River pollution and mining law

In both the northern and southern mines farms were dug up and large tracts of arable land washed into sluice boxes in the quest for gold. Whole towns were moved so the locations where they had been built could be mined. But in 1851, along Nevada City’s Main Street, several miners planted themselves in the center of town determined to dig up the roadway for gold. A shopkeeper whose business would have been seriously affected put up a protest but the miners cited the superiority of the mines under the law, as was the custom at the time. The shopkeeper then went back to his store, picked up the biggest pistol he could put his hands on, and then returned to the street. He was soon was able to convince the miners that the public streets were more valuable to the area than mines and so a precedent was set that no one could squat on the city thoroughfares.

Hydraulic mining, washing down the bank into the sluice

Similar events happened in other places throughout the mines, but the powerful mining interest generally kept its dominance over agriculture in the legal battle for land use. Most of the productive crops and orchards were grown in places where there was no reason to mine. But over the next twenty-five years or so, while the rivers and streams were being filled and thousands of acres of productive farmland destroyed by the silt, sand and gravel dumped into them from hydraulic mining, the agriculture industry was gaining importance in the economy of the state far surpassing what the mines had ever enjoyed. A desperate struggle between miners and farmers was eminent. By 1880 it was estimated that over a hundred million cubic yards of debris and slickens from hydraulic operations had been washed into the Yuba River, raising its bed seventy feet in some places and destroying or damaging up to twenty thousand acres of the best farmland around.

Yuba River Slickens 2001

Yuba City is in the lower left. The Yuba Goldfields, debris carried down from the Sierra foothills during the California Gold Rush, is the large gray area along the river.

In 1866 congress acknowledged the mining laws already in force and began to perfect and unify the system on mining law. Meanwhile both mine owners and farmers were seeking clear title to their holdings so that when the final battle was fought both sides would be owners of their respective property. The California courts had already decided that property owners had rights to metals and minerals on their land and could protect themselves against other claimants. In the end, it was the now powerful farmers who brought suit to enjoin the mining companies from polluting the streams with their refuse and in 1884 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of agriculture. A miner could no longer cover the agricultural land of another with any material, either directly or indirectly, that would render it useless or valueless.



  1. Add to this the apex laws and you could have a grand old time. The apex was a powerful force in the Cripple Creek area. I know why the lawyers made their fortunes here, for it is a pain to understand. (If at all)

    • If I understand things correctly the apex laws were more a compilation of older existing laws, many of which started in the California gold rush. It was a Colorado representative Jerome Chaffey who pushed trough a law on 1866 that prevented the federal government from taking over all American mines and later those laws were applied to placer claims in 1870. Those two acts were combined in 1872 and that is the apex laws. As to them being confusing, personally I think they do that on purpose. It’s job security for government officials.

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