Humbug Day at Malakoff Diggins

(Saturday June 11th, 2011)


n 1851 three miners headed northeast of Nevada (City) to escape the congestion, and prospect for gold. When their supplies ran low, one miner went back to town to buy supplies. Afterwards he stopped at his favorite saloon where he paid for a round of drinks with gold. This got the other patron's attention, but he refused to reveal the source. They secretly followed him back to the discovery, but because they didn't find any gold, they called the area "Humbug!" The stream became known as Humbug Creek; the name given to “played-out” creeks and mining claims everywhere during the gold rush. Other miners came into the area in 1852 and 1853: J.B. Clark, Owen Marlow, Roger McCullough, C.W. Carter, Dickerson, A. Jacobs, John Newman, and Francis Blair among many others. This second wave of miners employed newly created hydraulic methods and found gold in sufficient quantities to justify settling and expanding the camp into a full-fledged town site. The new settlers began to arrive, and the town of "Humbug" became a reality. By 1855, Humbug City resembled a small town with its first hotel, the Hotel de France, and had grown to around 500 residents who felt the name was too undignified, so they renamed the town "Bloomfield,"  but then renamed it "North Bloomfield," because California already had  a Bloomfield. In 1857 the post office was established.

By the early 1860′s the top placer gold was “played out” and gold discoveries in Canada and Nevada created a mass exodus of miners, leaving North Bloomfield and surrounding towns nearly depopulated. A drought during the mid-1860′s caused further declines. Enterprising businessmen from urban centers saw an opportunity to purchase and consolidate mining claims, leading to the eventual creation of large companies such as the North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company. North Bloomfield experienced it’s heyday from the late 1860′s to 1884, with nearly 1,500 inhabitants and more than 200 buildings serving as a supply base for the township. These buildings included 5 hotels, 8 saloons, 2 livery stables, 2 dry goods stores, 2 breweries, 3 boot makers, 3 fraternal organizations, a school, a barbershop, a drug store, a butcher, a baker, a dairy, and 2 churches.

In 1884, the Sawyer Decision was handed down to curtail the wanton disposal of hydraulic mining debris into waterways. Hydraulic mining continued for many years but at only a fraction of the scale. Companies had invested millions of dollars into the hydraulic gold mining effort in California. These companies slowly folded and the miners and their families moved away to seek work elsewhere. North Bloomfield and the many towns born of hydraulic gold mining in the California gold fields slowly died.

Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park (located 26 miles northeast of Nevada City) was created in 1965. Today is it's 45th Humbug Day celebration. We decided it would be fun to take part in what might be the last event if the park can't get state funding.

We're about to step back into time and experience some of the exciting and controversial hydraulic gold mining era of the 1870’s, enjoy old time music, the barbecue picnic, homemade ice cream, wagon rides, craft demonstrations, gold panning, candle making and tin punching, old fashioned family games and prizes, storytelling, living history tours of scenic North Bloomfield, the world’s shortest parade, and shooting the water cannon! Well sort of...

As we drive down the main street in North Bloomfield, we hope to see Cheryl and Sue, who were going to ride their motorcycles to the event. We're told to drive to the edge of town where we could park our rig, and walk back.

If this old tree could talk...what a tale it would tell.

When we got to the parking lot it was full. After driving a little further down the road we decided it was too far away and turned around. As we approached the parking lot again, a wonderful lady park ranger told us that if we had any disabilities (like my bad knees) we could go back and park in the center of town where there was room. Too late we saw the perfect spot, but would have to turn around again. What happened next is so funny. The street was lined with a large crowd cheering and clapping as we drove by. They thought we were part of the parade, so we joined in the fun. I did hear one voice ask, "What's this got to do with it?" There's got to be one in every crowd.

That's when we noticed a couple of gals wildly waving, and directing us to park it.

We continued to the other side of town where the parade participants were gathering, and patiently waiting for us to turn around. We got back to our parking place where we waited for the parade.

And here they come. It's better the second time around when you're not at the end.

Here come the Clampers...

Reenactment of argument over the mining company take-over.

The Sheriff is looking my way...

.....And then says he wants to put me in jail! Not until after I've had lunch! I'm starving for a barbecued hamburger. So they continue down the street...

And there's our old time Anderson friends with Cheryl. We've shared many funny memories that go back to when they were little. Went to school with Fred's dad Fred and uncle Henry.

Now we're waiting for the hydraulic monitor demonstration.

According to the Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park website,"During the time the North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company operated, as many as eight monitors were in use at the same time. Fashioned after Civil War cannons, the large monitors could weigh as much as 1 1/2 tons. The large monitors in the Diggins were capable of using 25 million gallons of water in a 24 hour period or over one million gallons an hour. The wooden box toward the rear of the monitor was loaded with rock to raise the barrel of the monitor and act as a counter balance created by the bucking water pressure leaving the nozzle.

The blasting power of a monitor or water cannon came from elevation drop alone. No mechanical devices were used. The water that came from a nearby reservoir exited in large pipes then graduated down in size until they reached the monitor and through a 10 inch nozzle. A large monitor would blast water at approximately 5,000 pounds per square inch, enough pressure to move a boulder the size of a small car. Different sizes of monitors had various functions. Large monitors were used to bring down the mountain, while small monitors were used to keep the debris moving down the sluice or long toms used to collect the gold and then on to the final exit point.

