Great quantities of earth
In the valley between Smartsville and the Yuba River lies the ancient bed of the Yuba River, where it ran for millions of years, laying beds of rich, gold-bearing gravel and cobble hundreds of feet thick before volcanic uplifts and basaltic lava flows forced the river north into its present course. It was these rich gravel deposits that captured the attention of the early miners, who realized there was more gold to be found dredging the cemented gravel hillsides south of the river than in the river itself. But the gold was not as concentrated as it was in the riffles and pools of the river itself – the gold in the hillsides was fine as talcum powder and locked into the rock-hard gravel cliffs. The miners soon found that to find gold, they’d need to move great quantities of earth; they’d need to form companies and blast the hardened hillsides with dynamite, and then wash the slurry with cannons of water piped down from miner’s ditches on the surrounding ridges across huge sluices where the fine gold, trapped by mercury, might finally be captured and the miners, two or three times a year, might finally be paid. And so the great industry of hydraulic mining was born, and perhaps the greatest mine of them all was the Blue Gravel Mine, located at the great dog-leg bend of the ancient river bed, where the greatest quantities of gold were deposited and buried beneath over 300feet of cemented gravel rising up to form Meade Hill.
The Blue Gravel Mine was actually only one of six claims working the gravel channel between Smartsville and the Yuba River, along with the Enterprise, the Smartsville, the Blue Point, the Pactalos and the Pittsburg. Each of these claims had to bore its own tunnel north through the hard blue basaltic ridge to the Yuba River and it was in these tunnels that the miners, many of them Chinese, labored for long days in the dark, in knee-deep rushing water, raking the endless quantities of cobble and gravel across the sluices. The Blue Point’s tunnel was over 1,700 feet long and took over five years and $80,000 (a huge investment in those days) to complete. Not until 1863, after three years of operation, did they get down to pay dirt and begin to pay increasingly rich returns back to their patient investors, returns that continued until 1884 when the Sawyer decision, in response to the tremendous devastation being wreaked upon California’s farmlands downsteam, effectively ended hydraulic mining in California.
The Blue Point Mine, however, continued operation until World War II, using a variety of creative methods to work the rich gravels without allowing (much) sediment to enter the Yuba River. The company brought water all the way from Wolf Creek outside of Grass Valley in the Tarr Ditch to circumvent the Excelsior Land and Water Company’s monopoly. In 1920 an aerial tram was constructed at a cost of over $2,000,000 (a tremendous project for the time,) which was intended to spread the large quantities of waste rock over hundreds of acres, while a brush dam, constructed at the outfall of the historic tunnel at Rose Bar, would trap the fine materials before they entered the river. Unfortunately, after years of construction and within the first few months of operation, the dam collapsed, and the United States Debris Commission closed down the operation. For the next decade attempts at ‘drift mining’ the still-rich deposits, using hazardous tunnels to excavate down to pay dirt, were made, but not very profitably.
Following World War II many operations attempted to work the deposits, for cobble, basalt, gravel and gold. As recently as 2002, use permits were obtained from Yuba County to continue quarry operations, but in 2006 the property’s owners decided that the property’s real gold was in its historic, scenic, recreational and wildlife values. The site was revegetated and a reclamation plan for closure was completed and approved by the State Mining and Geology Board. After one hundred and fifty years of continuous operation, the Blue Point Mine is now silent.