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Gliding Through the Gold Country
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Gliding Through the Gold Country

Original Article and Photographs by Kenneth A. Larson © 2007 - 2017

Day One, Thanksgiving Day

We had resolved to leave early, about five, but it was seven before we got off. A month earlier when we traveled this way, we had unexpectedly encountered a terrible traffic tie-up south of Santa Clarita because of a tragic multi-truck fire. Today we encountered traffic north of Castaic caused by a smaller accident. It was Thanksgiving morning and it was clear and bright and there were no other incidents as we drove north from Los Angeles along Interstate 5 and then Highway 99. We were heading north to the Gold County, a region approximately encompassing the western side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains from north of Lake Tahoe to South of Yosemite National Park. Highway 49 runs the entire length through or near countless towns, villages, historic sites and parks, old mines, buildings and equipment. We had visited that small area around Angels Camp twice before, but this is only about 5% of what there is to see. We were attempting to get an overview of the entire region in four days - an impossible task.
We exited at Pond Road for a short side trip and drove west about ten miles to Highway 43, then north to Palmer Avenue. We crossed over the railroad tracks into Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park. I had visited several times before and just wanted so see if anything had changed. Allensworth was the first Afro-American farming community in California, founded about 1908, but for reasons not their own, it was not successful and the dream faded. A hand full of people still live in the community on the south side of the State Historic Park. The Park consists of a number of restored buildings, good interpretive signs, a Visitor Center, and camp ground. We drove through slowly, taking a few photographs and updating my map. Although it all looked the same, I found some new views.
We couldn't stay long at Allensworth and were soon on our way back to Highway 99 north. Our next stop was a small two exhibit aircraft display/war memorial off Exit 83(Avenue 200) at Mefford Field. We almost missed the exit but within seconds were parked between the B17 and F4. I walked around these two fenced in aircraft for a few minutes trying to squeeze a few shots in between the bars. This is a tribute to the Men of the 379 Bomb Group (Heave). My wife took over driving at this point and we continued north on Highway 99.
We stopped for gas in Fresno and then crossed into Madera County. Madera County claims the honor of being the center of California and marks the point where Highway 99 crosses the imaginary line between north and south with a palm tree on the south side and pine tree on the north side along the highway's center divider. Well, there used to be a pine tree. I had heard that the pine tree had blown over a year or so earlier and sure enough, it's now a palm tree and a stump. Twenty minutes later we turned west on Highway 152. This highway continues west to the coast passing through Gilroy and last month we used the section west from Interstate 5 to Gilroy to visit Gilroy Gardens, but today we used the section east of I-5 and exited onto I-5 and continued north to Santa Nella.
Santa Nella is home to one of the two remaining Pea Soup Andersen's Restaurants of what was once a chain of four or five. We enjoyed a nice lunch and bought four more soup mugs. We always buy a few mugs when we stop, but use them so often (and break them), we've never had too many at one time. We continued north on I-5 driving through agricultural lands and watching the California Aqueduct snake up the valley to the south. There is the occasional pumping station and at one point an overlook. We followed I-5 through Stockton and from the highway we could see the ocean going ships in the farthest inland seaport on the west coast. The harbor is also the largest inland seaport and the third largest seaport on the west coast. We hope to visit Stockton another time. There is a large water tower in Sacramento that I wanted to photograph, but it was so late and getting dark by the time we reached Sacramento, I skipped it. We got on Highway 80 east and drove on into the night finally reaching our motel in Grass Valley about 6:30. We enjoyed a picnic Thanksgiving dinner in our room and drifted off to sleep.

