Sierra Nevada History

Spenceville, a copper mining town

Spenceville is more a name on the map than an actual town. Our interest in the townsite arose from our research on The Emigrant Trail. That trail passed this way after leaving the village of Rough and Ready headed downhill to Johnson’s Ranch, near Wheatland. We have found bit’s and pieces of the route between Wheatland and Rough and Ready, and are trying to put those pieces together into one path.

The following map is interactive. Click it to move it around or click the Orange squares for more info. We will add to the map as the adventure continues. Double click to zoom in.

The former town of Spenceville lends its name to the Spenceville Wildlife Area which encompasses over 11,400 acres around and including the townsite and is protected by the California Fish and Game. Driving on the roads in the wildlife area is a treat, as the landscape is low rolling hills, dotted with many Blue Oaks and Grey Pines. Few people are living out this way, so you get a feeling of being away from it all, which we find exciting but some might find “lonely.”

The first bridge we spotted headed into Spenceville.

The first bridge we spotted headed into Spenceville.

Driving towards the old townsite, we spotted an old rock retaining wall for a road on the other side of Dry Creek. We wondered if this was the old wagon road, but why was it on the other side of the creek? Further on we came to a concrete bridge on our side of the stream. Soon we came upon another bridge, then another and soon we had counted five separate bridges. With all these bridges this must have been a vital crossroads back in the day.

The second and longest bridge at Spenceville.

The second and longest bridge at Spenceville.

There are no interpretive signs anywhere near the Spenceville site, so any history will need to be drawn out later at home through research. Until then we'll explore the area and take photos and video of the site. We were visiting in December, during the week, so it was very quiet, and we didn’t see another soul out there. The ground and pathways in the area are copper-red, a result of the copper mines that gave Spenceville an economic boost in the 1860s.

Two more bridges that had a contractors name and date 1912 etched into the concrete. The red cast of the ground is from the copper mines.

Two more bridges that had a contractors name and date 1912 etched into the concrete. The red cast of the ground is from the copper mines.

A resident of Purtyman's Ranch, which is what Spenceville was called in earlier days, was digging a well for drinking water and came upon the copper in 1863. Mining commenced, but only lasted until 1865 as the copper was a poor grade and working it after the costs of labor and materials was just too high. The mine lay dormant until The San Francisco Mining Company bought the property in 1872 and invested $15,000 in equipment to better extract the copper. A document from 1875 states,

“Work is being prosecuted on the copper-mine at Spenceville, in this county, under the superintendency of Mr. G. P. Deetkin, with every prospect of success. The shaft is down 100 feet, and the ledge at that depth is 70 feet in width. The rock is richly impregnated with native copper. The ore is taken out and roasted in a large furnace, after which it is turned into three large vats, upon which a stream of cold water is turned, and the copper, in a state of solution, is then conducted from the vats into a large cylinder of about 12 feet in diameter. In this is placed old or refuse iron, for which the copper has an affinity. The cylinder is made to revolve rapidly by steam, by which means the copper is collected on the iron. The superintendent thinks the process of separating copper from the ore in which it is contained is no longer a matter of experiment. There are many other ledges in the vicinity equally as rich, and are awaiting the success of working this one.” Raymond, Rossiter W (1875) Statistics Of Mines And Mining In The States And Territories West Of The Rocky Mountains; Being Тhе Seventh Annual Report United States Commissioner Of Mining Statistics, Government Printing Office 1875

Spenceville Copper Mine, 1880.

Spenceville Copper Mine, 1880.

Looking at documents and maps from the late 1800’s we found out that copper was another mineral that was mined extensively in “The Mother Lode,” and especially in The Spenceville area. This site utilized 150-foot shafts to remove the ore for processing. In 1880 a cave in occurred and the mine started to dig an open pit instead of putting in new underground shafts. The open pit eventually reached 300 feet long, 70 feet wide, and 75 feet deep. One hundred fifty thousand tons of ore, averaging about 5% copper was removed, bagged, and shipped to Boston, MA. for final processing.

The date 1912 etched into the copper hued concrete of one of the bridges.

