(More) Best Sierra History Books!

After our recent round-up of Sierra history books (you can find it here), we realized we’d left off a number of our own favorites — and we’ve also gotten some more great suggestions from readers!

So check out this additional list for more fascinating Sierra history reads — and be sure to let us know if you have a favorite book to mention for next time!

A Road from El Dorado, by Will Bagley (ed.). The  real-life trail diary of former Mormon Battalion member Ephraim Green, this is the true, day-by-day account of the pioneering Mormons who blazed what soon became known as the Mormon-Emigrant Trail over the Sierras in 1848 as they made their way eastward from California back to Salt Lake. If you’re not familiar with Will Bagley, here’s the Wikipedia summary about him.

Frontiersman Abner Blackburn’s Narrative, by Will Bagley (ed.) Another important work by noted historian Will Bagley, this is the story of Abner Blackburn, one of the original founders of Mormon Station in 1850 (the trading post which became Genoa). Blackburn’s adventurous life included multiple trips over the Sierra and discovering gold in Gold Canyon.

William Brewer and a member of his survey party.

Such a Landscape, by William Henry Brewer. We included Brewer’s familiar Up and Down California in our earlier list, and a reader urged us to include this title as well. Such a Landscape is the story of early survey expeditions through the Sierra, including the weather they encountered, equipment they brought, and how they mapped the landscape and measured peaks, back in the day. These “aggressively healthy” adventurers made impressive climbs, in impressive time. A coffee-table-style book filled with pictures, and a great companion to some of John Muir’s writings. For the fascinating backstory on Brewer himself (did you know he’d just lost his wife and son shortly before his 1860 exploring adventures began?), here’s the Wikipedia thumbnail.

The Humboldt, by Dale L. Morgan. Two extremely knowledgeable history friends both raved about this book, and Kirkus Reviews called it “colorful, adventurous, exciting reading.” Debuting in 1943 as part of a book series called “Rivers of America,” this volume’s reach extends far beyond the Humboldt itself to include the history of Carson Valley — an early and important historical work.

The California Trail, by George R. Stewart. First published in 1964 in Great Britain, this engagingly-written narrative details America’s  cross-continent migrations from 1841 through 1859, ending with a final chapter humorously titled “End of the Trail.” Great research is layered with unusual trail lore and beautifully-executed illustrations and maps. Among the line drawings are illustrations comparing three different styles of emigrant wagons, and detailing a trick for crossing a deep river with oxen. An excellent index at the back makes this a great find for history lovers and researchers.

John A. Snowshoe Thompson: Pioneer Mail Carrier of the Sierra, by Frank Tortorich. The most recent release by one of our very favorite Sierra historians, the inimitable Frank Tortorich. This is the seminal work on the heroic “mailman of the Sierras,” John (Snowshoe) Thompson. A great read, and the most complete work we’ve seen on this legendary figure. As you may know, Frank has also written Gold Rush Trail: A Guide to the Carson River Route of the Emigrant Trail, a long-time favorite for enthusiasts eager to find — and walk — the Emigrant Trail for themselves.

Hetch Hetchy and Its Dam Railroad, by Ted Wurm. A reader kindly suggested this well-illustrated book; it’s the fascinating story of the railway built by San Francisco to support the building of the O’Shaughnessy Dam (an improvement for the city’s water supply). In operation between 1917 to 1949 (when it finally was dismantled), this 68-mile railroad not only transported goods and supplies for the dam but also brought passengers out on sleeper-car excursions to view the construction, eat at the project bunkhouse, and enjoy the forest. Great photos make this an especially fun read.

Hope you enjoy, and let us know your favorite Sierra read!

Tragedy Spring

One of our recent rambles was a visit to the historic site of Tragedy Spring. We began by heading west on Highway 88 heading west, then took the right-hand turnoff toward Tragedy Springs. (To follow the directions that follow, stop here and set your odometer.) Continue a bit farther along the Tragedy Spring loop road and when you reach odometer reading .3 mile watch for the plaque on your right, embedded in a rock wall at the bottom of a hill.

This plaque was placed by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers in 1967 — 119 years after three Mormon scouts heading east in 1848 were killed. Just below USED to be a basin with a spigot where motorists could get water for their cars or to drink. Modern health worries intervened; the basin is filled with cement and the spigot is no longer there.

This picturesque plaque bears the names of the three scouts (Henderson Cox, Ezra Allen, Daniel Browett), murdered on June 27, 1848 as they camped nearby. Cox, Allen and Browett were part of the famous Mormon Battalion that blazed the original “Mormon Emigrant Trail” across the Sierra.

