Water was the real gold during the Gold Rush days in Columbia.
Shortly after settling in the area, when the creek supplying the placer mines dried up, miners found themselves with no gold, and merchants found themselves with no market. To solve the water problem, merchants and miners formed the Tuolumne County Water Co. “for the purpose of conveying water from the South Fork of the Stanislaus River to various points in the Southern Mines.”
This was to be an active shareholder owned company: Each shareholder had one vote, and shareholders were to work on building the ditches and flumes, or pay someone to take their place.
Even with this sweat equity, the company was spending $1,000 a week in cash and $3,000 a week in scrip to the miners to build the delivery system.
With such debt, the company was forced to charge water rates that miners considered to be too high. They protested, but the president of the company — knowing there was no other source of mining water — said the company would not reduce the rates until it was out of debt and that miners were not compelled to buy the water.
Miners tried to protest again in 1853 and attempted to start another water company. When that didn’t succeed, they asked the Tuolumne Hydraulic Association to extend their ditch to Columbia offering to pay $5 a day, but this also did not work.
Finally in 1854, the Columbia and Stanislaus River Water Co. was formed with money raised from miners and local citizens. At the suggestion of James Coffroth (soon to be Columbia’s favorite son) citizens withdrew money from local banks and invested in the new company.
The new company estimated that 46 miles of ditches would be built and imagined the system would soon be accurately reflected by the image accompanying this story.
There was little water when the company reached the river in midsummer 1855, and rumors of financial problems were beginning. By 1856, the company started getting loans to support the construction.
In April 1858, the company finally delivered water with a huge celebration and. of course, many speeches. However, due to ongoing costs and the previous financing, debts became a problem and resulted in the company trying to borrow $400,000.
At the same time, the Tuolumne County Water Co. won a lawsuit against the Columbia and Stanislaus River Water Co. over the use of Stanislaus River water. Losing the suit, and its debtors calling in their loans, led to their bankruptcy.
Tuolumne County Water Co. proxies bought the Columbia and Stanislaus River Water Co.’s assets for 10 cents on the dollar, and the miners’ water company was no more.