A grandiose plan

Farmers, environmentalists and fishermen praised the Sawyer decision of 1884, among the first federal court rulings on environmental protection. The court banned the dumping of silt, sand and gravel into the Sacramento River or its tributaries, effectively ending hydraulic mining. It was a crushing blow to the operators and investors who had sunk millions of dollars into mines from Sucker Flat up to the Malakoff Diggings.

Bluepoint workingsAt Blue Point, after years of blasting and washing the northern half of Meade Hill through tunnels and across sluices and into the river, they were just starting to get down into the “gut” of the Blue Point diggings, where layers of heavy, gold-rich gravel rested close to the top of the basalt bedrock, a scant twenty to forty feet beneath the surface. So near and yet so far! And yet it was not possible to extract the gold without washing tons of gravel (about three tons of gravel per ounce of gold) in the process, and thanks to the Sawyer decision there was no way of legally disposing of the tons of gravel, and the thousands of gallons of silt-laden water that accompanied them.

In the 1920s, E.H. Tarr thought he had figured out a way. He was a man from Boston, described by George Rigby as “very gruff with black hair and a beard to match” who brought the first automobile, a 1910 White Steamer, to Smartsville. He also bought a lot of investor money, and for a couple of years Smartsville and the Blue Point were a beehive of activity. He electrified the town (until that time, though the electrical lines that came up from the Colgate Powerhouse passed right through Smartsville, the town itself was still dependent on kerosene lamps for light) and at a cost of several million dollars erected an ambitious aerial tramway, mounted on 90’ towers, across the Blue Point bowl.

He brought in water through the Tarr ditch to drive the project – though the Excelsior Water Company claimed the right to all the water in the Yuba system, a court battle had established that the Tarr ditch, which had its headwaters on Wolf Creek, was outside of Excelsior’s monopoly since its source was in the Bear River watershed.

Aerial tram towersHis plan was nothing if not grandiose: to use the tramway to dump the thousands of tons of waste gravel and cobble into the draw that crossed the Blue Point property, and place a “brush” dam at the mouth of the tunnel that drained the valley to capture the finer material and filter the water before it entered the Yuba River. In addition to the tramway, Tarr installed a stationary dredger in one of the detention basins and a steam-engine powered conveyor belt to take the waste rock up to the tram base. It was a mammoth, costly, and, it turned out, short-lived operation. After years of construction the mine was in operation less than a week before heavy rains washed out the brush dam and flooded the Yuba with debris. The Debris Commission (the precursor of the Army Corps of Engineers who was charged with enforcing the Sawyer decision) stated that the operation must cease and desist until an approved dam, a solid dam built to bedrock, could be constructed. With the technology and equipment available at the time, and given the low price of gold, this simply was not feasible. The Tarr Mine closed, E.H. Tarr went back to Boston, and his investors counted up their losses.

Today, precious little remains of E.H. Tarr’s grand endeavor. The concrete bulwark on which the steam engine was mounted still stands at the tunnel’s entry. The footings on top of which the four-legged towers stood are scattered across the landscape. A single tram bucket lies in the weather on a nearby property, and a length of cable lies amongst dried grass on a slope overlooking Rose Bar. And most of that precious gold, which E.H. Tarr and his investors, along with generations of other miners, worked at such effort and expense to extract remains cemented in that ancient riverbed beneath the surface of the Blue Point Mine.

(Note: Much of the information in this blog came from He Made a Saddle and Wrote a Book, written by third-generation Smartsville native George Rigby and published in 1984 by the VILLAGER. Though currently out of print I’ve heard that a new edition, with more stories, may be in the works.)

Woodruff v. North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Co. et. al. (the Sawyer Decision)