Hydraulic, corporate mining practices
The hydraulic mining water cannon puts out a stream with a force of 200 lb. of pressure per square inch.
Hydraulic mining mows the mountain side down, trees and all.
The LaHood operation uses this technique, developed around 1850.
Josh LaHood, the corporate mining baron’s son.
Water cannons strip the hills of topsoil, making the gold beneath easier to find.
The LaHood operation provides jobs for a multi-ethnic, local work force.
We see the mining and devastated landscape ...
... from Preacher’s point of view.
He critically observes the erosion and ...
... falling trees.
Community mining practices
Community miners work along their segment of a creekbed...
... panning gold by hand...
... and working side by side.
Preacher helps Barret find his gold nugget...
... while women maintain the homes.
Instead of focusing only on classic western conflicts, Clint Eastwood’s 1985 remake of Shane, Pale Rider highlights and critiques the consequences of 1850s-1880’s corporate mining and, perhaps, its continued repercussions into the 1980s. Unlike any other Eastwood Western, Pale Rider provides its audience with a clear vision of the environmental horrors hydraulic mining causes, even including a detailed description of the technique, while showing the devastating results of a great engineering feat. Deep into the film, Josh LaHood, the corporate miner’s son (Christopher Penn) explains how he and his men are able to thrust 200 hundred pounds of pressure per square inch of water at the side of a mountain, a process called hydraulic mining.
Josh LaHood describes the process to fourteen-year-old Megan Wheeler, a prospector’s daughter. His detailed description of this mining technique engineered around 1850 is juxtaposed with images of falling trees and soil devastated by the water shooting out of monitors, the water cannons used to strip the hills of topsoil and growth to make the gold beneath easier to find. According to Josh LaHood,
While looking at the land around her, Megan tells Josh, “It looks like hell.” But Josh is only interested in the product of the degradation: “You know I can get 20 tons of gravel a day in this river,” he says. Seconds later, while the audience watches hydraulic monitors shooting water at the cliffs above the Yuba River, in an obvious parallel to what is happening to the landscape, Josh attempts to rape Megan. Josh fails only because Preacher, Clint Eastwood’s character, saves her.
This scene from Pale Rider introduces one of its most important themes: the exploitation of the environment and of those most connected to it. Although this theme is prevalent mining films like How Green Was My Valley, it is missing in any other Eastwood Western. In fact, Pale Rider is the only film directed by Eastwood that focuses on such an issue. Pale Rider not only examines how the environment can be exploited, it also takes the time to demonstrate a better way, an alternative to the absolute destruction of large scale corporate mining centered around the fact of hydraulic mining. Just as Preacher saves Megan, the individual miners, “tin pans,” can save the land from LaHood, the mining baron, and his environmentally devastating methods.
Pale Rider, however, not only problematizes corporate mining techniques, suggesting that the corporation should be obliterated. It provides a viable solution to the consequences of hydraulic mining—individual tin panning in a cooperative community seeking to plant roots and raise families. In contrast to LaHood and his greed for gold, for individual miners like Hull Barret and Spider Conway, “Gold ain’t what [they’re] about” (Pale Rider). But the film goes further, offering a political solution to the environmental destruction threatened by hydraulic mining interests.
This solution in Pale Rider has not received any detailed examination. Extreme violence is the ultimate solution offered in Pale Rider, and while it is couched in mythological terms similar to High Plains Drifter, the inclusion of Hull Barret in the mayhem and killing keeps the environmental argument grounded in the here and now and provides for an alternative to the “progressive” model of the Western, as defined by Richard Slotkin. Instead, the resolution of Pale Rider harks back to The Outlaw Josie Wales (1976) where, according to Slotkin, Josie forgives his enemy with the claim,
It also prefigures the anti-revenge themes in Eastwood’s critically acclaimed Unforgiven (1992) and Mystic River (2003). Although violence does provide “regeneration” (Slotkin’s word) in Pale Rider, it ultimately serves both a working class community and the natural world that sustains it.
Brief history of hydraulic mining
According to Ken Huie, a park ranger in Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park,
Huie oversees a park in the Sierra Nevada mountain range where the topography wears the mark of hydraulic mining from the 1850s to the 1880s, a mining technique so effective it was used in areas all over the western United States. According to Edwin Kiester, Jr.,
To create a large scale mining system,
In Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, these cannons are on display. Huie explains,
And debris resulting from such destructive mining was dumped into the Yuba river, so tainted water flowed into the Feather River, the Sacramento and even San Francisco Bay (Kiester). The Yuba River became so contaminated that
It seems self-evident, then, that hydraulic mining hurt not only the environment—the mountains bared by water—but also the economic welfare of those flooded out by the dammed rivers and streams.
In 1850, Edward G. Buffum, a member of the Seventh Regiment of the New York State Volunteers who spent six months in the gold mines, saw hydraulic mining as a way to provide such economic development,
According to Buffum, hydraulic mining offered