The date 1912 etched into the copper hued concrete of one of the bridges.

1888 was the year The San Francisco Copper Mine and Reduction Works ended their mining activities on the site. The company had removed all the easier to mine copper, and the prices of copper had dropped on the market. They sold the property to the Imperial Paint Company and Copper Works that made a Venetian red paint pigment from the leftover copper. More on that company and the rest of the story of Spenceville at my next post.


Finding stuff on the way to Timbuctoo

The goal on our most recent trip was an exotic sounding place in Yuba County, Timbuctoo. Other than an unusual name we knew little about it. We leave with the idea that we would try and find any signs of the old emigrant trail that once passed along this general direction. Other than those goals we left ourselves open to whatever the road would reveal to us on that day.

Camp Far West is a few miles east of Wheatland, a small town on the east side of the Central Valley. It was an army outpost during the emigration days in the later 1840s and early 1850s. Located just a few miles from Johnson's Ranch, which was the fabled end of the trail for many California bound travelers. Once you reached Johnson' Ranch, you’d made it! We wanted to try and follow as much of the old trail as we could, as it wound its way in the general direction from near Timbuctoo. We would keep our eyes open for wagon ruts, trail signs, or any other indication we were on the right path.

Monica walks among the Graham Hotel and Truckee Trail markers. Graham’s hotel stood for many years servicing travelers over the old road. yo can see the wagon ruts headed over the hill in the background.

Monica walks among the Graham Hotel and Truckee Trail markers. Graham’s hotel stood for many years servicing travelers over the old road. yo can see the wagon ruts headed over the hill in the background.

We visited the Truckee trail "T Marker" and sign for Grahams Hotel by Lake Camp Far West. At this place, the wagon ruts can be seen headed down the hill. We would try and follow the trail back from here so we headed up Camp Far West Road which we felt would give us a view of the wagon ruts on the other side of the hill. They were easy for us to spot as we knew they were coming our way, and we've gotten better at detecting these old trails. Often they are more of an impression of a trail than an obvious path, as they have generally not been traveled on for well over 15 years. Sometimes erosion wears the track into more of a gully, and other times the ruts are still quite visible. The ones coming over the hill here are in between easy to see and hard. More of a swale than a path actually, but quite obvious when we know the trail came over the hill this direction.

You can see, though very faint, the two tracks headed from the hill in the back, towards the hill directly in front. These tracks were made by thousands of metal rimed wooden wheels carrying emigrant and others wagons. Camp Far West Reservoir is just over that ridge.

You can see, though very faint, the two tracks headed from the hill in the back, towards the hill directly in front. These tracks were made by thousands of metal rimed wooden wheels carrying emigrant and others wagons. Camp Far West Reservoir is just over that ridge.

Now we headed up Camp Far West Road towards a name on the map, Waldo. Waldo was known initially as Cabbage Patch, named for the cabbages that were grown to sell to travelers. We had read that Waldo or Cabbage Patch was a way-point along the old wagon road. We found out after the trip there is even a Cabbage Patch Cemetery, which we will try and find on our next trip.

I wonder what’s down that road?

I wonder what’s down that road?

At Waldo, we decided to take a side trip, which is something we do all the time. Our destination is more of a hope than written in stone. If we don't make it because something else has come up, that's OK. The secret to finding these old sites and what they hold is a willingness to change plans during the adventure. We decided to check out another name on the map, Spenceville, located down that road.

Our first inkling that Spenceville held more surprises for us, a abandoned bridge going from where to where? It wasn’t the only bridge we happened upon.

Our first inkling that Spenceville held more surprises for us, a abandoned bridge going from where to where? It wasn’t the only bridge we happened upon.

In my next post we’ll discuss Spenceville and the finds we made there!

We're on our way to Timbuctoo!

In 1850 Timbuctoo, like most Gold Rush towns, built itself from the wealth generated by gold panning. It is located on a bluff above The Yuba River, close to the gold bearing sand bars, but high enough to avoid flooding. Once the easy gold was panned out, they moved on to hydraulic mining of the bluffs around 1854. It's through this method of extraction that Timbuctoo gained its fabulous wealth.

