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When you look back to find when the Old West died, GG would like to nominate 1906 as that magic year.

In 1906, the last of the classic gold rushes of the West reached its peak.  Goldfield, having been found just a couple years earlier, became the most populous city in Nevada on the basis of its considerable bonanza gold deposits.  It and its companion silver boom town of Tonopah represented the last gasp of big finds by miners wandering the west. As these towns faded out, the state of Nevada would try to find a new economic base.  First they encouraged travel for getting a divorce, and then they removed the restrictions on gambling. That transition from a mainly extractive economy to a mainly tourism based economy began as Goldfield started to empty out. The memory of the mining heritage would live on: nearly every Nevada town seems to have a casino named the Nugget (and most others have some mining theme, like “Bonanza” or “Silver strike”), but it would increasingly be tourists and not mineral veins that would be mined.

Another tourism related event–one most folks overlook these days–occurred in 1906. The first park set aside by the nation was Yosemite Valley; in 1864 it was transferred to the state of California to be protected in perpetuity. In 1890, advocates for protecting the surrounding high country had given up on the state, feeling it had mismanaging the park, and worked to get a federally managed national park created. Thus Yosemite National Park (the federal version) was created as the third national park behind Yellowstone and Sequoia. The state, however, continued to manage the valley. Continued agitation by park advocates finally led the state to relinquish control of the valley in 1906, in essence declaring an end to any possible equivalence of state and federal control of parklands. The transfer to the federal government would also end the state’s practice of allowing Native Americans to continue to live in the valley; though it would take the Park Service decades, they finally removed the last descendant of the Ahwahneechee from the valley. For most of the following century, Native Americans would be denied a modern presence in federal parks; instead they were relegated to colorful descriptions of their ancestors’ historic occupation of the land.

And then in 1906 the San Andreas Fault, only recently named at that point, failed in the catastrophic San Francisco Earthquake.  Between the quake and the fire, much of the city’s Gold Rush heritage was lost–not only buildings but photographs, written records and other memorabilia of a city that grew from a small trading post to an international metropolis on the back of the riches that passed out of the Sierra. As the city rebuilt, it would not be in the mold of the old Gold Rush town but would be the new financial and trade capital of the West Coast, one stylistically different from the city that had just been demolished.

So 1906 saw the loss of much memory of the Gold Rush, both in records in San Francisco and in activity as Goldfield began its decline. The era of modern tourism, with federally managed playgrounds and locally permitted houses of various sins, was grafted onto declining mining camps and previously state-managed land.

A coda helps to illustrate the transition. The 1906 quake triggered avalanches in the Sierra Nevada, including in the remote Mineral King valley high in the southern Sierra, where many of the buildings of a small resort were smashed.  The resort’s owner was seeking a patent on land being claimed as a mill site for associated mineral claims, a request opposed by the Sierra Forest’s supervisor, who pointed out that no mining was actually occurring. Despite the destruction of much of the resort, Arthur Crowley pushed together remains of two buildings to continue operations as he continued his quest for a paten. A court held that Crowley’s claim was valid, and the patent was granted. Mining law had opened up a tourism future; the driver of the West in the 19th century was giving way to that of the 20th century.

A different view of science

Today is Earth Day, and many folks will be out marching for science. There are lots of reasons one might do this–provides the grist for technological advance, allows for finding ways of living longer and better, etc–but GG would like to explore a different tack.

GG was recently in Ireland, and at geologic sites like Giant’s Causeway and the Cliffs of Moher he looked for books on geology in the visitor center stores.  There was one rather generic book on deep time at Giant’s Causeway (with a cover shot of the Grand Canyon) and nothing at the Cliffs of Moher.  There were, on the other hand, fistfuls of books on Irish history, most of which dealt with events nowhere near the places where the books were being sold.  This is hardly unique to these places, but it is sobering.  Here are landscapes–geological landscapes–that people have travelled some distance to see, and there isn’t enough interest for there to be even one book specific to the place?

The point? People seem to gravitate to history books but avoid science books.  Science books, it would seem, are too heavy for casual reading. Many of the marchers today may feel science is important, but you wonder if they would pick up a science book while on vacation. Now perhaps this reflects a certain inability of those writing science to author accessible books (but there are some really excellent science writers out there), but it might also mean that folks feel that science is best left to scientists.  Just give me my smartphone, thanks, and make sure the plane gives me a smooth ride home and all is good.

Science can be more though than just the mechanism by which we find our way to new and better gadgets. It can also provide the same kind of insights into the human experience that we seek in art and literature. But by limiting science to an academic pursuit, the public misses out on this facet of the scientific enterprise.

