The California Forty-Niners

The California Forty-niners: the West's first water engineers and lawyers

First-in-time, first-in-right

California Forty-niners developed the West's first rough water law. They applied the same "First-in-time" rule to water that they did to their gold diggings. Water or gold belonged to the first man to stake a claim.

Right, from top to bottom:

"Hydraulicking" was the most devastating kind of mining used in California. Water was directed into an ever-narrowing channel, through a large canvas hose, and out a giant iron nozzle, called a "monitor." The extremely high pressure stream was used to wash entire hillsides through enormous sluices. The "slickens" tailings were dumped back into rivers, causing widespread flooding throughout the Sacramento Valley. Photo courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento CA. Stereo #1645

To stake water claims, miners "posted notice" by tacking up signs along the creek. Others could divert available water from the same stream, but their rights were junior to the first man to "post". This is a mining claim sign for the Mattie Lode, Left Hand Canyon, 1910. Photo courtesy of Carnegie Branch Library for Local History, Boulder CO

The 1849 California Gold Rush provided on-the-job engineering training to thousands of gold seekers. Every gold-extraction process required water to wash dirt from the heavier gold ore. Fueled by gold fever, the California '49ers dug miles of ditches and built massive flumes to move water to their claims. In 10 years, they learned a great deal and brought this expertise to the 1859 Colorado Gold Rush. Here, hydraulic mining on the Klamath River shows creative water engineering used by the 49'ers, including a current wheel lifting water into a flumes and pipes. Photo courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento CA. Call #2008-1640.

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