Hydraulic mining in Timbuctoo.

Hydraulic mining in Timbuctoo.

As the town grew, it built a theater that could house 800 people, a bank, bakery, hotels, even an ice skating rink! The wealth continued to flow until 1884 when downstream farmers sued to end all hydraulic mining in the state. The hydraulic mining was causing massive amounts of sediment to move downstream causing flooding and a loss of agricultural land. It was also making riverboat travel difficult as sandbars would form and re-form making navigation tricky. The District Court in San Francisco agreed and shut down all hydraulic mining. Timbuctoo was doomed!

Timbuctoo in 1862. The stage is passing in front of Stewart’s Wells Fargo Store.

Timbuctoo in 1862. The stage is passing in front of Stewart’s Wells Fargo Store.

The court ruling putting an end to hydraulic mining caused Timbuctoo to decline as miners their families and the businesses that grew up to support them moved away. Soon there was very little left of the town. During the 20th Century, there was an effort to preserve what little was left. Stewart's Wells Fargo Store was the most robust of what was still standing. The remaining townspeople had it preserved with a new roof and commemorative signs.

The preserved Stewart’s Store in 1945.

The preserved Stewart’s Store in 1945.

During the early part of the 20th Century, Timbuctoo enjoyed something of a revival as a historic stop on the road. It became quite popular with people looking for the story of California's history. Before 1980 the main road passed through town, thus making it much easier for people to stop and check it out. When Highway 20 was re-aligned in the 1980s, it bypassed Timbuctoo, and like so many other Gold Rush communities that have had the main road realigned away from town, it faded away.

Stewart’s Store today.

Stewart’s Store today.

Soon the impetus that had driven the people to try and save the remaining structure(s) also died, and rumors of gold in the walls of the old building brought vandals, and they tore the old structure down. Now there are no standing structures from the early days, just a crumbling mass of bricks. You have to see the old photos and drawings of the town to get a feel for how wealthy and busy Timbuctoo was.

Monica checking out the old bridge crossing of The Yuba River.

Monica checking out the old bridge crossing of The Yuba River.

There is so much to explore near Timbuctoo. The road coming in from the west passes over the Yuba River, where you can see the support of the old bridge that crossed the river. The Town of Samrtsville is just a mile or so from Timbuctoo and has a great story of its own. Is it spelled with a "s" or not, Smartville? A little further lies Rough and Ready, a town that also built itself from gold, as well as it's spot on the old Emigrant Trail to Johnson's Ranch in Wheatland.

Timbuctoo in the 1860’s and the exact same spot today, 2018.

Timbuctoo in the 1860’s and the exact same spot today, 2018.

Here is a short video, less than 5 minutes, concerning our adventure at Timbuctoo.

Headed back to Wheatland

Last week we took a trip to Wheatland to see the site of Johnson's Ranch, the fabled end of the Overland Emigrant Trail. The emigrants headed to California in those days mentioned Johnson's as their goal. Once there you either settled the area or headed out to start your life somewhere else anew. I knew of a state historical marker in the town square that tells of Johnson's Ranch. Here we see Monica checking it out. We assumed this was the site of the adobe and other buildings that made up this outpost.

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A few miles from Wheatland is Camp Far West Reservoir, a favorite place in summer for recreation, but in fall just about deserted. We had come here to see a "T" marker showing the old route. We had seen this before and were trying to understand the trail's direction better. Following Spenceville Road towards Camp Far West reservoir, we passed this sign, a few miles east of Wheatland. It reads, "Approximately one and 1/4 miles east of this spot is the historic Johnson's Crossing..." Now we had just driven east 3 miles from Wheatland. How could Johnsons' Crossing be east of here when we read the sign in the town square that indicated it was there? If the sign is correct, Johnson's crossing was east of the Bear River. So which sign was correct? We were also a bit confused by the sign in town which mentions "Johnson's Ranch" and this latest marker that mentions "Johnson's crossing." What was Johnson's crossing?

