Miners and Sluice Boxes, c. 1851; quarter-plate by Isaac W. Baker

Collection of the Oakland Museum of California


In their single-minded scramble for gold, the forty-niners allowed little time to reflect on the environmental consequences of mining. To obtain the elusive metal, rivers were dammed and diverted, forests logged, and hillsides wasted. The miners' ruthless exploitation of the California terrain is evident in this daguerreotype. The network of ditches and sluice boxes is probably the work of a cooperative mining venture. Such organizations were common in the gold fields, where a number of miners could join together to share expenses and minimize risks while mounting ambitious mining project. The vertical orientation of this image is unusual.

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