In the spring of 1851, three prospectors ran across a rich deposit of gravel in the hills
about ten miles northeast of Nevada City. The miners immediately set up camp and commenced
working the gravels, determined to make a fortune. As the story goes, their supplies began to run
low a few weeks later and one of the men was sent to town for additional provisions, being
strictly warned about keeping their find secret. After purchasing the supplies, the miner headed
to the saloon where he bought a round of drinks for the house, paying with a handful of gold
nuggets. Try as they might, the saloon patrons could not get the miner to reveal the source of
his new found wealth, so when he left they secretly followed him back to his camp.
The followers were elated at finding the rich new diggings and quickly began working along the
creek, with high hopes of striking it rich. But try as they might, pan after pan yielded nothing
but dirt. The trip was declared a “Humbug,” and so they named the creek.
Two years later, with the advent of hydraulic mining in the region, a town sprang up near the
creek, a town called Humbug. As hydraulic mining became more and more prevalent, the town grew
and was soon an important mining center for the region. When the post office was established on
June 1 of 1857, the Humbugians felt their town needed a more melodious name, so votes were cast
to decide the matter. Bloomfield was the people’s choice, to which the post office added “North”
to distinguish it from Bloomfield in Sonoma County.
North Bloomfield prospered greatly, due mainly to the highly productive Malakoff Mine, and
claimed some seventeen hundred residents, which included a large settlement of Chinese
immigrants. To provide for the needs of its citizens and visitors, the town offered eight
saloons, five hotels, three lodging houses, two dry goods stores, two grocery stores, two
breweries, two livery stables, two churches, a barbershop, a blacksmith, a butcher, a baker, a
school, a post office, and daily stage and freighting service to all points out.
Although hydraulic mining, described as “a devilishly successful method of blasting gold from
the ground,” was born when Antoine Chabot first used a hose to wash loose gravel on his claim at
Buckeye Hill, it was here at the Malakoff Mine that the method realized its full potential. The
gold the miners were after here along the San Juan Ridge was located in “deep gravels,” ancient
riverbeds which had dried up some fifty million years ago. Since that time, the powerful geologic
forces that created the Sierra Nevada have twisted, moved, broken, and buried those ancient river
channels and their gold deposits, often times under several hundred feet of low grade or
worthless dirt. And the most efficient and economical way to move that dirt and get the gold was
This method of mining consists of simply blasting a hillside with tremendous, high-pressure
streams of water shot from a giant nozzle known as a “monitor.” These jets of water were so
powerful that a strong man could not strike a crowbar through a six-inch stream. A fifty-pound
boulder placed on the spray would be hurled fantastic distances, and records show that men and
animals were killed by the force of the water alone at distances of more than two hundred feet
from the nozzle.
The mountains which faced the onslaught of these terrible forces of water simply
disintegrated, bringing down tons of rock, gravel, pay dirt, small animals, and vegetation. The
gold-bearing sludge then traveled through a deep cut or tunnel which was lined with a series of
sluices to catch the gold, the remaining muddy water being discharged into any nearby canyon or
To supply the water necessary for these operations, an enormous system of dams, lakes, and
reservoirs was created to collect and store the water. And to get the water to the mines,
hundreds of miles of ditches, tunnels, flumes, and pipelines had to be constructed. This was
expensive and only the larger mining companies could afford the investment. It is estimated that
by 1882, more than $110 million had been invested in hydraulic mining in California.
The North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company operated the Malakoff Mine, the world’s largest
hydraulic operation. In an effort to provide better drainage needed to reach the richest
deposits, the company embarked on one of the greatest mining engineering feats of all time,
carving an eight thousand foot long drainage tunnel through solid bedrock. Hamilton Smith was the
engineer in charge of digging the tunnel, and after thirty months of intense activity he saw his
tunnel completed on November 15 of 1874, which allowed the company to mine the deep gravels and
dump the tailings directly into the South Yuba River. The company reached its peak after
completing the tunnel, operating seven giant monitors twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week,
and processing fifty thousand tons of gravel per day. In this manner, more than forty-one million
yards of earth were mined, which resulted in creating the Malakoff mine pit, a spectacular canyon
some seven thousand feet long and three thousand feet wide, which reached a depth of nearly six
hundred feet at the peak of mining operations.
Although hydraulic mining proved to be extremely profitable, it also proved to be disastrous
to the environment. The waste gravel, mud, and water from the mining operations were initially
dumped into Humbug Creek and later into the Yuba River. These tailings polluted the streams,
killed the fish, and rendered the Sacramento and Yuba rivers un-navigable for ocean going vessels
for more than one hundred years. The silt from hydraulic mining reached as far as San Francisco
Bay and on through the Golden Gate. At Marysville, debris from the Malakoff mine choked the Yuba
until the river bottom was higher than the adjacent town, causing severe flooding and damage. And
as the bed of the Sacramento River rose, floods struck the rich agricultural areas in
California’s great Central Valley, resulting in millions of dollars in damages for local farmers.
The farmers, who were not about to let hydraulic mining destroy their land, fought back and
by June of 1883 a landmark case was being heard in the courtroom of Judge Lorenzo Sawyer. A
Marysville property owner named Woodruff had brought suit against the North Bloomfield Gravel
Mining Company to stop them from dumping tailings into the Yuba River. In January of 1884, Sawyer
handed down his decision, ruling in favor of the farmers. In a 225 page document he permanently
enjoined the North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company from dumping tailings into the Yuba River.
This was the famous Sawyer Decision, the first environmental legislation in the United States,
and the decision which effectively brought an end to the era of hydraulic mining in California.
Today the ghost town of North Bloomfield and the nearby Malakoff mine are within the
boundaries of the three thousand acre Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park. Several of the town’s
original buildings are still standing, while a few others have been reconstructed to their
original designs. A museum contains bits and pieces of the town’s history and the Ranger’s office
can usually answer any visitor’s questions. The park also contains picnic and camping grounds,
and numerous trails that wander through the mountains, lakes, streams and diggings. Blair Lake,
originally a reservoir for the mines, offers a beautiful spot for a picnic and is furnished with
tables and barbecues. All things considered (the mountains, the trees, the trails, the clean air,
the fantastic mines, and the town of North Bloomfield), Malakoff Diggins should not be missed.
Visit North Bloomfield's Historic Sites