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Once at the reservoir, we spotted the "T" Marker, which indicates the direction of travel for the emigrants. The trail came down the hill and then crossed what is now an arm of water from the reservoir. We assumed the trail made a bee-line west towards Wheatland. If that's the case why did the sign on Spenceville Road indicate the "crossing" was east, somewhere below the "T" Marker? We were confused but enjoying the day of exploration. We would have to do some more research to figure out just where this Johnson's Ranch was.

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At our local used bookstore, I just happened on a small book titled "The Donner Rescue Party Rescue Site, Johnson’s Ranch on Bear River," by Jack and Richard Steed. The author and his son, amateur historians like us, had also been perplexed by the actual site of Johnson's Ranch adobe. Johnson's Ranch was the place that the survivors of the Donner/ Reed Party of stranded emigrants was brought too after their rescue in The High Sierra. The book is quite fascinating and the only one we could find on Johnson's Ranch. According to the authors, the site of the adobe was lost to time until their research which placed it along the north side of the Bear River, just 1.5 miles from the town square with the historical marker. We now know that the sign in the square is merely relating that the spot it's placed was part of the 22,000-acre ranch. Not necessarily the site of the adobe home.

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We will be heading back to the Wheatland area to continue our search for these historical places. We have found that sometimes the "official" version of events and locations can be incorrect. It's not often these are wrong, but enough that additional research is needed. It's after this research that the pieces sometimes come into better view. That's when we know we have found something exciting, and worth checking out again. Wheatland is one such place. The fabled "end of the trail."



Rattlesnake Bar Bridge site

Wanting to keep our trip closer to home this time we took a quick ride to Folsom Lake. We wanted to see the site of the old Rattlesnake Bar Bridge, which once forded the north fork of The American River, long before Folsom Dam. When the lake is filling or filled this area is flooded and by at least 50 feet of water. The lake had left lines in the sides of the hills, and old signs of hydraulic mining along with tailings added to the weird, but beautiful landscape.

Folsom Lake at low levels, Rattlesnake Bar.

Folsom Lake at low levels, Rattlesnake Bar.

We rounded a corner to see the pilings for the bridge fully exposed! We knew what they looked like from earlier photos taken during our last drought, but it's fun to see them in person. It reminds us that before Folsom Lake, there were quite a few active communities located in the ravines and channels that would become the reservoir. Rattlesnake Bar was one such place, a town that grew because of gold, burned down, then built again just a little way up the hill. We had heard that Rattlesnake Bar was on the El Dorado County side, but this map from 1873 shows Rattlesnake Bar on the Placer County side. You can also see the bridge crossing the narrow north fork Channel, as well as a place called Wild Goose on The El Dorado County side. Another map from 1910, The American River Canal Map also shows Rattlesnake Bar on the Placer County side.

1873 map of The Georgetown Divide

1873 map of The Georgetown Divide

While gold was the main impetus for the creation of Rattlesnake Bar in the 1850s, the bridge was completed to facilitate transportation of both agricultural products as well as quicklime from the Alabaster Cave Quarry on El Dorado County side. It was a William Gwyn, discoverer of the famous Alabaster Caves, or at that time called Coral Caves, who built the first bridge in 1863. This cave was the result of a search for lime to use in the lime kiln nearby. Quicklime was created and then transported across this bridge. Soon the Alabaster Cave became a tourist attraction, and the bridge helped interested people get there more easily. You could take the train from Sacramento to Auburn, and then a stage to the bridge, where you would cross to the El Dorado side and the extraordinary Alabaster Cave. We will talk about this then famous cave in a later post.

Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 25, Number 3835, 7 July 1863

Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 25, Number 3835, 7 July 1863

The original wooden bridge, built in 1862, was replaced with a wire suspension bridge that lasted until it collapsed in 1954 under the weight of an overloaded truck. Folsom Dam was under construction, and this area would soon be underwater, so the bridge was not replaced. Thus ended just under 100 years of that crossing having a bridge.

Rattlesnake Bar Bridge, 1860 or 1870’s. Notice the young child just to the left of the man standing.

Rattlesnake Bar Bridge, 1860 or 1870’s. Notice the young child just to the left of the man standing.

The same spot today with the bridge pilings clearly visible.

