Celebrating country's bicentennial with a monitor

By: Nancy Hagman, Special to the Colfax Record
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This hunt for heavy metal is symbolic; however, in the mid-1800’s it was serious business. In the center of North Main Street, in historic Colfax, stands a monument to the events that brought astronomical changes to this region. It consists of a planter of quartz stone, the tall flagpole and an odd-looking device called a “monitor.” According to the plaque, the whole structure was dedicated on May 24, 1975 “To the people of Colfax in honor of the 200th birthday of the United States of America.” The report in the Record tells us Mayor June Farrell read a proclamation designating that ceremony to be the official “kick-off” of the city’s bicentennial celebrations. In the midst of the event someone jumped up and asked “What about the monitor?” It was then that Human Needs Coordinator Dan Emery grabbed the microphone and thanked the Colfax Lions for the hydraulic gold mining nozzle. Lions Club member Ed Lucy arranged for its purchase in Quincy in Plumas County, as well as its transportation to Colfax. Helen Wayland, Heritage Museum archivist, reports the cost of the nozzle was $123. What is a monitor? Rewind the story 158 years from today. The discovery of gold caused the rapid growth of the population in the region. In 1853 – at Yankee Jim’s - Colonel William McClure, who brought the method from Nevada County, introduced hydraulic mining to Placer County. The new technique spread through the gold camps. Miners shot water – pressurized by gravity alone - through hoses at hillsides and turned them to gravel heaps. They then separated the gold. On this divide, in Gold Run, through a system of ditches and flumes, the waters of the Bear, American and South Yuba rivers were diverted to make hydraulic mining profitable. According to mining engineer James Stewart in a 1956 article in the Placer Nugget: “In the early 1870s a great drain tunnel was driven from Canyon Creek 3,200 feet in length, eight feet high and twelve feet wide costing $57 per foot and topping the channel 85 feet from its bottom. An eight by eight foot tunnel 800 feet long was extended from this point.” One begins to grasp the amount of water pressure we are talking about and can see an example of its power along Interstate 80 at the Gold Run rest stop. Millions of cubic yards moved off the hillside and into the watershed. Stewart continues to tell us that in 1867 the Gold Run mines were paying $1,000 a day for water alone, using 9,000 miners inches – U.S. Government records. Hydraulic mining also devastated the landscape downstream. The case of the People (in this instance, the valley farmers who were sick of the problems caused by all the debris that was choking the rivers and forcing them out of their banks), versus the Gold Run Ditch and Mining Company was closely watched by hydraulic miners all over the foothills. The judgment in a Sacramento Superior Court in June 1882 permanently enjoined the miners from depositing debris in the American River. Judge Lorenzo Sawyer’s decision in 1884, extending the ban to all rivers, was the final blow. Placer County’s assessment rolls fell off $2,000,000 after the hydraulic mines ceased operating. Testimony from the Gold Run Ditch and Mining Company trail fills 45 large volumes in the state library. The biggest irony of the story is Claude Chana. He discovered the first gold of this region in Auburn Ravine and made enough to buy a piece of land along the Bear River. He brought in trees and started an orchard that was to set him up for life. The debris from the upstream gold mining buried his farm. He died destitute and penniless.