Legal Action Taken To Stop Hydraulic Mining!


All that debris had to go somewhere and almost immediately, with the invention of hydraulic mining, came the effects of the removal of many layers of ancient gravel beds laid down millions of years ago.  People down below the diggins, in the valleys and all the way to San Francisco Bay, felt the impact of the mountain’s destruction. 

Eventually, outraged citizens of Marysville met and formed the Anti-Debris Association and gathered information to be used in lawsuits against hydraulic mining companies.  The legislature debated the mining debris question and finally passed legislation authorizing the creation of a State Engineering Office with authority to examine the water problem, particularly as it related to matters of irrigation and debris.   They attributed negligence on the part of the hydraulic miners.  The group presented factual evidence to support its claims and the miners threatened to boycott valley businesses.   

In the fall of 1882, Edward Woodruff of Marysville filed suit in the United States Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco seeking a perpetual injunction against the North Bloomfield and other mines on the Yuba River.  On the morning of June 18, 1883, at 5:00 a.m. disaster struck when the English Dam  gave way.  This was a wood and stone structure built in 1859 on the Middle Yuba River and was more than 130’ high.  Capacity was 650,000,000 cubic feet and full at the time the dam broke.   Water poured down the channel of the Middle Yuba River and swept away everything in its path.  It took an hour and a half for the dam to drain dry.  By 3:00 p.m. levees broke near Marysville, causing flooding.  The flood  deposited thousand of tons of sediment in the Feather River.  The dam was inspected just days before and no problems were detected.  It has been theorized that sabotage was the cause of the break.

Judge Lorenzo Sawyer, Ninth Circuit Court Judge

Judge Lorenzo Sawyer, Ninth Circuit Court Judge

On January 7, 1884, after two years of litigation in the case of Woodruff  vs. North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company and over 2,000 witnesses with 20,000 pages of written testimony taken during the trial, Judge Lorenzo Sawyer’s decision was handed down.  This decision did not stop miners from using the big water cannons but it did prohibit the discharge of debris in the Sierra Nevada regions.      It imposed strict laws regarding any debris sent downstream and it did close all loop-holes.  In essence, the ruling stated that “all tailings must stop.”    The Sawyer Decision was 225 pages long.  This decision, however, did not affect the Klamath-Trinity Mountains, where hydraulic mining continued until the 1950s.

The legal action of Woodruff vs. North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company became known as the first environmental law in our country!