Gold Mining in America

Sutter's Mill in Coloma, California

Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California, by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

No story was too extravagant to command credence. Men who had never earned more than a dollar a day before they came to California were dissatisfied when they were clearing twenty dollars, and were always ready to start off on some expedition in search of distant diggings which were expected to yield more abundantly. Decades later, the miners would have better ideas of the auriferous deposits and no longer count upon digging up the pure gold by the shovelful, yet they were, as they have ever been since the discovery of the mines, always prepared for emigration to any new field of excitement.

Of course, the chief want of the placer miner was an abundant and convenient supply of water; and the first noteworthy attempt to convey the needful element in an artificial channel was made at Coyote Hill in Nevada County, California in March 1850. This ditch was about two miles long, and, proving a decided success, was imitated in many other places, until, in the course of eight years, six thousand miles of mining canals had been made, supplying all the principal placer districts with water, and furnishing the means for obtaining the greater portion of the gold yield of the State. Many of the ditches were marvels of engineering skills.

The problem was to get the largest amount of water at the greatest altitude above the auriferous ground, and at the least immediate expense, as money was worth from 3-10% per month interest. As the paydirt might be exhausted within a couple of years, and as the anticipated profits would in a short time be sufficient to pay for a new ditch, durability was a point of minor importance.

There was no imperial treasury to supply the funds for a durable aqueduct in every township, nor could the impatient miners wait a decade for the completion of gigantic structures in stone and mortar. The high value of their time and the scarcity of their money made it necessary that the cheapest and most expeditious expedients for obtaining water should be adopted. Where the surface of the ground furnished the proper grade, a ditch was dug in the earth; and, where it did not, flumes were built of wood, sustained in the air by framework that rose sometimes to a height of three hundred feet in crossing deep ravines, and extending for miles at an elevation of 100-200 feet.

All the devices known to mechanics for conveying water from hilltop to hilltop were adopted. Aqueducts of wood and pipes of iron were suspended upon cables of wire, or sustained on bridges of wood, and inverted siphons carried water up the sides of one hill by the heavier pressure from the higher side of another.

The ditches were usually the property of companies, of which, there were at one time 400 in the State, owning a total length of 6,000 miles of canals and flumes. The largest of these, called the Eureka, in Nevada County, had 205 miles of ditches, constructed at a cost of $900,000; and their receipts at one time from the sale of water, were $6,000 per day. Unfortunately, these mining canals, though more numerous, more extensive, and bolder in design, than the aqueducts of Rome, were less durable; and most were abandoned, and allowed to go to ruin, so that scarcely a trace of their existence remains, save in the heaps of gravel from which the clay and loam were washed in search for gold.

As the placers in many districts were gradually exhausted, the demand for water and the profits of the ditch companies decreased; and the more expensive flumes, when blown down by severe storms, carried away by floods, or destroyed by the decay of the wood, were not repaired.

Ten mile long flume, Twin Springs, ID, W.E. Pierce amd Co., real estate dealers, 1898

Ten-mile long flume, Twin Springs, Idaho, 1898

The construction of hundreds of ditches within three or four years after the successful experiment at Coyote Hill created a fresh impulse to placer mining and greatly modified its character. New inventions, though of the rudest description, were multiplied to facilitate the process of gathering the yellow metal. Among others was the introduction of an implement that had been previously used in Georgia, called by the short and unclassic name of ” tom.” This was a great improvement upon the rocker; yet it was soon superseded by a still greater, — the sluice, which is a broad trough from 100-1000 feet long, with transverse cleats at the lower end to catch the gold. With a descent of one foot in twenty, the water rushes through it like a torrent, bearing down large stones, and tearing the lumps of clay to pieces. The miners, of whom a dozen may work at one sluice, have little to do save to throw in the dirt and take out the gold.

