The Law and the Miner  (1896) 
by Tirey L. Ford


A most singular and erroneous impressron seems to have gained some foothold in certain parts of our country to the effect that gold mining in California upon which the foundation of the State was laid has been prac tically abandoned for other and more profitable pursuits. Nothing could be farther from the fact Notwithstanding the fact that the surface placers that yielded so prodigiously from 1850 to 1860 have become in large part exhausted notwithstanding the severe blow received by the hydraulic branch of the gold mining industry at the hands of the Federal Courts in 1884 and notwithstanding the marvelous growth and development of California in farming fruit growing and manufacturing gold mining is still a leading industry of the State and bids fair once more to assume the magnificent proportions of its earlier years when its annual output arose tmover $50,000,000 per annum.

Following the exhaustion of the surface placers and the adverse decisions of the Federal Courts above referred to the production of gold in California steadily declined until it reached low water mark in 1890 with an annual yield of only $10,000,000 in the meantime however attention was being directed to deep channel mining and the more scientific and methodical development of quartz properties. As a result the gold product of the State began once more to increase until it reached an output in 1895 of nearly $16,000,000 while the data at hand point to a still larger increase for the present year of 1896 in addition to the renewed activity in quartz and drift mining there is now much ground for the hope that a few more years will see hydraulic mining in California restored to its rightful condition whence will come an additional yield of not less than $10,000,000 per annum.1

1The law both judicial and legislative that has been woven ab0ut this latter branch of the mining industry forms an interesting chapter in the legal annals of California. Never was an industry at once so vast in its proportions and so closely allied to the necessities of commerce so suddenly stricken down by the silent decree of a judicial tribunal Never was a people so brave and so law abiding in the face of such business disaster and financial ruin as came to the hydraulic miners through the official utterance of a Federal Judge By the application of an ancient rule of the English common law a hundred millions of invested capital were destroyed and thousands of homes were rendered desolate. Whole districts were depopulated and a general gloom settled over the mining camps of California.

The Board of Government Engineers appointed under the Act of October rst 1888 to investigate the mining debris question in California stated in their report that it is estimated that ovar roo ooo ooo were invested in this branch of mining previous to the restriction of the Courts referring of course to hydraulic mining. They stated further that On the large hydraulic mines operations have been suspended and many costly works incident to the industry have been allowed to go to decay the mining camps have been deserted and large districts depopulated Exzcutr zre Document No 267 Fifty in Cvngrtn second session

By their courageous conduct however and their faithful observance of the law under circumstances the most trying the miners soon gained the admiration and sympathy of the thinking public and what was of equal if not greater importance the commerce of a great State began to yearn for the gold that lay hidden in the gravel beds of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

In response to a public sentiment that had been gradually crystallizing in favor of the rehabilitation of hydraulic mining Congress authorized an investigation of the matter by a Board of Government Engineers to be detailed by the Secretary of War for that purpose This Board of Engineers composed of members of the Engineer Corps of the United States Army after a thorough investigation of the subject reported the result of their labors and pointed out the methods whereby the business of hydraulic mining might be resumed without material injury to other interests.

It then became an engineering problem and the miners with their accustomed fairness at once accepted the suggestions of the engineers and set about with characteristic energy to have those suggestions carried into practical operation in the meantime however the question had taken on a broader scope for it had become apparent that the works necessary to the resumption of hydraulic mining were precisely the works needed for the protection and improvement of the waterways tributary to the mining regions The question therefore became national in its character and appealed to the duty resting upon the general government to protect and improve its navigable waters.

Briefly stated the system outlined by the Board of Government Engineers was as follows:

First. The detention in the foothills and canons of such material as could be safely and permanently stored behind properly constructed barriers.

Second. The improVement of the rivers by means of dredging and otherwise thus enabling them to safely carry such detritus as might find its way into their channels.

This system has been successfully employed in many parts of Europe notably by the French government at the foot of the Alps and is not wholly unknown to America. In fact in the very mining regions under discussion debris from hydraulic mines is already being successfully impounded under the direction and supervision of Federal engineers.

The magnitude and public character of the work placed it beyond the power or authority of accomplishment through private enterprise and so our State and National legislatures were appealed to for financial and legislative aid The legislature of California promptly responded with an appropriation of $250,000 conditioned however upon the appropriation of at least as much by the general government. The State legislature also extended the aid of further friendly legislation at the same time creating a Commissioner of Public Works whose duty it should be among other things to devise means for the protection and improvement of the waterways of the State Congress while proceeding with more deliberation and with less of seeming sympathy with the movement nevertheless gave its adherence to the policy outlined by the Board of Engineers appointed under its authority and by an Act approved March 1st 1893 created a special commission of Federal engineers with the expressed intention of having the recommendations of their former Board of Engineers carried into practical effect.

