo by Roberts Engineering.