The miner that operated the monitor was known as the “piper.” He was paid the most for he had to know how to operate that big monster properly. If he didn’t, cave-ins occurred catching men unprepared thus causing injury and even death.

Legend has it that a miner with a dirty shovel set his tool into the stream of the water exiting from the cannon and the force of the water against the shovel moved the monitor’s aim with the greatest of ease and thus led to the invention of the ball and socket design we know today.

Monitors were made at the Joshua Hendy and the Parke and Lacy Company in San Francisco. Also monitors and hydraulic equipment were made locally in the Nevada City Foundry."

Okay, I had lunch so volunteered to go to jail with a couple of kids for a minute.

Great music played by the Mountain Laurel Bluegrass Band.

Got a kick out of the bear in the museum looking for his honey. Which one?

Love this old pickup.

All kinds of events going this gold panning.

Blacksmith shop demonstration.

The old North Bloomfield school.

...And the church.

The "canyon" is 7,000 feet (2,100 m) long, as much as 3,000 feet (910 m) wide, and nearly 600 feet (180 m) deep in places. Visitors can see huge cliffs carved by mighty streams of water, results of the hydraulic mining technique of washing away entire mountains of gravel to wash out the gold. At Malakoff, the easy-to-find surface gold played out during the first couple of years of the Gold Rush. But there was more gold in the deep, stratified sediments overlying bedrock in the region; fine particles difficult to extract by traditional methods. "The gold in the sediments was almost dust, which didn't lend itself to hard rock or placer techniques," park supervising ranger Larry Clark Clark explained. It didn't take long to invent a new method of extraction. In 1852, hydraulic mining came into use. The technique utilized cannon like nozzles, called monitors, to wash away the gold-bearing hills with high-pressure blasts of water. Elaborate systems of reservoirs, ditches and sluices were created to bring water to the site. Mud washed from the hillsides was channeled through sluice boxes that caught the pieces of gold. "They had to be careful -- sometimes whole hillsides would slide off and there'd be guys buried," Clark said. If you want to take a more in depth history tour of the area go here.

The muddy water, rock and whatever... were discharged from the sluice boxes directly into area streams, that became clogged with silt and debris causing flooding downstream. In Marysville, silt from Malakoff Diggins raised the bed of the Yuba River higher than the level of the city. San Francisco bay was estimated to be filling with silt at a rate of one foot per year.

By 1876, North Bloomfield's population swelled to 2000. However, in 1884 hydraulic mining ended because of a lawsuit by Sacramento area farmers, and Judge Lorenzo Sawyer stopped the practice of hydraulic mining with a permanent injunction against dumping tailings into the state's waterways. North Bloomfield became an uninhabited San Juan Ridge ghost town. Today's visitors to the 3,000-acre state park can hike miles of trails that lead through the colorful mining pit littered with rusting monitors from the past.

Apparently it's been a record year for bloomin' Scot's Broom.

It's been an interesting, eventful day stepping into the past where we actually saw old acquaintances we hadn't seen for many years. Almost stepping back into another world.

Thunder of Waters

They ripped and tore the gravel banks asunder
with powerful streams that rumbled like thunder.
A hundred hills were leveled by the blows
to smash millenniums of deep repose.

They crushed the face of nature in their lust
for gold, they reaped the shining dust.
They tore from gravel banks to ancient streams
to bring fulfillment to their gold-crazed dreams.

The havoc wrought displeased both God and man
and courts of law brought forth a mighty ban,
that stilled the giants, brought a calm surcease
to ancient hills that stood again in peace.

And God looked down upon the damaged sight
where man had gloried in his selfish might.
He planted tree and shrub for kindly shade
to heal the livid scars that man had made.

By Alvin Trivelpiece




Terry McGagin adds, "Thanks for forwarding this to me, and thanks to Rich for asking you to do so. My Ireland-born great grandfather disembarked at San Francisco in 1852 and, declaring that " this town would never come to anything," went to Canada for awhile. When he returned, he met and married my great grandmother, whose father owned and operated a toll road that went (approximately) from Rough and Ready to Nevada City. In about 1859 the road failed as a business, and the couple went further up the hill to Humbug, where he ran a two-cow dairy and she produced four kids and promptly died. When the hydraulic mining stopped, people left Humbug in droves. Because freight costs were excessive, many people just took what they could carry; furniture and other possessions were left behind; when the snows caved in roofs after a few years, all the interiors rotted away. The kids flourished, however. My great uncle, a lifelong bachelor, continued to prospect his entire life and died on his claim on Poor Man's Creek near Washington town in 1951. My grandfather (born in 1877) did odd jobs in his youth up there, and at one period rode shotgun on the Bloomfield-Nevada City stagecoach. He married a Washington girl (Washington town and Humbug were only a few miles apart, joined by a dirt secondary road) and fathered children of his own. Two of them were born in a place called Ormond, a community even more obscure and unremembered than Humbug. Like most of the homes in Bloomfield, the McGagin place doesn't exist anymore. A Park Ranger once pointed out to me the outline of its foundation.