San Francisco’s Early Keys to Regional Dominance

January 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

San Francisco’s Industrial Cross-Roads:

California’s establishment into the Union in 1850 was in many ways the story of two competing ways of living, two competing industries fighting over the same resource. The conflict that set the stage for this battle grew out of a debate between the primacy of valley agriculture and industrial mining; the two most significant economic interests of the state in the late 19th century. While the court case that settled much of the dispute, Edwards Woodruff v. North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company (1884), was simply a property owner in conflict with a large industrial mining operation, the decision encompassed a significant shift to the U.S. Supreme Court and California’s economic future. But why the court decided in this way, is a story of history and politics, as much as legalities. In bringing the decision in 1884, Judge Lorenzo Sawyer cited many statutes and precedents. The Sawyer Decision remains one of the first Supreme Court decisions to identify and define a “public interest,” and accorded by some as the first environmental decision in the United States. While the Public Trust Doctrine of California water law as we know it today would not come into play by name for several decades, its mechanisms were structured by Judge Sawyer in Woodruff v. North Bloomfield. The concepts of a general public interest and the acknowledgment of a changing environment (as opposed to static), were put into dialogue for the first time and given quantifiable value through Sawyer’s precedent.

"Hydraulic Mining - The Sluice" (1860). Courtesy of Society of California Pioneers ~ via Calisphere

Few court cases before this had come to such detailed analysis between the relationship of private property, the environment, and the state. As the decision would imply, there was a theoretical collective public interest beyond and above individual private interest. Significantly, by defining California’s waterways as variable and subject to natural change (something that was not legally accepted prior), it was against the collective public interest, Sawyer suggested, for the North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company to continue to dump mining debris into the Yuba River tributaries which would invariably lead to significant, and unpredictable property damage downstream by flooding. Already by the late 1850’s, reports emerged that the mining debris from the Sierra’s had migrated and had settled and raised the river beds as they approached California’s central valley.

"Hydraulic Mining - The Sluice Flumes, At Timbuctoo, Yuba County" (1860). Courtesy of Society of California Pioneers ~ via Calisphere

Mining debris, it was claimed, had contributed to the 1861 flood that engulfed Sacramento. This disastrous flood’s legend would continue to frame the mining debris discussion well into the 1880s, when successive floods would be found to have been aggravated by the hydraulic mining industry’s mining waste. By 1882, a disgruntled land-owner, Edward Woodruff, filed suit against the North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company for damage to his property from the mining debris. This would not be the first case against hydraulic mining debris. Nonetheless, the Sawyer Decision left the mining industry with little choice but to absorb higher expenses or move to other mining frontiers. How the mining industry dealt with the defeat in 1884, goes a long way to explain how San Francisco also began to lose regional economic dominance as rivals like Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Seattle developed their own inroads into the Pacific coast economy. In addition, subsumed in this conflict were actions and legislation that would lead to California’s trajectory as an agricultural powerhouse in the 20th century. Through various reclamation policies, water appropriation laws, and arid agriculture, the precedent set by this court case continues today. But as was evident in the 1890s, San Francisco had yet to give up on the industry that built the Pacific Metropolis.

[Next edition to be published soon]

(1881). By Charles Hittell (1861-1938) Courtesy of UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library ~ via Calisphere.”]


Edwards Woodruff v. North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company, Circuit Court, D. California 18 F. 753; 1884 U.S. App. LEXIS 1893; 9 Sawy. 441


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