Western Trips

Western Trips

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Hydraulic Gold Mining / Pelton Wheel


Western Trips visited Nevada City California, one of the more famous of old California gold mining towns, to learn more about hydraulic mining for gold. Located in the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains, Nevada City is home to many historic sites and one of those is the Miners Foundry built way back in 1856.

Nevada City California is one of the best towns in the Sierra's to experience the California gold mining era. The town has done a superb job in keeping and restoring some of the more famous gold era historic sites such as the National Hotel, the Nevada Theater and the Miners Foundry just to name a few.

national hotel in nevada city
National Hotel
Getting to the Gold

There were several ways of finding gold in old California. Placer mining, tunneling and hydraulic mining were among those. Placer mining was the first stage. This was what the first of the Forty Niner's did to find gold. Placer mining is basically surface mining. Placer gold was the easiest gold to find. The problem was that at some point the easy diggings would play out and another method would be required. This is where hydraulic mining comes in and it had it's heyday in the early 1860's. What is hydraulic mining?

The best description of the effects of hydraulic gold mining can be found in the book Anybody's Gold by author Joseph Henry Jackson. Jackson describes the effects of hydraulic mining as a wholesale change of the landscape. This type of mining actually tore down mountains and filled the rivers with red mud. It was essentially an extension of placer mining except it was on a grand scale and made permanent changes to the topography which was very visible to the naked eye.

water cannon from the gold rush
Water Cannon display at Nevada City California
Hydraulic mining washed away entire hillsides. As more water became available, new and larger nozzles were developed which led to the California's  "Monitor". This was a giant nozzle, braced on a rig, that had so much pressure it was said that it could tear the side of a mountain away in a few minutes. It was a water cannon. The water was compressed into a nozzle that was from one inch to eight inches in diameter. In one of the volumes of his History of California, historian Hubert Howe Bancroft described that an eight-inch Monitor could throw 185,000 cubic feet of water in an hour with a velocity of 150 feet per second. This was an incredible force. There's another story out there that says that a man could not swing a crow bar through a six inch stream from the Monitor. Obviously an enormous amount of water was used and on top of that the hydraulic mines operated twenty-four hours a day being lit at night with bright lights or even locomotive lights.

One effect of hydraulic mining on such a large scale was that the tons of sediment put into the rivers caused them to widen and change channels. Floods occurred in the Sacramento Valley. This filling of the rivers with red mud also interfered with steamboat traffic between Sacramento and Marysville.

gold rush hydraulic mining
21- inch Gate Valve to control water flow from 1880
While handsome profits were being realized by the mining operators, the process was at the expense of the populace and regulations had to be enacted. Although it was well understood that the hydraulic mine operators contributed millions of dollars into the state tax receipts, hydraulic mining in California was virtually forbidden by 1884 per a decision from the U.S. District Court in San Francisco. This was about thirty years after it all began. This was a direct result of widespread popular protests of which farmers who experienced floods were a big part.

The Pelton Wheel

Hydraulic mining of course required water and this led to other possibilities. Generally, water was brought down from the higher elevations and channeled through a hose.

pelton wheel in nevada city california
Pelton Wheel exhibit at Miners Foundry

An invention that really is the father of hydro power is the Pelton Wheel. The Pelton Wheel is named after it's creator, Lester Allan Pelton in the 1870's.  The Pelton Wheel shown in this article is an exhibit at the Miners Foundry in Nevada City California. The wheel is an impulse turbine. It's purpose is to generate power from flowing water. The momentum of the water flow turns the turbine. Very large Pelton Wheels, sometimes referred to as water wheels, are used today in our hydroelectric energy plants and today's operations are a direct result of the first Pelton Wheel.

Four additional articles from Western Trips you'll find interesting are the gold mining towns of Grass Valley California and Auburn California. Also, Breckenridge Colorado / Mining and a Year Round Resort and   They Called It Hangtown For Good Reason 

Nevada City California is located 60 miles northeast of Sacramento on Hwy 49. This is about 28 miles north of Auburn California which is on Interstate 80. Traveling from Reno Nevada, take Interstate 80 to the CA Hwy 20 exit which is about 58 miles west of Reno. Nevada City is about 26 miles west on CA Hwy 20. If you want to learn about finding gold the way the miners did with hydraulic mining, Nevada City California and the Miners Foundry is a good addition to your Sierra Nevada trip planner.

(Pelton Wheel photo is in the public domain. Remaining photos are from author's private collection)

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