Day Two, the Day After Thanksgiving

In the six years that Joy and I have been together, it's been a tradition with us to go to the J. C. Penney After Thanksgiving Sale for a gift snow globe. We were worried that Grass Valley would be too rural to find a Penney store. We were delighted to find a store just a few miles from our motel and added the 2007 snow globe to our collection. Joy got a sweater and was happy. We returned to our motel for continental breakfast and headed for the Grass Valley Historic District.
The Visitor Center wouldn't open for another hour, but a walking tour guide was available outside the door, so we began our Grass Valley Historical Walking Tour while most of the town was still getting up and the sun was still low. The guide listed 47 historic buildings in the Historic District, mostly along Mill Street and Main Street. It was about a mile in length, mostly level, and ended about two blocks from the starting point. Mill Street and Main street are lined with dozens of historic buildings, other adjacent streets also had a scattering of historic buildings or sites of former buildings such as the China Town where the Holiday Inn now sits. There are several churches along Church Street, what a coincidence. By the time we returned, the Visitor Center was open and we had a better understanding of Grass Valley, once the largest city in California. The woman at the Visitor Center filled in answers to our questions and gave us directions to Empire Mine State Historic Park.
We found Empire Mine State Historic Park easily enough, but were overwhelmed by the size and depth of the site. We only had an hour, but could have used two or three. A docent showed us the main mine shaft that extended almost two miles at an approximate average angle of thirty degrees ending up about one vertical mile below the surface. He explained about pumping water out of the mine which was a big challenge for most hard rock mining. It is impractical to make pumps that can pump water a mile high, so there were intermediate reservoirs so the pumps had to pump a shorter distance in relay. Of course it took several pumps and reservoirs to get the water all the way to the top. Today, since the mine is no longer active, the water level is about 150 feet below the surface which means that most of the mine is now under water. There were several other buildings including the machine shop/carpentry shop where a docent demonstrated how the leather belts turned the machinery, black smith shop where a docent made wrought iron candy canes for the holidays, Visitor Center/Museum, gardens, and the beautiful Empire Cottage. We hope to return and stay longer in the future.
Normal checked out time at the motel is 11:00, but they gave us an extra hour and we just made the noon check out. We headed north on Highway 49 past Nevada City which we hoped to visit later but didn't expect to have time.
The turn from Highway 49 onto Tyler-Foote Road (which I think became Backbone somewhere along the way) to Malakoff Diggings State Historic Park was marked well enough, but then where we should have turned right, there was no indication. We continued straight for several miles. Someone told us there was a dirt road, so when we reached dirt, we kept going, encountering more unmarked forks in the road until we turned around fearing we would get lost. Finally we stumbled onto the right road turning (right if coming from the correct direction) onto Berbec and right onto N. Bloomfield Road where there was a sign, and found the site.
The Malakoff Diggings was more of a washing than a digging as it was one of the largest hydraulic mines in the state using high pressure and volume water, shot from monitors, to wash away the hillsides. The debris was run through a series of sluice boxes to leave the heavier gold behind. The town of Malakoff is one of the smallest I've ever seen. Just a few buildings on a block or two. The town is so remote, there is almost no through traffic and few visitors that day. There was a museum but it's closed in winter as were most of the other shops. A few pieces of hydraulic mining equipment were exhibited about the main street. We drove on a short distance to a spot where the aftermath of the mining could be seen. But after over a century of healing, the land was recovering and trees blocked most of the views of the distant cliffs. We drove a little further to where a tunnel exits the valley to allow the water to run off. This tunnel was lined with the sluice boxes. We were a bit disappointed that there wasn't more to see after expending so much effort to get there and we headed back to Highway 49.
We returned to Highway 49 and continued north to Downieville. I saw a sign for Bridgeport Covered Bridge but didn't see how far off the road it was. After traveling what seemed like five miles on Pleasant Valley Road, we gave up and turned around. Only when we got back to the main road did we see the distance given at seven miles. The world's first long distance telephone line was also four miles down Pleasant Valley Road, but we didn't see that either. We did take a photo of an old Wells Fargo & Co. Express building along the way. I observed many similar building throughout this trip. We hope to find the bridge next time.
It was 3:30 when we reached Downieville and were disappointed to see the museum closed. It was supposed to stay open to 4:00, but maybe they figured no one else was coming. Downieville seems to be a nice town of about 300 people. We wandered around, found the gallows, and talked to a few nice people. Downieville was never a violent town, but does hold the distinction of being the first town in California to hang a woman, although it's still debated wether it was self defense. Downieville lies at the bottom of a narrow valley with steep sides. Main Street runs parallel to the North Yuba River about 100 feet away. Two bridges cross the river, one continues Highway 49 north, the other is Courthouse Bridge which leads to the Civic Center where the gallows are.
It was about 4:00 when we headed back and it was dark by the time we reached Nevada City, a planned stop but now there wasn't time. We drove through town to get a feel for it and vowed to return some other day. It was about an hour of twisting roads in the dark to reach our next night's accommodations in Georgetown. Low on gas, we were relieved when we stopped for directions and were told we had arrived and gas was a block further on.
We stayed at American River Inn, a very nice Bed and Breakfast in the small town of Georgetown. The building is historic and beautifully furnished and was decorated for the Holidays. Joy and I are more Best Western type people and felt a little like we were staying with relative we didn't know, but the next morning we met a couple who had stayed several times before and obviously enjoy the place. We were so late arriving, we missed the wine and cheese hour so we settled in and went to dinner at a stereotypical bar and restaurant a block away with great food. We returned to our room and settled off to sleep in a bed so high, the inn provides stools to help guests climb up on top.