This is why GG wrote The Mountains that Remade America. The book fuses human history with geological history, so in some ways it is a bit deceptive–here is some nice tasty history, and oh by the ways, there is some geology here too–try it, just a smidgen, and you’ll get a bit more yummy history. Who we are, why we do things some ways, how we live in others is rooted in the geology of a region, but this aspect of history is buried in most of those history books cluttering visitor center shelves.  Hundreds of books address the California Gold Rush.  Few if any consider how the gold got to be there–or that the presence of different kinds of gold deposits dictated how the rush would affect later history. Or consider how John Muir’s idolization of empty landscapes might have been different had he been tramping in the Rockies with Indian settlements all around instead of the High Sierra where occupation was purely seasonal.

So today, as many trumpet how important science is as a practical matter, don’t forget that science is a human endeavor, and there is real gratification in learning the origin stories that make us what we are.

Mountains that Remade America

For those who come hoping to see material related to the Grumpy Geophysicist’s upcoming trade book on the Sierra Nevada, The Mountains that Remade America, here are a few quick pointers. Read More…

A Range of Opinion

…or, perhaps, when engineers and geologists collide. (This is one of those little episodes GG had pulled up for possible inclusion in his book The Mountains that Remade America only to find it something of an orphan).

In 1863, the Big Four responsible for construction of the Central Pacific Railroad were in desperate need of funds. The 1862 Pacific Railroad bill allowed $48,000/mile to be loaned once the railroad entered the Sierra Nevada but only $16,000/mile before then. Up to 150 miles of mountainous terrain could be claimed.  Eager to get the most money possible, Charles Crocker got the state geologist, Josiah Whitney, to go on a buggy ride to decide where the western edge of the range might be. Whitney allowed that the Sacramento River might be the most appropriate spot, but both he and Crocker could see the terrain was quite flat.  So they rode off some 6 or 7 miles east to Arcade Creek where some reddish sedimentary rock was exposed, and Whitney allowed that this was an appropriate spot to claim the edge of the range. But when Theodore Judah, who was director of the line and was responsible for identifying the route and who had shepherded the 1862 bill through Congress heard, he was appalled. This was 21 miles west of where the line would encounter its first real grades.

This episode is widely derided as Whitney engaging in deception to aid the railroad.  Was this another example of Josiah being a total ninny, as when he accepted the Calaveras Man claims, or when he said there had never been glaciers in Yosemite Valley?


Detail of Wagner et al., 1981, Geologic map of the Sacramento quadrangle, California, 1:250,000.

On the map above, the Sacramento River is at the left and the edges of crystalline rock of the Sierra is at the right. The Central Pacific runs under the “r” in the Arcade Creek label. The orange patterned unit on the map is the Turlock Lake Formation.  According to Unruh (1991), the 0.6 Ma Turlock Lake is tilted 0.19° to the west. For a geologist, this western edge of tilted and eroded Tertiary and Quaternary rock is indeed the most likely spot to mark the edge of the range. (Geologists today would not go along with the Sacramento River as the edge as its floodplain extends well east of Sacramento).

Whitney had, in fact, chosen a perfectly appropriate spot even though it was one that Stanford and Crocker had decided upon by measuring backwards 150 miles from the Truckee Meadows on the east side of the range. That this was not the essence of “mountains” as envisioned by an engineer like Judah was not Whitney’s fault; indeed, had the bill been written to assure that only truly mountainous terrain be included, Judah should have inserted minimum railroad grades or some other direct measure.

Whitney’s written acceptance of the Arcade Creek edge to the Sierra was seconded by two government surveyors in California and sent on to Washington, where Abraham Lincoln agreed that this was the appropriate point for the mountains to start. The Central Pacific got their higher loans earlier, but more through the ambiguity of the original legislation than deliberate misrepresentation on the part of the state geologist.


Interring the Good

The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.- Wm. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

We are all human and recognize in others strengths and weaknesses.  Generally we choose to amplify those: those whose accomplishments seem notable are heroes, those whose failings seem pronounced become villains. What has become more common in the past few decades is to revise evaluations using present standards of conduct. So, for instance, you might think of Columbus, who was lauded for centuries for opening the New World to the Old, but in recent years that accomplishment has come to be viewed as a mixed blessing or an outright calamity, leading to fewer places recognizing this as a holiday.

But Columbus’s loss of stature is in large part a change in our view of the accomplishment and less a revision of how we view Columbus the man (though he has taken hits there, too). A more pertinent example might be Thomas Jefferson, whose accomplishments as a statesman and president retain their luster, but whose personal behavior (most notably being a slave owner) has caused many to deride him. Is Thomas Jefferson now more villain than hero?

Read More…

The need…for less speed

A news story that should chill all our spines given the President-Elect’s love of Twitter came along recently: A Pakistani minister was threatening nuclear war…on Twitter…over fake news. This is a reminder that diplomacy often requires time and patience.  An old example is illustrative.

In 1858 a transatlantic telegraph cable was laid, and briefly the Old World and the New World could share messages instantly. The cable, though, failed within a couple of months (Wikipedia claims a failure of insulation due to improper voltages; the successor cables were cut in 1929 by turbidity currents triggered by an earthquake). Communications reverted to shipborne papers that took a week or more to cross the pond.