Although many folks think only about westward-bound gold-seekers, the Mormon band of wagons was actually traveling from west to east, heading back to Salt Lake. They brought with them some bits of gold they had found while in California (some of the men were working at Sutter’s mill when gold was first spotted). But despite the lure of gold, these folks were simply eager to return home. They almost certainly had no idea that the trail they were hacking through the wilderness would carry vast numbers of westward-bound wagons during the Gold Rush in the coming months and years.

These stairs are a picturesque start to your climb!

Look to the left of the plaque to find the stairs, and climb the trail. Here you’ll come to four different sites:

First is another plaque part-way up the trail, set into a rock. This memorial was erected by Sons of Utah Pioneers on September 2, 1967. Beside the stone monument stands a water fountain, where once you could quench your thirst from the mountain spring (but like the spigot at the bottom, unfortunately no longer operational).

 

 

This monument was erected by the Sons of Utah Pioneers. In the left foreground is the once-welcoming drinking fountain.
The spring house.

Slightly farther ahead is a spring house protecting the spring that once fed the fountain. This natural spring is what gave the site its name, “Tragedy Spring.” Imagine the thousands of emigrants and their animals who were grateful for its waters!

       Near the spring house is yet another plaque; this one replicates text carved into a large fir tree as a “gravestone” by the dead men’s companions:
To the Memory of Daniel Browett, Ezrah H. Allen and Henderson Cox who was supposed to have been murdered and burned by Indians on the night of the 27th of June 1848.

The artistic type style used on this 1931 plaque makes it especially beautiful.

The plaque was dedicated by Native Sons and Daughters of Amador County on August 30, 1931.

Finally, beneath a sheltering tree you’ll discover the actual rocked-covered grave of the three Mormon scouts who died here in 1849 while trying to blaze the trail for their companions, who were following with wagons.

Concrete has been added in later years to bind the stones together. But these may very well be the same rocks used by the saddened Mormons to erect a protective stone “cairn” over the communal grave.

A nearby wooden sign explains:  “When members of the Mormon Battalion camped here, they noticed arrows and a newly-made mound. Upon opening it they found the mutilated bodies of their three friends. They reburied them building a [rock] cairn to protect the grave. They also found Allen’s gold pouch, filled with gold dust, and carried it to his widow in Iowa.

As the sign mentions, a pouch of gold dust was found near one of the bodies. This plus a report of finding “arrows” fueled suspicion that it was Indians who had killed the three scouts. However, some modern historians question this conclusion since the Indians in this vicinity were generally peaceful and helpful to settlers. Could it be that white explorers or trappers committed the atrocity and deliberately left arrows behind as a ruse?

Beside the sign you’ll also spot an astonishing tree. Its curved and distorted trunk likely was the result of a heavy snowfall while the tree was young.

As you head back downhill, keep your eye peeled for a picnic table tucked into a shady grove on your right — a great spot to stop for a break or to eat lunch.

Great place for a picnic lunch!

To reach Highway 88 again, continue to follow the loop road (west). Turn right at the intersection to continue west — and we’ll pick up here in the next installment of this emigrant grave adventure!

Sloughhouse Adventure

Ready for an off-the-beaten-path adventure in Gold Country?

Okay, so you’ve done Highway 49, walked the streets of Coloma, and seen Sutter’s Mill.  Ready for a little different adventure in Gold Country? Here’s a recent discovery drive we took (with so much crammed in, we’ll finish it in Part 2!)

Ever heard of Michigan Bar? Placer gold was discovered here at a bend in the Cosumnes river in 1848 by two men from . . . well, of course . . . Michigan. And they weren’t alone; Nisenan Indians were already here, in a nearby settlement they called Palamul.

With the discovery of gold, of course, life was no longer nearly as quiet. During the 1850s and ’60s Michigan Bar became a thriving town, with a population of between 1,500 and 2,000 souls. There was a school, a post office, blacksmith shop, hotel, and that all-important amenity: a Wells Fargo office.

Some 1.5 million ounces of gold were said to be taken from the local gravels and gold-bearing cobble. But the real winner was a gent named Samuel Putnam with the foresight to build a bridge in 1863 across the river at Michigan Bar. And not just any bridge; a tollbridge. Samuel “carried away more gold than any miner,” as the local historians say.

 * * * * * * *

So just where is Michigan Bar? From Jackson, head north on Highway 49. You’ll pass through Drytown (so tiny now, don’t blink! But once the home of 10,000 people), and continue on toward Plymouth. At the T-intersection with Highway 16, turn left (west), towards Sacramento.