Occasionally, it may be necessary to throw out some stones, or to shovel the dirt along, to prevent the sluice from choking; but these attentions cost relatively very little time. The sluice is the best device heretofore used for washing gold and is supposed to be unsurpassable. It has been used in California more extensively than elsewhere; although it has been introduced by American miners into Australia, New Zealand, British Columbia, Transylvania, and many other countries.

The sluice, though an original invention here, had been previously used in Brazil; but it was never brought too much excellence there, nor used extensively; and no such implement was known in 1849 in the industry of gold-mining.

The shovel could not bring the earth to the sluice fast enough, and the wages of a dozen workmen must be saved, if possible. So, in 1852, Edward E. Mattison, a native of Connecticut, invented the process of hydraulic mining, in which a stream of water was directed under a heavy pressure against a bank or hillside containing placer gold, and the earth was torn down by the fluid and carried into the sluice to be washed; and thus the expense of shoveling was entirely saved.

The man with the rocker might wash one cubic yard of earth in a day; with the tom, he might average twice that quantity; with the sluice, four yards; and with the hydraulic and sluice together, fifty or even a hundred yards. The difference was immense. The force of a stream of water rushing through a two-inch pipe, under a pressure of two hundred feet perpendicular, is tremendous; and the everlasting hills themselves crumble down before it as if they were but piles of cloud blown away by a breath of wind, or dissipated by a glance of the sun.

And yet, even this terrific power has not sufficed. When the hills have been dried by months of constant heat and drought, the clay becomes so hard, that the hydraulic stream, with all its momentum, did not steadily dissolve it; and often the water ran off clearly as ever through the sluice, and consequently was wasted.

The cradle, Century Illustrated

The cradle, Century Illustrated, Henry Sandham, 1883.

The sluice could wash more dirt than the hydraulic stream furnished when the clay was hard and dry; and, to prevent this loss, the miner would often cut a tunnel into the heart of his claim, and blast the clay loose with powder, so that it would yield more readily to the action of water. Two tons of powder were been used at a single blast in some of these operations.

With the introduction of the sluice, the ditch, and the hydraulic process, the hiring of laborers began. The pan and the rocker required of every man to be his own master, but these new processes led to other modes of employment.

There was an abundance of rocker claims in 1849; but three years later, there were not enough good sluice claims to supply one-third of the miners. The erection of a long sluice, the cutting of drains (often necessary to carry off the tailings), and the purchase of water from the ditch company, required capital; and the manner of clearing up rendered it possible for the owner of a sluice to prevent his servants from stealing any considerable portion of his gold before it came to his possession. Thus, it was that the custom of hiring miners for wages became common in the placer diggings.

Since the discovery of the original home of gold, the extraction of it was carried on in a more scientific manner than placer mining.

There are other modes of obtaining gold, which almost became obsolete. The arrastra, for instance, was used in the early days to pulverize the ore. It was a Mexican contrivance, rude, but effective. Winnowing, or “dry-washing” was also practiced by the Mexicans and continued to be used in lower California, where the ore was found too far away from a sufficient supply of water to make any other practice possible. The wind bears away the dust and light particles of earth and leaves the gold dust, which is heavier.

During the progress of geological surveys, gold was found in many places, but nowhere in such quantities as in California. It was found in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, in Vermont, in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and in still larger quantities, in the has been remaining Southern seaboard States, as far as Alabama.

Adit at the Lucky Tiger Mine, Humboldt County, Nevada.

Adit at the Lucky Tiger Mine, Humboldt County, Nevada.

Gold mining contains more of the gambling element than any other regular industry, and this is one of the reasons why it has always possessed such a singular fascination for many. But quartz mining is robbed essentially of this uncertain element; for the business, if properly conducted, yields more regular profits than any other mode of gathering the precious metal.

By Albert Bolles, 1879, compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated December 2019.

Also See:

Why Go Gold Panning?

Reed Gold Mine, North Carolina – First Gold Discovery

The California Gold Rush

Mining on the American Frontier


Bolles, Albert S.; Industrial History of the United States, Volume IV, Henry Bill Publishing Company, Norwich, CT, 1879.