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Malakoff Diggins ... miners "dug" it.

Malakoff Diggins ... miners "dug" it Hydraulic mining flushed a fortune in gold from California's Mother Lode. Between 1866 and 1884, nozzles blasted 1-1/4 billion cubic yards of earth and rock--eight times the amount dug for the Panama Canal--down from the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Debris clogged navigation channels on the Sacramento River, silted up streams, killed fish and wildlife, and polluted irrigation water.

Malakoff Diggins--the largest of the hydraulic mining sites--is now a 3,200-acre state historic park about a 1-1/2-hour drive northeast of Sacramento. You can hike the 6-1/2 miles of trail that take you around the rim and the floor of the canyon-like pit, fish or swim in one of the old reservoirs, or take a tour of North Bloomfield to watch its restoration or to visit the mining museum.

Washing out the gold

In the 1850s, surface mining in the Sierra foothills no longer yielded significant amounts of gold, and tunneling for the precious metal was prohibitively expensive. Miners used high-pressure jets of water to blast away the hillside. Rocks and dirt were chann eled through screens that separated the gold from the gravel.

Canals brought water down from the mountains into reservoirs near the mines. The water was then channeled into pipes that ran at a steep grade to the site. There, monitors (nozzles modeled after Civil War cannons) fired the water at the hillside. During one miner's 12-hour shift, more than 7 million gallons of water jetted from the monitor's 10-inch mouth.

At Malakoff, 18 years of high-pressure pounding created a pit 7,000 feet long, 3,000 feet wide, and 600 feet deep in placed.

Farmers disgruntled by the destruction won their case in 1884. Judge Lorenzo Sawyer's injunction against dumping sludge and waste water into the river system was one of the nation's first cases of government regulation of private enterprise to protect the environment.

Getting a close look

The diggings are an easy walk from North Bloomfield, and the best way to see them is on foot. For a close-up view, follow the 3-mile Diggins Loop Trail around the floor of the pit. The trail is muddy in spots around the spring-fed lake, and occasionally it disappears. Look up to notice the color change in the pit walls: the red upper layers were above the water level of the Yuba River; the white layers, once below water, yielded most of the gold.

Although the monitor nozzles have been dry for almost a hundred years, nature has continued the erosion begun by man. From four overlook points along the park road, the diggings look like a miniature Bryce Canyon. For other views, hike the 3-1/2-mile Rim Trail.

Seven other trails provide a variety of leg-stretching opportunities and give you glimpses of the mining operation. The Humbug Trail follows the creek of that name, which once carried mining runoff down to the Yuba River. Along the Blair Trail, you'll see canals and flumes, with signs explaining their role in the mining process. A park map showing all the trails costs 25 cents at the museum.

Touring North Bloomfield

In its heyday from the 1850s to the 1880s, North Bloomfield had nearly 2,000 inhabitants and more than 100 buildings. Only 30 of those structures stand today. Although officially a ghost town, North Bloomfield is home to 12 residents.

The Malakoff Diggins Park Association (a citizens' group) and the California Parks and Recreation Department are restoring the town. Their most recent project, the interior of the North Bloomfield drugstore, was completed last spring.

In the mining museum, you'll see old photographs of the town, mining equipment, and exhibits that explain the processing of gold. The museum is open 10 to 4 daily from Memorial Day through Labor Day; admission is 50 cents for adults, 25 cents for ages 6 through 17.

Through Labor Day, park rangers conduct free weekend tours of restored buildings, starting from the museum. Groups of 10 or more can arrange a tour at other times by calling the park office at (916) 265-2740. Tours are scheduled according to demand and take about 1 hour. They begin with a movie about mining (museum admission required).

In the McKillican and Mobley Store, you'll see miners' clothing, patent medicines, oil and gas lamps, and other turn-of-the-century merchandise. Restoration is still underway, but a historian will let you look inside the building at 1 P.M. daily except Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Camping and swimming in the park

The park has 30 tent and trailer sites without hookups; some overlook the diggings. Drinking water and rest rooms (no showers) are available during summer; water is turned off at first freeze. Each site has a table, cupboard, and firepit; cost is $6 per night in summer ($3 off-season), plus $2.25 per reservation. A group site accommodating up to 50 people costs $50 per night, half-price for youth groups. Bring your own firewood or plan to buy it there for $2 a bundle. To make reservations (required), visit the nearest Ticketron outlet; call (800) 952-5580 for more information.

For a taste of mining life, rent one of the park's two restored cabins on Back Street in North Bloomfield. Available year-round, they cost $15 per night; plan to bring your own lantern, bedding, and utensils. Each cabin has four dormitory-style bunks; rest rooms are nearby. Make reservations through Malakoff Diggins State historic Park, 23579 North Bloomfield Graniteville Road, Nevada City, Calif. 95959.

Expect temperatures in the 80s and 90s this month. Near the campground, you can cool off in an old reservoir (no lifeguard). Bring a picnic to spread under the trees, or plan a barbecue dinner. Tables and grills are dotted around the reservoir. Day-use is $2, free for campers.

Try angling for catfish, bass, or sunfish in the reservoir. Be sure to carry a state fishing license.

Getting there

From Interstate 80 at Auburn, take State Highway 49 north 28 miles to Nevada City; continue 1/2 mile on State 49 past its turnoff from State 20. Turn north (right) onto North Bloomfield Graniteville Road. The road forks in about 1/2 mile; bear right. The road alternates between pavement and dirt; if you have a trailer, call ahead for alternative directions.
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Title Annotation:Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, Nevada City, California
Date:Aug 1, 1985
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