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

by Don Baumgart

Water played an important role in the Gold Rush and in California's development. From running streams the first nuggets were panned. Later hydraulic mining washed away entire hillsides in search of gold. And when water finally came to this area's homes, it was a sign of civilization.

In 1852 the first attempt was made to bring water to Nevada City homes. John Williams laid pipes from Gold Run to Broad Street. There already was an operating well and pump on Main Street, but piped water promised home delivery. A year after Williams laid his water line most of Nevada City's homes had running water, supplied by 9,000 feet of pipe.

In Little Grass Valley , just north of La Port, enterprising men were finding another use for water: ice. In the sunken valley temperatures were much colder than the surrounding area and the small lake at the valley bottom froze in winter. Two-foot-thick blocks of ice were cut with eight-foot saws and stored under sawdust in ice houses. Come spring and the opening of the roads, 12-mule-team wagons trucked the ice to Marysville where residents used 18,000 pounds of ice a day during the summer. The Little Grass Valley ice operation was fancifully called Jacob Toomb's Great Mountain Ice Manufactory.

Still other uses were being found for water.

The efficiency of hydraulic mining made the single miner obsolete and turned him into an employee. Young men who had followed the call of gold around Cape Horn or across the great plains left their dreams and barren claims and went to work for the mining companies. Most of the thousands who had worked the gold-bearing gravel by hand found themselves thrown out of work by the Monitor, that powerful nozzle that washed down mountains.

Mining companies needed vast amounts of water to mine hydraulically, and at first it was costly, later dropping in the 1850s as ditches and water systems grew. Most of the canals and flumes in '50 and '51 were short-run projects, designed to carry water only a few miles. The next two years would see these projects grow to engineering marvels.

To deliver the water a system of ditches and flumes dropped in elevation, speeding up the stream to a powerful strength. Water companies were formed and, like the merchants and shippers who supplied the gold fields with tools and supplies, owners of water companies became wealthy. More than a few of the companies acquired mining properties when large water bills couldn't be paid.

Many mining companies, seeking to avoid the high price of water for their giant nozzles, started their own water companies and discovered yet another way to get rich in the gold fields -- by selling water. Water's days as a blasting tool were numbered as debris washed down to cover farming lands near Marysville and Sacramento and the uproar rose to a shrill cry: "Stop!"

Mining then went underground after the deeply hidden gold.

In 1878 Lester Pelton brought an invention to Nevada City from his workshop in Camptonville. Pelton had a bicycle wheel with tin cups on it. He claimed to have invented a water wheel that would revolutionize the use of water for power. His secret was water-catching buckets split down the middle into two half-cups.

Mine owners saw Pelton's water wheel in operation and got the idea. They were running out of trees to burn and faced an approaching end to steam power in the mines. Pelton gave them a nearly inexhaustible supply of water power.

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Copyright Don Baumgart, 2006


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