Day Three, Oops, I Lost Somethin'

The next morning we awoke early and quietly got ready. About 7:30, half hour before breakfast, we headed out to see the town of Georgetown. We were told that the town is two blocks long, but this exaggerates the smallness a little. We wandered about four or five blocks before returning, observing several old and historic buildings in Georgetown. We enjoyed our wonderful breakfast and visited with a couple from the east Bay Area who were repeat guests to the inn. We then packed up and checked out and returned part way the way we came in the dark last night.
It was now daylight and we wanted to see the highest bridge in California, the Forest Hills Bridge on Forest Hills Road, not far off of Highway 80 just east of Auburn. The bridge is 730 feet high and spans a valley. I photographed the bridge from below, then drove across it from above. We turned around and returned back south on Highway 49 through Cool and on to Coloma. Along the way, I occasionally stopped to photograph old building or other point of interest, such as California's First Grange also known as the Bayley House.
Coloma is the town that grew out of Sutter's Mill and the discovery of gold that set off the great Gold Rush in 1848. California was a newly created state and the US wanted Americans to move to the new state to solidify our possession. The discovery of gold touched off the greatest migration of people in history as people from all over the world came seeking fortune. We entered Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park and parked near a Mormon cabin where a docent gave an informative living history. A few steps away is a reproduction of Sutter's Mill. Adjacent is a long narrow building sheltering timbers from the original mill recovered by Archaeologists a few years earlier. We walked down to the South Fork of the American River and pretended to look for gold ourselves. From here, we walked to the Visitor Center which has several exhibits and offers several films on the history of the site and then through an outdoor display of mining equipment and two small buildings, one on mining and one on the Chinese contribution. We stopped at our car and then walked on to the site of the original mill, marked by a stone wall and marker and a hundred or so feet further to the site of the actual gold discovery, what was once the mill race and now looking like a flooded trench.
We next wandered back across the highway to a Nisenan Indian grinding rock where we learned of the damage to the Nisenan society when gold was discovered. We passed an almost completed building which looks to be a new wagon shed, then on to the ruins of the jail. Signs posted it as unsafe so we were careful as we studied it. A few hundred feet on is the American River Nature Center with exhibits of local wildlife. We then across the highway again and walked back toward our car observing the historic buildings or reading signs about the sites of historic buildings now gone. Once back at the car, we drove on to Saint John's Catholic Church and Emmanuel Church, James Marshall's cabin, and the Marshall Monument. Overall, we wandered the park for three relaxing hours, a contrast to the tight schedule we attempted the day before. As we drove away, I realized my glasses had fallen out of my pocket sometime during our visit, so I reported them to the Visitor Center and made-do for the rest of the trip with sunglasses and an old pair of indoor glasses that I keep in the car.
It took about half an hour to reach Placerville at the intersection of Highway 49 and US 50. We spent an hour and a half on Main Street of Placerville, visiting shops, Joy had a coffee and I a hot chocolate, looked around the oldest hardware store in the state, and we visited Fountain Tallman Museum which calls itself "The Biggest Little Museum in the West." In honor of the holiday weekend, there was music, stage coach rides, and decorations. We had to pass up several museums and points of interest in Placerville and continued south, hoping to stay longer next time.
Somewhere a few miles north of Amador City, the highway road signs stopped and the signs listing distances to the next town stopped listing Jackson. We drove a few miles not sure if we were still on the road to Jackson. Finally we saw a sign identifying Highway 49, but within a half mile reached an intersection where none of the signs mentioned Highway 49. I felt we should turn left but continued straight because it seemed logical. A quarter mile later, the road ended. So we turned around and turned the way I felt we should have and found a Highway 49 sign. We had a lot of trouble with unmarked intersections that must confuse other travelers as well.
It had just gotten dark when we found our motel in Jackson, checked in, and left for Mexican dinner at Jose's. Joy used the motels complimentary computer to do some homework and I worked on this article, then we fell quickly to sleep.

