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Image of flume running through woods in Nevada County

Flumes were part of the extensive storage and transportation systems built to supply the essential resource for gold mining — water. The most prodigious consumers of water were the hydraulic gold mines which used large amounts of pressurized water to wash away entire hillsides of gold bearing earth for processing.

The water systems began in the early 1850s with modest ditches and small wooden flumes to supply water to small placer mining operations. By the 1860s there were almost 6,000 miles of main pipelines, canals and branch ditches traveling across deep canyons, along cliffs and steep mountainsides through which billions of gallons of water were delivered to hydraulic and hard rock gold mines. These delivery systems were fed by hundreds of reservoirs that held the rains and melting snows of the Sierra Nevada mountains. By the 1870s many well capitalized companies had formed to supply water which rivaled the large corporate mining companies in size and sophistication. An example is the California Water Company which was organized in 1871 with $10,000,000 in capital to operate a large water system in El Dorado County. Even with these large water systems, which diverted almost the entire flow of creeks and streams through large areas of the western Sierra Nevada watershed, there was not enough water to allow year round operation of the hydraulic mines.

All of this water was available for gold mining because, in California from the 1850s through 1880s, no large industries competed for water with mining and no other entities held water rights which would prevent diversion of the natural creeks and rivers.

After the decline of large scale hydraulic mining starting in the 1880s these water systems were used to supply municipalities and California’s agriculture industry. Eventually some of these water systems were consolidated into what later became Pacific Gas and Electric Company, the giant utility company which serves much of Northern California, providing hydroelectric power.

The gallery has an image of the Malakoff Mine pit, once the largest hydraulic gold mine in the world.

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