Here’s what Michigan Bar looks like today — golden grassland.

About 12 miles farther in the rolling hillside you’ll come to Michigan Bar — today as remote and isolated a spot as you can find in California. Stop and take the time to read the plaque explaining the tale of this “undiscovered” historic gold discovery site. Then try to imagine what the place looked like in the 1850 -1860s when as many as 2,000 people lived here, and it was the largest town in Cosumnes Township!

Contours were from early hydraulicking — and a recent fire.

Worth a short detour:  Follow this country lane back from the main highway to see the marks that early hydraulic nozzles wrought on the landscape (those miners weren’t going to give up after early placer diggings gave out!) According to the plaque, the Prairie Ditch (completed in 1858) is still visible nearby, and once brought the water for hydraulic mining.

Leave Michigan Bar and continue west on the highway another 6.8 miles to reach an oasis of magical fresh produce at Sloughhouse. Along the way you’ll pass a stoplight at Rancho Murrietta and then cross the Cosumnes River. Consider a brief stop there to snap a picture of the photogenic old metal bridge on your right! Another three stoplights will bring you to Davis Ranch’s wonderful roadside stand.

You’ll want to linger here — even in the heat!

Amid the fantastic assortment of fresh local produce, dried fruits, nuts, and local honey, don’t miss the books tucked away on a lower shelf toward the back — local author Elizabeth Pinkerton has captured the area’s history in two fascinating volumes called “History Happened Here” — well worth taking home to enjoy later.

A loader dumps fresh-picked corn before it is bagged.

And don’t miss the “corn experience” during corn season. Freshly-picked ears are dumped from a loader down a wooden chute, where workers remove the outer husks and bag it for  you. If you’ve ever eaten FRESHLY-picked corn, you know why this alone is worth the drive!

But fascinating as it is, the Davis Ranch produce stand isn’t the original Sloughhouse. To visit that site, venture on a mile or so farther west to what is now the Meadowlands restaurant, at the corner of Meiss Road (on your left). A hotel/stage stop was built here in 1850. After the first structure burned in 1890 it was promptly rebuilt, and this intriguing site is now a California State Historic Landmark.

The original Sloughhouse was here; and the Pioneer Cemetery is just to the east.

Turn around here at the parking lot to begin the rest of your journey. As you head back east, look carefully to your right just after you leave Meadowlands to catch a glimpse of the early Sloughhouse Pioneer Cemetery.  This land, part of a Mexican land grant to settler Jared Sheldon in 1842, is said to be the oldest pioneer cemetery in Northern California. Both Jared and his wife Catherine were eventually buried here.

The first two known burials were a young woman named Catherine Austin (who died of causes unknown in 1851), and a local gent named William Daylor, who died of cholera just a few days after Catherine. Daylor had gone for Sutter’s Fort 18 miles away to get supplies, and while there, kindly tended to a dying man; by the time he got home, Daylor himself was feeling unwell. He died less than 24 hours after assisting his unfortunate fellow man.

Even before these two burials in 1851, the spot was said to be a sacred site for the Miwok Indians, who cremated their dead here.

Don’t forget to take a few selfies while you’re at Sloughhouse!

On your return trip, slow down as you pass the Rancho Murrietta Country Club (on your left), and look for the turnoff to Ione Road on your right. For “Part 2” of this trip — the fascinating detour to Ione — watch for our next post!

Happy History Hunting!!  Please keep us posted about what you discover!

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Fiddletown Ghost

If this eerie Victorian doesn’t have a ghost, it should. Now tantalizingly rundown, this hauntingly beautiful Gothic Revival home was built in the gold rush town of Fiddletown around 1861.

Gold miner with pick and shovel.

No one seems to know who originally owned the house, but in later years it belonged to miner Isaac Cooper — a man with a Midas touch. Cooper first came to California with other eager gold-seekers in 1849 and, unlike many of his fellow prospectors, actually did quite well. Also unlike his compatriots, Cooper took his profits and ran — right back to Iowa, where he invested in real estate and soon became a Polk County civic leader.

But mining was still in Cooper’s blood. In 1875 he returned to Gold Country and purchased this amazing Victorian home. He also invested money in a mine located just outside of town, which proved to be yet another smart move: this mine reportedly produced a quick $3,000 in the 1890s with just a few days’ work.

Eerily, the glorious old house caught fire in 1975, exactly a century after Cooper purchased it. Although the home was partially destroyed, it has since been rebuilt.

You can find this beautiful and ghostly old home in Fiddletown at the corner of Main Street and American Flat Road, still looking as if it has secrets to tell.