The same spot today with the bridge pilings clearly visible.

Here is a short video concerning our trip to the bridge site.

A lost section of Highway 40 at Eagle Lakes Road.

Monday took us to the high country for one last chance to enjoy it before the first snow of the season, maybe on Thursday. Monica and I had On Yesterday, Monday, we had intended to visit Yesterday, Monday, we had intended to visit Prosser Reservoir, just north of Truckee, to follow the old Emigrant Trail. We never made it! We usually pick some destination as a goal, but if we find something else along the way that interests us, we will change plans, and that's what happened Monday.

Eagle Lakes exit on the eastbound lanes of Interstate 80.

Eagle Lakes exit on the eastbound lanes of Interstate 80.

On the way, we had decided to visit Eagle Lakes Road, just of Highway 80. If you turn right after exiting the freeway, you have access to the original Lincoln Highway. There is a T marker there indicating it was also the Truckee Trail Emigrant route. We had made that visit a couple of weeks ago but now wanted to turn left and cross under the freeway as we had seen some homes there, between the two expressways. The area is so narrow and surrounded by cliffs that Interstate 80 has two routes over this place. One is the eastbound lanes and the other the westbound lanes, separated by about a quarter mile. Between these two expressways, the south fork of The Yuba River passes, with a few cabins built along the river. Just as we were passing across the river, we noticed another road, which I assumed to be a lost section of Highway 40, the highway that predated Interstate 80.

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Highway 40 was built in 1926 and operated as an Interstate highway system until the present Interstate 80 was constructed in 1956. Highway 40, in many cases, followed the old Lincoln Highway, which was America’s first transcontinental automobile road. In this area of The Sierras Highway 40 followed the Yuba River, while The Lincoln Highway and the emigrant trail avoided the steep, narrow canyon and followed a route on a ridge top.

On this map you can see the amazing number of trail and routes through this narrow gap in the mountains. The red line is the lost section of Highway 40 we walked. The blue line in the Emigrant Trail and the original alignment of The Lincoln Highway. The yellow line is The Union Pacific Railway, and the white lines are the two sections, eastbound and westbound of Interstate 80. What’s no shown is the oil pipeline and cable lines that also transverse this spot. Amazing place!

On this map you can see the amazing number of trail and routes through this narrow gap in the mountains. The red line is the lost section of Highway 40 we walked. The blue line in the Emigrant Trail and the original alignment of The Lincoln Highway. The yellow line is The Union Pacific Railway, and the white lines are the two sections, eastbound and westbound of Interstate 80. What’s no shown is the oil pipeline and cable lines that also transverse this spot. Amazing place!

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Once we left the car and started walking down the old roadbed, we were greeted by this fantastic rock retaining wall. They had to do this as there was no other way to support a road in this narrow canyon. It appears that after highway 40 the people who built Highway 80 decided to split the expressway and avoid this tight place. The old roadbed runs about a quarter mile to an old bridge crossing which has had the bridge removed. The remains of the bridge were used to make a retaining wall for the new Interstate 80.

Old site of Highway 40 bridge, with present day Interstate 80 bridge, westbound lanes behind.

Old site of Highway 40 bridge, with present day Interstate 80 bridge, westbound lanes behind.

What a fantastic find for us. I imagine very few people have seen this as most are speeding by on Interstate 80, and there are no services at The Eagle Lakes exit. It's fun to explore these old sections of road as you can hear the present travelers speeding by on the Interstate, oblivious to the history around them. This spot is an example of why we "slow down and take the road less traveled".

Here is a short video of our Eagle Lake Roads adventure.

Searching for the Emigrant Trail, Mt. Olive Road, Nevada County

Monica and I spent Monday at Yuba Gap, in the high country of The Sierra, looking for the old "Overland Emigrant Trail." While we didn't find any "T markers," we did spot a stone obelisk on Laing Road. You wouldn't know what this thing was unless, like us, you had seen them before with their sign attached, as this one in Bear Valley does. I'm not sure whether these signs are being stolen, or fall off, but we have come across more of these markers without their signs than with them.