Day Four, The Journey Home

We attended Mass at Saint Patrick Church in the Historic District of Jackson in Amador County and wandered the Historic District for a half hour after. I had a short conversation with a man busy restoring the brick above a round top window on one old building. The Amador County Museum wouldn't open for another hour, so we noted a few outdoor exhibits and had to skip the inside. We backtracked a little to Sutter Creek which we didn't have time for the night before, stopping along the way to photograph Argonaut and Kennedy Mines. It was early and not much was open, but we walked up and down Sutter Creek's main street for about a half hour. There were two memorable things. First was a small store that was somehow cantilevered out over the river with nothing holding it up except some angle braces to the wall of the river cut and the adjacent store. I wondered if the rent was lower since it wasn't actually occupying any ground. The other thing my wife will remember were two large and vicious dogs in cages in the back of a parked truck. The General Store Museum, off on a side street, offers a glimpse of an old time general store. I don't think it ever opens, just look through the windows.
We returned to Jackson, packed and checked out, and continued south on Highway 49. We passed through San Andreas which we had visited a few years earlier, then seeing the Calaveras County Museum, and stopped for a quick photograph of the Thorn Mansion, a large brick building. We next made a quick stop in Angels Camp which we had visited twice a few years earlier and then continued south, once again on unfamiliar Highway 49. We entered Tuolumne County on a bridge over New Melones Lake, a reservoir where there was once a ferry crossing. Every few miles along Highway 49 there is a marker for some historic site or event. The next marker was for Mark Twain's Cabin which lured us up a narrow road. The cabin is surrounded by a fence and can only be seen from outside.
Just pass Tuttletown we followed the signs to Jamestown a short distance before I realized it was a short cut bypassing Columbia State Historic Park which we wanted to see so we turned around. We were running so far behind schedule that we ran though Columbia and continued south. Columbia closes the streets to the Historic district regularly and the whole place is both touristy and authentic looking. There were stagecoach rides, singing, shops, and museums. We definitely added it to the "next time" list.
We continued along Highway 49 Alt. through Sonora, "Queen of the Southern Gold Towns", another picturesque gold town we couldn't stop for and on to Jamestown with Railtown 1897. Railtown offers tours (10-2) and train rides (11-3) every hour. We were way behind schedule and were moving fast now (with cruise control locked to the speed limit) and gave Railtown a quick glance and hurried on adding it too to the "next time" list. We drove through the Historic Main Street of Jamestown and rejoined Highway 49.
Highway 108 merged with Highway 49 Alt. at Sonora and continues west to Jamestown, where Highway 49 / 108 continues and short distance, then Highway 49 continues south and Highway 108, and us, continued west. Highway 49 continues south to Oakhurst where it ends at Highway 41 to Yosemite Valley. We had passed through Oakhurst last spring on the way to Yosemite but we had run out of time for this trip and now had to head west along Highway 108 which seemed fastest.
We now followed Highway 108 west toward Modesto and Highway 99, but we made one last stop along the way. At Knights Ferry, we exited Highway 108 at Kennedy Road and turned right at Shuper Road, and visited Knights Ferry State Historic Park which included Mill ruins and the longest covered bridge in California. Joy rested in the car while I took about a half hour to wander the site and cross the bridge. Vehicular traffic over the bridge is no longer allowed, so access the park by Sonora Road (and a new bridge), next right after Shuper Road.
From here we continued home along 108, 99, I-5 back to LA. As we feared, we hit traffic coming back into town at the end of this Thanksgiving weekend, but not as much as expected. We were disappointed when a rest stop was closed, I played Good Samaritan to someone needing jumper cables, it was well after dark as I drove with my sun glasses on (remember I lost my regular glasses at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park), and we were later getting home than I had promised Joy for which she was not joyous. The most important thing we learned was there is too much in the Gold Country to see in a 4-day weekend. It is likely it will take many more long weekends to see it all again, in small pieces.
One final note about those lost glasses. I found them in my mail box a week later. So to whomever turned them in to the Visitor Center, my sincerest thanks, and to the Visitor Center staff, I thank you too.

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This page last updated: Friday, 28-Apr-2017 12:54:23 EDT

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