Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Gold Run

Yesterday I met Todd Leonard, Senior Scientist of SECOR International, Inc., at the Dutch Flat exit on I-80.

Todd had contacted me a few weeks back, wishing for a tour of the Gold Run Diggings with an historical emphasis, and a focus upon mercury; for he was retained by The People Who Own The Famous 800 Acres Now For Sale, to evaluate the degree of mercury contamination of their property, and advise them of what to do.

These 800 acres of old hydraulic mining ground include the last two miles of Canyon Creek, and extend from I-80 on the north to the North Fork American River on the south. It is quite an exceptional property, and my fondest hope is that somehow We The People can buy it and keep it open and wild forever.

The Diggings, with its infinitude of tiny hills and valleys and its more-than-a-thousand infinitudes of glaring white quartz pebbles, perhaps marking the many ways to any number of witches' cottages (how else explain these rocks)--the Diggings, with its fossil leaves so perfectly impressed within those easily-cloven lamina of clay, that every vein visible, fifty million years later; with its petrified wood, so much of which was stolen recently, off one of the scraps of public land which remain to us there--the Diggings makes up most of the 800 acres.

But then there is Canyon Creek, and the Canyon Creek Placer Mine, another one of those old mining claims which comprise the 800 acres. This is all wild canyon, cascades and waterfalls and water-polished metavolcanic rock, with that old-time, Gold Rush trail wasting precious little time delivering one down and down and down and down to the sparkling North Fork. The Canyon Creek Trail is one of the best trails anywhere, and it is for sale. Thousand-foot cliffs and waterfall after waterfall after waterfall, and all is For Sale.

Congress wished the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to purchase this Canyon Creek parcel back in 1978, but it was not for sale, then.

Today it is for sale. It has been on the market, since about 2000. However, since large quantities of mercury were used in the hydraulic mines, way back when, which mines "tailed into" (discharged their mining debris into) Canyon Creek, potential buyers have never closed a deal, fearing what could ensue, if, for instance, California, or the Federal government, were to order the 800 acres to be cleaned up.

The cost of such a cleanup could run to the many millions. I pointed out to Todd some few of the innumerable sluice cuts in the Diggings, each one of them contaminated with mercury; I told Todd that all two miles of Canyon Creek on the property are filthy with mercury, as is Indiana Ravine; and I went on and on in my usual way, about all the mining history and so on.

I had feared, when Todd contacted me, that I would, in some weird way, end up helping The People Who Own The Famous 800 Acres Now For Sale to sell their beautiful property, to some wealthy "Cedars"-type folk, who will make all kinds of noise about Preserving The Wilderness, behind a long, long wall of "No Trespassing" signs.

However, I found Todd quite sensible, and appreciative of the unique beauty of these 800 acres. He too wishes it to remain open and wild. Why, so do at least some of the current owners of the 800 acres.

Adding even more complexity to all this, the mercury contamination effectively prohibits purchase of the property by the BLM. Somehow, some way, the property must receive a bill of good health, first. That is, We The People could spend millions to clean up the 800 acres, just for the privilege of spending millions more to actually buy the property.

And this does not seem fair.

Todd and his assistant Bert and I walked down the Canyon Creek Trail to Waterfall View, the spot where the 1875-era photograph on my website was taken, and later visited Gold Run Ravine, where a drain tunnel breaks out, from one of the claims to the west. Gold Run Ravine itself served as a sluice box run, and even has some sluice cuts blasted out of the so-solid rock, over fairly long distances. These blasted cuts were likely made in 1868, when almost all the claims at Gold Run were simultaneously losing their "grade," that is, they could no longer discharge directly into Canyon Creek. As the active mining surfaces lowered in elevation, they approached the same elevation as the creek itself. Tailings do not flow uphill, not well, anyway. So, when grade, or slope, was lost, mining must stop.

These sluice cuts in the bed of Gold Run Ravine would have earned the owners of the claims upstream the ability to work only about ten feet deeper into the gravels; that would be less than one mining season's work (the hydraulic mining season ran from about November to May). They had already worked off 150 feet of gravel above the 1868 working level, and another 200 feet remained below, deeper and richer yet, if only "grade" could be had, if only a sluice box could lead away, downhill, from those mysterious depths.

The only solution to the problem of grade was the construction of the giant drain tunnel into Canyon Creek, in 1873, by the Gold Run Ditch & Mining Company. But that's another story.

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