In November of 1861, the USS San Jacinto stopped the British mail vessel RMS Trent outside of Cuba and took into custody two Confederate envoys and their secretaries, claiming them as contraband, while allowing the Trent to continue. In the following days, as news of this reached the U.S., reaction from both the public and those in government was jubilation.  The only problem was that this action was illegal under international law, and Britain’s response was equally strong but of opposite sense. The North was trying to prevent European recognition of the South; Britain’s response indicated that the British might not only recognize the South but enter the war on its behalf. But communications were slow, the American ambassador could offer no insight into what had actually happened when word first reached London, and the American government only learned of the official British protest a month and half after the U.S. became aware of the seizure. In the delays as governments awaited firmer news, cooler heads started to prevail. In the U.S., they pointed out the flawed capture of the envoys as well as the risk of opening a second war, a war with one of the North’s chief suppliers of military arms. Rather than risk such a war and realizing their own culpability in the affair, the U.S. government released the two envoys to the British.

What would have happened had communication been as rapid in 1861 as it was briefly in 1858?  A real risk would have been for each government to have committed itself to its more radical initial instincts; war between the United States and Great Britain could easily have erupted. Having time to reconsider their positions–for the U.S. to recognize they had been in the wrong, and for the British to recognize that the U.S. might not have authorized the illegal seizure–allowed for compromise.

War can be the result of misunderstanding as much as a true conflict over goals or resources. Most diplomats recognize this, having the lessons of the gruesome conflicts of the past century to educate them. But we seem to be losing the ability to wait and think, so it is worth remembering examples like this where some reflection produced a better result than a quick response would have.

Water Ways

Drive up the San Joaquin Valley and it is hard to miss the signs reflecting pain from the California drought: “Solve the Drought Problem NOW” and “Is growing food wasting water?”  That last one caught GG’s attention because the answer isn’t as certain as the banner’s authors might hope.

Now it isn’t like growing food is morally bad, but if, say, a man dying of thirst expires on your lawn as you dump a tumbler of water on your tomato plants, well, you certainly used the water poorly.  But as with almost any good that can be used in multiple ways, “waste” can be described as using that good more poorly than some alternate use.  In a free market economy, we use price to decide–if you can make more money by getting a unit of X than somebody else, your use is (economically) superior.  But that is not how water works, where it is a kind of limited ownership that can make it cheap for some and dear for others.  (Feel free to reread Cadillac Desert for some background; we won’t go over that again here, though somebody needs to add a new chapter there on how urban districts are buying water options as a clever means of using agricultural water when urban sources are stretched).

It is interesting to speculate on how things might have been had water rights been different.  For instance, had water been required to stay within its drainage basin, Los Angeles would certainly not be the megalopolis it is today.  Farmers might have been in a much stronger position–but then again, maybe the cities would have grown in those drainages and the same tensions would exist, but at smaller scales, basin by basin.

Or maybe if water had always been a free market good–say the government would auction that year’s water from each river to the highest bidder.  As things stand today, farmers would be destroyed–the price of water in urban areas dwarfs the cost to farmers. Presumably what would happen is that food requiring irrigation would get pretty pricy.  Oranges and raisins might have become food of the very wealthy instead of supermarket staples.

The reality in California is that probably we have over-committed water and made it too cheap for agriculture.  In addition to getting surface water sources, many can drill wells to supplement their allocations (an option not open to most urban dwellers). And although the stresses in California are portrayed as urban vs. rural, the reality is more complex.  Farmers on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley are, traditionally, more family-operated smaller farms that rely on local irrigation districts or things like the Friant-Kern canal.  Many of the farmers in fact totally dry up the streams they tap: the Tulare Lake, formerly fed by the Kern and Kings Rivers, is a distant memory. Diversions of water from Northern California do not concern them.  In contrast, the west side farmers, dominated by large semi-industrial operations, have tapped the California aqueduct, and in so doing fight to maximize the water they can get.  Their deal with the devil long ago has come due: they were at the bottom of the water rights list as Los Angeles and San Diego paid for the aqueduct, but for many years had little need for it.  The result is that agricultural users on the valley’s west side battle environmental groups to try to get more water in the canal.  [8/30/16 update: a drive on the west side of the valley turns up even more of the “Congress-created desert” signs.  Not a shock.]  Urban users are similarly non-uniform.  Commercial operations have separate water needs (and rates) from residential users (who generally pay top dollar on a per gallon basis).  Thus what often seems a simply duality is at least a five-sided fight (west side irrigators, east side irrigators, residential users, commercial users, and environmental and fishing advocates).

There is no doubt that fight will resume when water ceases to flow again, but the problem is that expectations for a long time grew settled on resources that were slimmer than expected–and are growing slimmer. This only got more complex because our water laws got distorted by early mining activities, activities that made water a commodity.