Event: Bancroft Round Table: Gold on the Trees, Cold in the Ground: Cyanide and the Making of Southern California, 1886-1915

Please join us for the third Bancroft Round Table of the Spring semester. It will take place, as usual, in the Lewis Latimer Room of The Faculty Club at 12:00 p.m. on Thursday, April 17. Adam Romero, Bancroft Library Study Award recipient and doctoral candidate in Geography at UC Berkeley, will present Gold on the Trees, Gold in the Ground: Cyanide and the Making of Southern California, 1886-1915.

Cyanide fumigation, discovered in Los Angeles in the fall of 1886 by a USDA scientist and a handful of progressive LA growers, bought a temporary reprieve from the ravages of industrial pests, allowing grower-capitalists to turn the valleys of Southern California into a citrus empire. But synthetic cyanide did not arrive in Southern California as a pesticide. It was cyanide’s ability to separate gold from ore, eventually perfected by the MacArthur and the Forest Brothers in Scotland in 1887, that made it such a valued commodity in the mineral rich west. Using cyanide’s selective chemical thirst for metals, particularly gold, miners now could unlock the refractory gold bearing ores that remained once the thin layer of placer gold was scraped off in the mad dash gold rushes of the 1850s, 1860s, and early 1870s. The subsequent boom in industrial cyanide production in Scotland, Germany, and New Jersey to meet the mining demand in Southern Africa, Australia, and the US, was critical in making cyanide compounds available, both geographically and economically, for a rapidly industrializing citrus industry. Southern California’s highly standardized, uniformly beautiful, sun-kissed citrus, that came to be known across the world in the early 20th century, was only possible because of the pest control capabilities offered by the use of cyanide fumigation, and cyanide fumigation was only possible because of changes in industrial chemistry and the international gold mining industry.

Lara Michels and Baiba Strads
Bancroft Library Staff