"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."
The Dam Has Broke!

by Don Baumgart

Fire roared through gold rush towns, again and again, leaving complete destruction. Another potent natural disaster didn't come along as often: floods. One did show up the morning of June 18, 1883.

"The English Dam broke this morning at 5 a.m. Warn everyone along the Middle Yuba River!" was the message that raced down the Ridge Telephone Line.

Near the headwaters of the Yuba River's middle fork, the English Dam stored water for the Milton Mining and Water Company. It stretched 400 feet across the river, restraining a reservoir of water that backed itself up the river for two and a half miles. Pushing at the dam were 650 million cubic feet of water.

From behind the dam the water dropped down to hydraulic mining operations at French Corral, picking up pressure as it sped downward. It was used to blast away at hillsides to unearth buried gold. There was to be no hydraulic mining that day.

When the dam let go it sent a flood down the river, led by a wave 100 feet high, carrying a cargo of trees, rocks, and brush. The rushing water turned a bend and the debris became lodged, forming a hundred foot high barrier, saving some of the downstream buildings from being destroyed by the rubble. Water began to back up Oregon Creek. A covered bridge across the creek was lifted by the water and carried upstream.

At the town of Freeman's Crossing on the Yuba's Middle Fork, Tom Freeman abandoned his hotel, broom factory, barn, and blacksmith shop when he heard the flood was heading his way. With the hotel staff and a few Chinese miners who had cabins near the river, Freeman took to the high ground to wait it out.

Back down at the crossing the stagecoach from Nevada City to Downieville crossed a bridge over the Yuba. The passengers watched as the debris barricade broke and the flood swept away the bridge they had just crossed.

It was an hour and a half later when the reservoir ran empty. The weakening waters ran past a vivid scene of property destroyed, and much human suffering.

The dam had been inspected a few days before it broke and was declared sound. Rumors blamed the increasingly angry opponents of hydraulic mining. The debris washed down the rivers ended up on farmers' lands. Some got lawyers but the folks around French Corral's now idle hydraulic mining operation thought maybe some of 'em got dynamite.

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Copyright Don Baumgart, 2006


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