La Grange Mine in today’s Shasta-Trinity National Forest was the largest commercial gold-mining operation in the world at the turn of the 20th Century. Chinese laborers were involved at multiple levels of the operation, constructing water infrastructure, hydraulic mining, and undertaking domestic labor tasks. One can still drive right through where it once operated, when passing west of Weaverville, California on Highway 299.
Hydraulic mining techniques required heavy machinery. Such techniques included, high-power water jets called “Monitors,” or “Giants,” to move rock and sediment. Pictures reveal that Chinese men were among the crews that would operate the monitors. Gold, being heavier than other rock particles, sank to the bottom of the water-sediment mixture, and was separated out in wooden channels called sluice boxes.
During the twenty-year ownership of Trinity County Gold Mining Company, Chinese men provided crucial support services including cooking for the wealthy owners of the mine. Wages for Chinese laborers were often lower than their white counterparts because of racial prejudice and this spurred anti-Chinese sentiment amongst white-only labor unions that claimed that the Chinese were at fault for diminishing wages for everyone. However, Chinese men had earned such a glowing reputation as domestic laborers, that they could sometimes earn $15-$30 per month more than non-Chinese in this industry.
American capital was not able to fund the gargantuan mining operation. In 1893, Ernest de La Grange, a baron from a wealthy French dynasty, purchased the mining site and the water rights to the surrounding area for $250,000. By 1895, it became apparent that the existing water infrastructure was insufficient to transport enough water to sustain the operation, so the Baron commissioned the MacLean Brothers Company to expand it. This construction company employed Chinese laborers and by 1911 these crews had enlarged the crucial water infrastructure to 49 miles of flumes, ditches, and tunnels. That included the construction of an 8.5 mile-long flume, which measured four feet deep and as wide as six feet at the top. This was an incredibly demanding task as modern heavy machinery for moving dirt and gravel was not yet available.
The La Grange mine ultimately moved most of Oregon Mountain, which was the length of 6 football fields plus 2 miles high. A fortune of $8 million worth of gold (valued at approximately $3 billion at today’s gold prices) was extracted. Today, one can pull off of Highway 299 and stand right in the place Oregon Mountain once stood and see one of the “Giants” used to blast the sediment with water. It is the last remaining piece of hydraulic mining equipment that remains at the historic La Grange Mine.