A History of Mining Along California’s Smith River

A mining company from the UK has applied to the U.S. Forest Service to begin exploratory drilling over thousands of acres of forest lands, including Baldface Creek, in Curry County, Oregon, which flows into the Smith River. It’s the last major California River without a dam and is a passageway for spawning fish and a source of drinking water for Crescent City and other local towns.

The proposal by the Red Flat Nickel Corporation is to begin drilling southeast of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in the Klamath Mountains to determine whether a full-scale mining operation would be economically feasible. The the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says this type of hard rock mining is the largest source of toxic pollution in the nation.

There may not be much anybody can do to stop the company from putting in a mine. The General Mining Act of 1872, approved during the presidency of Ulysses Grant. It says, in essence, that all citizens 18 years or older have the right to make a claim on federal land and extract minerals for a nominal fee.

Miners and prospectors in the California Gold Rush of 1849 found themselves in a legal vacuum. Although the US federal government had laws governing the leasing of mineral land, the Federal government had only recently acquired California by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and had little presence in the newly acquired territories.

Miners organized their own governments in each new mining camp (for example the Great Republic of Rough and Ready), and adopted the Mexican mining laws then existing in California that gave the discoverer right to explore and mine gold and silver on public land. Miners moved from one camp to the next, and made the rules of all camps more or less the same, usually differing only in specifics such as in the maximum size of claims, and the frequency with which a claim had to be worked to avoid being forfeited and subject to being claimed by someone else.

California miners spread the concept all over the west with each new mining rush, and the practices spread to all the states and territories west of the Great Plains. Although the practices for open mining on public land were more-or-less universal in the West, and supported by state and territorial legislation, they were still illegal under existing federal law.

At the end of the Civil War, some eastern congressmen regarded western miners as squatters who were robbing the public patrimony, and proposed seizure of the western mines to pay the huge war debt. In June 1865, Congressman George Julian of Indiana introduced a bill for the government to take the western mines from their discoverers, and sell them at public auction.

Congressman Fernando Wood proposed the government send an army to California, Colorado, and Arizona to expel the miners “by armed force if necessary to protect the rights of the Government in the mineral lands.” He advocated that the federal government itself work the mines for the benefit of the treasury.

Western representatives successfully argued that western miners and prospectors were performing valuable services by promoting commerce and settling new territory. In 1865, Congress passed a law that instructed courts deciding questions of contested mining rights to ignore federal ownership, and defer to the miners in actual possession of the ground.

The following year, Congressional supporters of western miners tacked legislation legalizing lode or hardrock mining on public land onto a law regarding ditch and canal rights in California, Oregon, and Nevada. The legislation, known as the “Chaffee laws” after Colorado Territorial representative Jerome Chaffee, passed and was signed July 26th, 1866.

Congress extended similar rules to placer mining claims in the “placer law” signed into law on July 9th, 1870.

The Chaffee law of 1866 and the placer law of 1870 were combined into the General Mining Act of 1872. The mining law of 1866 had given discoverers rights to stake mining claims to extract gold, silver, cinnabar — the principal ore of mercury — and copper.

When Congress passed the General Mining Act of 1872, the wording was changed to “or other valuable deposits,” giving greater scope to the law. The Act also set the price of the land claim to range $2.50 to $5.00 per acre, which has remained the same since.

In 1851, gold was discovered at several locations in the Smith River watershed including Myrtle Creek, Haines Flat, and French Hill. By 1852, gold mining was booming and hundreds of mining claims were staked.

As placer gold deposits in the Smith River system were running out in 1860, copper ore was discovered in serpentine areas. Copper mining was soon booming, and mines were established in serpentine areas of the basin including Hardscrabble Creek.

Copper was in demand for manufacturing ammunition shells during the Civil War. At the end of the war in 1865, copper mining declined rapidly.

At about the same time, another important mineral was discovered in the serpentine areas – chromite. Many mines were established in the North Fork area, including High Divide near Hardscrabble Creek, Low Divide, and High Plateau, but 1894, they were shut down because of changes in tariff laws.

Hydraulic mining became the most widespread technique for extracting gold and continued into the mid-1890’s at the mouth of Hurdygurdy Creek, near Big Flat. But after a landslide destroyed the main water supply ditch, mining became limited and sporadic.

Yet in 1904, a hard rock gold mine and the town of Monumental were established about two miles from the top of Shelly Creek. However, Monumental Mining Company went bankrupt following the destruction of their offices in San Francisco by the earthquake and fire of 1906.

Currently, Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio and U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley are being urged to resubmit previous requests they have made to the Obama administration to withdraw the land from mineral development. Meanwhile the U.S. Forest Service is consulting with tribal leaders and is expected to release an environmental analysis this summer.

Mining was the leading industry in the early days of Del Norte County. Much of this activity took place at Myrtle Creek, along the South Fork of Smith River, at Happy Camp (where the industry is still carried on), and in the vicinity of Crescent City.

Journals from the many express companies that operated in those early years, show large shipments of gold dust from the few claims worked. They also detail an influx of miners following the initial discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill.

Walter Van Dyke was an attorney from Ohio who came to California in the first wave of “49ers,” wrote about mining in Del Norte before it was a county.

“In the summer of 1852 the miners pushed on up the Klamath a long distance above the mouth of the Salmon, and by fall a large number had gathered on a plateau at the mouth of a stream putting down from the northwest, which they named ‘Happy Camp,’ writes Van Dyke. “They worked on this stream, and over the divide on streams flowing northwesterly into Rogue River.”

“The mines on these latter were quite rich, and attracted a rush of miners,” he adds. “They were near to, and in some of them over, the Oregon line…”


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