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!

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.


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?


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.


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.


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."

Verdi, travelling through history

Recently Monica and I visited Verdi, Nevada, looking for the east end of The Lincoln Highway in California. The Lincoln Highway was America's first transcontinental road, running from New York and ending at Lands End, San Francisco. Construction began in 1913 and tied together various roads and pathways into one traversable route. Before that, if you wanted to cross the country, you were on your own.


Here in California, there were two routes over The Sierra. One traveled from Reno through South Lake Tahoe and down the present Highway 50, while the other passed north of Tahoe through Truckee and down roughly where the present day Highway 80 runs. Eventually, the Lincoln Highway was taken over by more modern numbered highways, and soon many sections of the old road were abandoned.

It’s these old sections of road that appeal to us. Often they pass through places that were once centers of activity, and now are bypassed and forgotten. Verdi Nevada is one such place. It’s where the Lincoln Highway leaves California and enters Nevada at the Von Schmidt Borderline on Dog Valley Road.

Most people driving on Interstate 80 quickly pass through Verdi on the way to Reno, just a few miles away. Those of us interested in California history feel the pull of this old town and its history. A place that was for over 70 years was a center of traveling activity, with The Central Pacific Railroad passing through, as well as The Truckee route of the famous Overland Emigrant Trail, and of course The Lincoln Highway and the later Highway 40. Once Interstate 80 was built by the old town in the 1950's it's fate for the next 70 + years was sealed. The city seems to be growing again, with transplants fleeing the higher living prices in California.

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We arrived in at Vedi, Nevada in October to find the mountains and landscape awash in color. Having grown hungry, we found a picnic table at Crystal Peak Park right on The Truckee River. Turns out that right across from the table was a Trails West "T" Marker! We were picnicking on the old Truckee Trails famous 27th crossing! Right in front of us 170 years prior the first emigrants traveling across the country passed this way. The Donner-Murphy party, as well as thousands of others, made the last crossing of the river right here. Talk about a history buffs dream picnic table!

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A couple of miles from Crystal Peak Park we found the California Nevada borderline on the old Henness Pass trail. Now known as Dog Valley Road, at one time it was teeming with thousands of travelers headed to a new life in California, or a few years later headed from California into Nevada for the great Silver rush of the Comstock Mines. Now it's a lonely spot missed by most people. Our kind of place!

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The Von Schmidt borderline is a fascinating place. California and Nevada had been going back and forth about where the actual border between the states was. In 1872 a San Francisco civil engineer named Allexey W. Von Schmidt was retained to find the boundary and mark it with metal obelisks, one-mile apart. The project was never completed as Von Schmidt ran out of funds and the state wouldn't cough up any more. Here is a link to more info concerning The Von Schmidt Borderline. If you read the article link some photos look to be taken not that long ago showing the obelisk behind a chain link fence, having been rammed by a pickup truck. Not sure when it was done, but the new protective barrier and cage are very well done. Someone has taken the time to put this very historic spot back into shape. Now it can remind others just how important this place was.

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We headed up Dog Valley Road a bit, but it's so bumpy, and our time was running short, that we decided to turn around before the summit and head back down to the borderline. Keep your eyes open as we spotted a Trails West "T" Marker which can be found on our map. Both Monica and I have great fun trying to spot these "T" markers, as they are generally right on the old trails, which often don't run right where the present day road is. Great fun is reading the quotes printed on the signs, generally from a traveler passing this way over 150 years ago.


Be sure to check out the "center" of the old Verdi. The Verdi Historic Museum is there and bit the first generation, and later incarnations of the Lincoln Highway pass through here. The first person to cross the country by Motorcycle, George Wayman, traveled here in 1906 on his way from San Francisco to New York. They have a sign there commemorating the feat.

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We will be going back to Verdi one of these days. There is so much to explore there, and we want to drive from Verdi up and over Henness Pass to Truckee on the old road so we can complete our ongoing history map showing the route of The Lincoln from Auburn to Verdi and The Von Schmidt Borderline.