This latter Board officially designated as the California Debris Commission and composed like its predecessor of members of the Engineer Corps of the United States Army has been much hampered by lack of funds so much so in fact that no substantial progress has so far been made toward the carrying out of the policy contemplated by the Act by which the present Board was created. Though clothed with abundant authority and fully advised as to the result to be accomplished the California Debris Commission has been unable to make even a survey or to formuhte a single plan with reference to the great and important work for which it was called into existence Thanks to the present Congress however the future is taking on a brighter hue and we may now indulge the hope that the work so long deferred will be soon carried forward to a final and successful conclusion Though confronted with a rapidly diminishing treasury Congress has seen its way clear to the appropriation of $15,000 to defray the expenses of the Commission and $250,000 for the construction of the works recommended by the former Board of Government Engineers. The smaller appropriation will be used in part in making surveys and formulating plans for the improvement of the waterways to the end that they may be put in condition safely to carry all detritus that may reach them from whatever source the same may come while the larger appropriation is intended to unlock the appropriation made by the Legislature of California and thus cause the expenditure of a half million dollars in the construction of restraining barriers to prevent the flow of mining and other debris into the navigable streams.

It is worthy of note in this connection that the recent improvements made in river dredging have practically revolutionized that character of work and caused it to supersede many of the older and more expensive methods of river improvement. The sort of debris that finds its way to the rivers from the mountains where the mining districts are located can now be dredged out of the rivers at an expense of from three to five cents per cubic yard thus bringing the cost of such work within easy reach of modererate public expenditure. It has furthermore been demonstrated that the coarser material can be safely and permanently lodged in the mountain canons behind properly constructed barriers at the exceedingly small cost of less than one cent per cubic yard It can thus be readily seen that the contemplated work the importance of which can scarcely be overestimated presents no serious financial difficulties or unusual engineering problems.

It may be well to state just here that the hydraulic miner while he could not of course be expected to undertake at private expense to protect the rivers from the detritus which they gather from a multitude of sources and localities is nevertheless willing to contribute a just proportion of the expense necessary to relieve the rivers from the burdens to which he in some degree contributes in fact this very matter has already en gaged the attention of Congress and a provision in relation thereto was inserted in the Act of March lst 1893 above referred to. It is intended by that Act that the hydraulic miner may pursue either one of two methods He may if his mine be fortunately situated with reference to local facilities construct at his own expense under the supervision of the government engineers comprising the California Debris Commission the works necessary to the detention of the debris resulting from his individual mining operations or if this be impracticable through lack of local facilities or otherwise the Act in question contemplates that he may operate his mine without the construction of such works provided he deposit in the United States Treasury a sum equal to three per cent of the output of his mine as compensation for the additional burdens which he imposes upon the general government Some of these provisions unfortunately are not as clearly expressed as might be desired and have already given rise to some discussion However there will be ample time for the correction through legislative amendment of any doubtful provisions prior to the completion of the works for which the recent appropriations were made.

It should not be assumed however that the success of the movement here briefly outlined is already assured or that there is no necessity for further vigilance upon the part of those who would see this great work carried to a successful conclusion. Eternal vigilance is not only the price of liberty but it is also the basis of all earthly success whether in public or private affairs The advantageous position now occupied while a source of profound gratification should not be permitted to create an unfortunate sense of false security or cause a relaxation of the earnest activity that has produced the present desirable results. There is still much to be done Congress must carry out in good faith the policy to which it is solemnly pledged by the Act of March 1st 1893 the provisions of that Act must be made clear and certain and relieved of all possible ambiguity or doubt no manner of question must be left respecting the rights intended to be guaranteed to the hydraulic miner and finally adequate financial aid must be obtained to enable the government engineers to carry into full and practical effect the expressed policy of the national government as above indicated.

When all this shall have been done when restraining barriers in mountain car ions shall be supplemented by improved river channels when added millions from the mines shall quicken commercial enterprise and give new impetus to the industries of a great State when the valley farmer shall begin to reap the advantages of an improved river system and feel the abiding security of governmental protection then and not till then may the earnest efforts of an anxious people give way to the glad rejoicings of success assured. Then will the mountains once more resound to the enlivening echoes of a reawakened industry while the songs of contented husbandry pervade the air of peaceful valleys and all California joins in the award of praise so justly due for the splendid achievements of modern engineering skill.

Tiny L Ford

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1928, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 94 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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