Mining California An Ecological History

Andrew C. Isenberg

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

256 Pages



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A Choice Outstanding Academic Title

Between 1849 and 1874, almost one billion dollars in gold was mined in California. The California gold rush was a key chapter in American industrialization, not only because of the wealth it produced but because of its heavy environmental costs. With labor costs high and capital scarce, California miners used hydraulic technology to shift the burden of their enterprise onto the environment: high-pressure water canons washed hillsides into sluices that used mercury to trap gold but let the soil wash away, and eventually thousands of tons of poisonous debris entered California's rivers. The profitability of hydraulic mining spurred other forms of resource exploitation in the state, including logging, large-scale ranching, and city-building. These, too, took their toll on the environment. This resource-intensive development, typical of American industrialization, became the template for the transformation of the West.

Not since Williams Cronon's Nature's Metropolis has a historian so skillfully applied John Muir's insight—"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe"—to telling the ecological history of the American West. Succinct and provocative, Mining California is environmental history at its finest.


Praise for Mining California

"At a time when [California's] residency has been forecast to grow by 13 million in the next 25 years, with its population probably stretching into its farthest regions, Mining California offers sobering reading on the consequences of unchecked expansion."—Tess Taylor, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

"A broadly researched history of the impact of human, especially Euramerican, settlement in California . . . Isenberg amply demonstrates how California's unstable geography, erratic weather, singular mix of natural resources, and shortages of capital and labor all encouraged growth of extractive industries (of which mining was the first example) and innovations to reduce labor costs and achieve economies of scale through the large-scale organization of enterprise . . . Offering excellent maps and a comprehensive bibliography, the book is richly illustrated, fully endnoted, and superbly written. This excellent read, a model for future studies, deserves highest recommendations and above."—D. Steeples, Mercer University (Emeritus), Choice

"Based on extensive archival work and written in clear prose accessible to both a general and more specialist audience, Mining California is a welcome addition to the growing number of studies on the environmental history of mining in the American West."—Peter Coates, Environmental History

"Andrew Isenberg's erudite new book explores the beginnings of European impact on my own state of California, to which I had moved under the spell of its supposedly pristine environment but unaware of its history, which is concisely recounted here."—Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

"Andrew Isenberg shoves rustic myths aside to reveal a gold rush California that roared, buzzed, clanked, and trembled with machines, and bore the cost in polluted rivers, denuded mountain slopes, ruined ranches, and shattered Indian communities. Anyone wanting to understand the industrial, social, and ecological revolutions that constituted America's most famous economic boom must read this elegant and provocative book."—Louis Warren, University of California, Davis

"As entertaining as it is insightful, Isenberg's book does justice to the dramatic ecological transformations California underwent in the half century after the gold rush. This is environmental history at its best."—J.R. McNeill, author of Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th-century World

"Andrew Isenberg's superb new book analyzes the ecological domino effect set in motion by the California gold rush, which touched off the cycles of environmental degradation the scale of which we can only now fully appreciate. Filled with lessons and warnings, Mining California is a timely and important book."—William Deverell, Director, Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West

"Forget rugged individualism: corporations owned the Old West, agribusiness dominated the 19th-century landscape, and speculators looted the public trust. So writes environmental historian Isenberg, observing that the passage of the Homestead Act of 1862 did little to prevent the West from being carved into resource-extractive estates. In this setting, California suffered 'enclosure,' much as the highlands of Scotland had; Indians were pushed aside, valuable properties appropriated and the government molded to benefit the largeholders. In Northern California, the driving forces were not only agricultural interests, but also companies devoted to removing ore and timber. They prospered, while their workers and tenants suffered; as Isenberg points out, for example, the miners who worked the first wave of the Gold Rush were earning $20 a day in 1848, but only $3 a day in 1856 (and that second number, he notes, 'represents only the wages of those who earned enough in the gold country to remain there'). One cause was the replacement of labor-intensive forms of extraction with machinery; on the American River, placer mining technology took the place of humans, and soon whole mountains were washed into the San Francisco Bay. Timber companies removed huge quantities of redwood trees, once they had overcome an odd problem: at first, the things were too big to cut and transport. In Southern California, the land was similarly damaged, but this time owing to cattle overgrazing, an economy that failed to make anyone particularly wealthy. Yet these very instruments of degradation and extraction spurred Californians to set pace for the nation in establishing environmental laws and conservation organizations; 'much of the agenda of the wilderness movement,' Isenberg writes, can be seen as a 'reaction to or a negation of the most prominent forms of industrial resource exploitation in the nineteenth-century West.' A strong complement to the work of William Cronon, Richard White, Patricia Nelson Limerick and other modern historians of the American West."—Kirkus Reviews

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The Alchemy of Hydraulic Mining: Technology, Law, and Resource-Intensive Industrialization

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  • Andrew C. Isenberg

  • Andrew C. Isenberg is a professor of history at Temple University. He is the author of The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750–1920 and is a former fellow of the Huntington Library and the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies.

  • Andrew C. Isenberg © Elena Isenberg