Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.

Jim Miller

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Eureka Moments Revisited, Part 8, Amazing Feats of Levitation or How Ancient Technology Met Gold Rush Challenges

        I've always found it curious that very few "new" placer mining techniques came out of the California Gold Rush. The reinvention and application of existing and often ancient technologies was apparently the norm. It makes perfect sense when you consider the diversity of the mining population with its collective world-wide experience suddenly faced with new challenges in California.
That pool of knowledge would provide the curriculum for this new " School of Mining".

Classic California Gold Rush
River Mining Scene
Note the paddle wheel and pump in the foreground

Image courtesy examiner.com

        Sometimes the pooling process led to daringly large scale operations like river mining, where entire water courses were diverted into artificial channels for miles and miles. To keep those exposed river bottoms dry and mineable, long chain pumps worked furiously, powered by enormous paddle wheels driven by the captured river. Putting water to work was a key element in effective placer mining at all levels in the 1850's.

Daguerreotype of River Mining
Note the wheels (background) driving pumps
in the left foreground of the picture

Image courtesy publishing.cdlib.org

      Jumping forward to the mid 1990's, this whole water management issue in the Gold Rush got me thinking. The surviving historical evidence suggests that  miners often exploited some sort of pumping device to support their appetite for water, or to mitigate a problem with water. Once you know what you are looking at, you start to see these pumps all over the place in early images. When water needed to be lifted to flown, these simple devices could feed Long Toms, Quick Silver Machines and Rockers. I decided to research the three most common pumps used and make replicas for my living history placer mining demonstrations.

      I chose the simple siphon pump for replication first, then I built a flutter wheel and finished the project 6 years later with a chain pump. Initially, I gathered as much primary research material as I could find, mostly images and some brief accounts until thanks to my friend Larry Baumgardner, I discovered the "Descriptive and Historical Account of Hydraulic and Other Machines for Raising Water" by Thomas Ewbank. Published in 1842, it has it all, including the history of my focus machines. There is no doubt this text guided some of those original Argonaut / Engineers in their creations.

Detail from Gold Rush Daguerreotype
Showing a Miner Working a Tall Siphon Pump

Image source unknown

       Most of the original images of siphon pumps suggest a hollow log was used for the main body with a rude handle and plunger mounted to pivot at the upper end. Ewbank shows and describes a Sailor's bilge pump that incorporates a leather cone on the inside, fixed to the plunger, point down. On the down stroke, the cone collapses into the water. On the up stroke, the cone fills with water and swells to meet the inside of the hollow tube. This way the water is lifted up and eventually exits up the tube. This simple pump goes back as far as ancient Greek and Roman mariners, who used it to manage unwanted water in their ships.

From Ewbank, pg. 215

      Ewbank also illustrated a more sophisticated liquor pump that incorporated two flapper valves to isolate and lift the fluid. In my earlier research I had decided on this dual valve idea although I now feel the simpler Sailor's version might have been more commonly used.

My Replica Siphon Pump and Long Tom on the American River, 1997
 Left to Right, Bill Dunniway
Derek Manov and Floyd Oydegaard

Photo by Lindy Dubner

      For my log body, I purchased a large peeled log and sawed it lengthwise in half. Once halved, I hollowed out each side and eventually wired the log back together around the mechanism. I cheated a little on authenticity by opting for modern abs fittings and aluminum for my valve parts. Since none of the mechanics were visible, the interpretive value as a recreation wasn't compromised. The pump proved itself but never really delivered the volume of water I expected.

Original Gold Rush Letter Sheet Illustration
Depicting a Noria (aka flutterwheel) Lifting Water to a Long Tom

Image courtesy westernbitters.com


     Part 2 of this water lifting exercise, was to design and build a flutter wheel or Noria. Used in ancient Egypt, Rome and China, this wheel depended on a good flow of water from below in order to function properly. In the form I chose to copy, large paddles are needed to engage the moving water and attached boxes do the work of lifting the water. If the current is strong enough, the boxes lift and deposit their contents into an elevated flume or trough as the wheel turns (see above).

My Replica Noria / Flutterwheel
on the American River 1999

    When I designed my replica wheel, I had to take into account how I was going to transport it to any living history events. I'm sure that most of the originals were built in place but for me, that wasn't a choice. I ended up building it in sections that could be bolted together on site. The wheel was an imposing 10 feet in diameter and taller yet when cradled in its moorings .

 Nice Arty Shot of My Replica Wheel
at the Sesquicentennial of the California Gold Rush
Coloma California Jan. 24, 1998

Image courtesy the Modesto Bee

     This was quite a learning experience as I quickly found out that a strong current or fall of water was essential to even move the wheel, let alone fill the boxes. Sorry to say, it never met its full potential on the slow moving American River (seen above) but kicked butt on the swift Tuolumne River later that year at a movie shoot. It had a very brief but illustrious part in an educational film from Cambria Productions called "Fountains of Columbia".

Various Forms of Chain Pumps from Tiagong Kaiwu
Chinese Encyclopedia 1637

Image courtesy wikipedia

       For the final part of this quest, I turned my attention to the chain pump. Originating in China, it found widespread use in California and appears in numerous images of the time. Some examples appear to be quite long, especially when used in river mining operations as I mentioned at the beginning of this posting.

Original Daguerreotype Showing Multiple Chain Pumps in Use
( left center of the image)

Image source unknown

       I first gained insight into how these simple but efficient pumps worked by studying the diagrams in "Gold Mining in Siskiyou County 1850-1900, Occasional Paper No.2" by Gary D. Stumpf. What's involved is a long box or tube with round drums mounted at each end. The upper drum has a large crank or cranks to turn it. A continual belt runs over the drums and through the long box. Spaced along this belt are paddles sized a little smaller than the interior dimension of the box.

My Replica Chinese Chain Pump
Kid Powered on the American River

My friend Jon McCabe in the middle.

     Here's how it functions, with the lower end in the water you crank the upper drum and engage the belt in a forward motion towards the water. At the lower end the paddles drive the water into the box and drag it up the tube to exit at the upper end. Even if the water leaks back, the next paddle in line catches it and moves it forward.

The Pump at Work at Columbia SHP During the Annual
Columbia Diggin's Living History Event 2010

Ian McWherter in the foreground

    What I discovered during the designing process of my replica was the critical part drum fabrication and mounting played in the pump's function. The belt needs to track evenly as it enters the box, otherwise it will bind and wear out early. Quite by accident I chose the best fabric for the belt. Hemp canvas shrinks a little when wet and this kept the belt tight while running in the water. I had to assume that the paddles had some sort of backing in the way they were mounted upright, so I used steel straps on the opposite side of the belt when I nailed them in place. It worked like a charm !

     You might have seen the pump in action in "Save Our History" series from The History Channel. It was used in the "Gold Rush Ghost Towns" episode ( Season 1, episode 30). My friend and fellow historian Nicholas Kane and I taught host Steve Thomas about early placer mining one chilly morning on the Mokelumne River in 2005.
    Or you can check out this YouTube short I just discovered. Just click on the link below.


    From my experience with the three pump, I have to say, hands-down my favorite is the chain pump. It has the interactive option when engaging the public (kids love it !) and it pumps water like crazy. All in all this was a great project and learning experience beside being just plain fun. Thanks for looking.


  1. Interesting blog. Is the purpose of these pumps just to wash the gravel?

  2. Greetings Ron,
    Yes and no. From what I've gathered, they used siphon pumps and chain pumps sometimes just to remove excess water but all three forms of pumps could be used to bring water to the machines that washed gravel for placer gold. I appreciate your interest.