Saturday, April 04, 2009

Tearing away the mountains, and Clint Eastwood too

While there’s a lot not to like about the process of mining coal, and I’ll try to give it some historical context in an least a couple of postings, there is no doubt that currently the most destructive, ecologically, geologically and culturally is mountaintopping. You can get a basic idea of the destruction by following the link to an NPR article and photo essay below.

Replace Appalachian Mountains with Santa Monica Mountains while you look at it.

If you think something like that can’t happen in California, it already has. Fortunately it ended before most of us were born, but the scars still remain. The ‘49er with his pick and red long johns is something of a romantic figure, but he quickly gave way to American industrial ingenuity. First, streams in the northern Sierra Nevada were redirected so the streambeds could be dug up and loaded into sluice boxes that washed everything downstream except the heavy gold that settled to the bottom. Mining on that scale required capital investment and as the streams played out and the quantity of gold available declined sluicing wasn’t profitable enough. Things needed to scale up. So hydraulic mining started. Enormous water cannons were constructed, capable of blasting water 400 feet or more at high enough pressure to eat through a mountainside. There’s are historic pictures of the process at this link.

And this site has a basic overview of the process and the devastation to agriculture downstream that finally ended it.
Make sure you click on the link for the Malakoff Diggins. That’s the landscape after over 100 years of recovery.

Finally, I remembered that Clint Eastwood’s 1985 Western “Pale Rider” had scenes of hydraulic mining with the hydraulic miners as the villains. Wonder if that particular plotting had anything to do with Eastwood being a native of northern California?

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