"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."

Even the Famous Were Lured By the Promise of Riches

by Don Baumgart

He invented the phonograph with its power to capture history in sound, but it was Thomas Edison's light bulb that led him to look with favor on California's Gold Rush.

Europe enjoyed a monopoly on platinum, keeping the price of the scarce metal high. Edison wanted to use platinum in light bulb filaments. Is there platinum lying there alongside all that gold in California, he wondered?

To find the answer to his question, Edison put Major Frank McLaughlin on a westbound train that pulled into the town of Oroville in October, 1879. Registering at the Union Hotel, McLaughlin got started earning his $25 a week.

Edison's man took a long hard look at the latest mine engineering advance: hydraulic mining. The weight of gold nuggets had pulled them deep into the gravel bottoms of ancient rivers and the miners set to work washing away the gravel to get that gold. The hydraulic miners used powerful jets of water to blast down entire hillsides. Clearly, abundant water was the key to the process. Water, McLaughlin decided, was the place to invest.

In February of 188O the Oroville Mercury announced the fruits of McLaughlin's labors: "Davis Ditch sold to Eastern Capitalists." By this time Edison had lost his interest in platinum. He became the force behind two gold mining companies, using his name and Eastern connections to raise funding. But, for the famous inventor, Davis Ditch became that well-known creek up which he found himself without a paddle.

In the spring of the year McLaughlin boarded his westbound train a judge issued a court ruling to stop the dumping into rivers of tailings -- the gravel and sand washed out by hydraulic rigs. The ruling forbid dumping into Nevada County's Bear River. The unfavorable court decision was overturned by the State Supreme Court, and it was business as usual.

There are parallels to be seen with what is happening in the 199Os in the timber industry. Significant numbers of 188Os miners feared the loss of their jobs if the courts interfered with hydraulic mining. Newspapers are filled with accounts of animosity toward officials sent to inspect hydraulic mining operations. Their movements became common knowledge, often being reported in print. At least one innocent traveler who was mistaken for a "spy" was severely beaten by miners.

Meanwhile, valley farmers continued to be buried in mining debris washed down from the foothills. They were becoming more vocal. And hiring attorneys.

Oblivious of these approaching problems, Edison and McLaughlin pushed ahead, setting up mine sites and harnessing the massive moving power of the water they now owned. It all came to an end on a June day in 1881.

A man appeared at one of their mines with a California Supreme Court injunction in his hand. It restrained Edison's mine "perpetually from discharging or dumping into the Feather River." Work was stopped immediately by the mine superintendent, who then laid off 3O of his men.

More court decisions unfavorable to hydraulic mining were on the way. Companies that once sold water as though it were precious as gold, closed their office doors. In May of 1884 the Eureka Lake and Yuba Canal Company sold all of its holdings to the Summit Water and Ice Company -- 23 ditches and 11 reservoirs -- for $5. The new owners didn't have much better luck. Most of the water they bought was at too low an elevation to freeze.

It was all over, not only for the famous easterner who caught gold fever, but for the entire hydraulic mining industry. The solitary miners' luck had run out long before. Those who stayed and became employees of hydraulic mining companies, now became unemployed. Some companies continued to mine gold underground, unearthing and cracking gold-bearing quartz. Eventually the declining price of gold made even that final part of the Gold Rush a financial impossibility.

Edison, who stayed on the East coast and never came West, already had become immensely successful, famous for giving the world light and recorded sound. It is somehow reassuring to know that a man who had accomplished all that, dreamed of the same pile of nuggets that brought men from around the world.

Thomas Alva Edison died in 1931, one more man who failed to make a golden fortune in California.

— end —
(Copyright 2002, Don Baumgart)


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