Concrete marker with sign

Concrete marker with sign

The next day, Tuesday we stayed a bit closer to home and tried to locate the trail in the foothills above Grass Valley. We had read the descriptions of how the path followed Lowell Ridge before dropping down towards Chicago Park area. The name Mount Olive stood out from our research so when we found the road we drove it! Coming down Mt Olive Road, it makes a sharp right-hand turn, and that's when Monica saw the "T marker." We are on the trail!

Monica and T Marker for Mt. Olive

Monica and T Marker for Mt. Olive

Something looked different about this marker. It seemed it faced in an odd direction, east. Hard to read. There was also a large pile of gravel in front of it. We took some pictures and proceeded down Mt. Olive Road looking for more signs of the trail. Once at home we opened up Emigrant Trails West webpage, looked up the Truckee Trail, and the picture of this particular T marker was there! However, a house has been built right on the trail. I have put two pictures up, one from the Trails West webpage, and our photo from Tuesday. This house is entirely new, as it also does not show up on Google Maps.

Photo from Trails West webpage.

Photo from Trails West webpage.

Our day was complete, as we found another section of the trail. What's worrying though is the rapid pace of development going on in the foothills of The Sierra. It's quite a desirable place to live, and we saw many new homes popping up here and there. Our concern, as history buffs, is what will people do with these old places and trails. Some don't even know what they are building on, or in some cases, don't care. How can we preserve these beautiful pieces of history, without denying people their private property rights? As fan's of the trails, it's a bit of a shame to see them paved over and in some cases forgotten.

The same spot as above but now with a house.

The same spot as above but now with a house.

Donner Camp Historic Park

Situated along Highway 89, just north of the town of Truckee, along Alder Creek is the Donner Camp Historic Site., where the Donner Family set up camp during that fateful winter of 1846-47. Monica, and I had visited The Donner Memorial State Park located along the shore of Donner Lake. It recounts the stories of the Murphy, Breen, Reed, and other families that spent that winter huddled in their primitive shelters. What we didn't realize until we started to research the event was The Donner Family had broken an axle on their wagon and had to stop for repairs at Alder Creek when the snow started falling, and they had to make camp there. While there were some visits between the two camps by various members of the party, they mostly had to ride the winter out separated.

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It was a beautiful day in early August when we visited the site. I had watched a documentary on some archaeologist that had recently visited this site and dug around what was called The Donner Tree. This tree, now a dead stump, acted as support for the families attempt to build a structure out of branches, animal hides, and the tree. It was in this crude structure the families rode out the winter. There is a memorial plaque attached to a rock next to the tree.

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We walked the interpretative trail for a bit, but our natural wanderlust pulled us away as we tried to follow the Overland Emigrant Trail that passes through the camp. There are markers and signs from various periods attached to trees guiding one in the direction of the trail. Unlike the marked and well walked interpretative trails, the actual Overland Emigrant Trail is overgrown and in many cases quite hard to find. We did manage to follow the markers to a place above the hill but then lost the trail. However, a little further down, towards Prosser reservoir, we found an old stone obelisk, which we knew from experience held a sign indicating the trail. We feel pretty confident we found the path down to the reservoir, which at the time of was called Prosser Creek.

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If you're into Mountain Biking, like we are, there is a great single track ride called, The Commemorative Emigrant Trail", which "roughly" follows the original trail from the camp, past Prosser Reservoir, all the way to Stampede Reservoir, a fourteen-mile trip. We rode a portion of it from The Camp to Prosser Reservoir, a smooth ride. Someday next year we plan on riding out further, though 28 miles round trip might be a bit much. The bikes were very helpful in getting us to places inaccessible by car. The sheer beauty of this place in the eastern Sierra makes it well worth visiting, and when you add the historical context it becomes a must visit for anyone interested in early 19th Century California, the Emigrant Trails and the story of the Donner Family. The descendants of the Donner’s planted a commemorative pine tree near The Donner Tree after it died in the 1990's. You will see a memorial marker nearby. Donner Camp Historic site is a place of quiet beauty and respect for the hardships the emigrants faced on their trek westward.

Here is a short, less than five minute video of our exploration of the area.