|Home -> Paul Elder -> A Tramp Through Bret Harte Country - Chapter 3|
Tuolumne to Placerville. Charm of Sonora and Fascination of San Andreas and Mokelumne Hill
Sonora is nine miles distant from Tuttletown, and I reached it in the early afternoon. Perhaps of all the old mining towns, Sonora is the most fascinating, on account of the exceeding beauty of the surrounding country. No matter from what direction you approach it, Sonora seems to lie basking in the sun, buried in a wealth of greenery, through which gleam white walls and roofs of houses. Even its winding streets are so shaded by graceful old trees that buildings are half hidden. The bustle and excitement of the mining days are passed forever, in all probability, for old Sonora; but in their place have come the peace and quiet that accompany the tillage of the soil; for Sonora is now the center of a prosperous agricultural district and the town maintains a steady and continuous growth.
Here I had the pleasure of an interview with Mr. John Neal, a prominent and respected citizen of Tuolumne County, who as Commissioner represented his county at the San Francisco Midwinter Fair. Mr. Neal is over eighty, but still hale and hearty. He was the first person I had thus far encountered who had known Bret Harte in the flesh. He had also known and frequently met Mark Twain, "Dan de Quille" and Prentice Mulford. Of the four, it was evident that Mulford had left by far the most lasting as well as favorable impression on his mind. Of him he spoke in terms of real affection. "Prentice Mulford," he said, "was a brilliant, very handsome and most lovable young man." I asked him how these young men were regarded by the miners. He said: "In all the camps they were held to be in a class by themselves, on account of their education and literary ability. Although they wore the rough costume of the miners, it was realized that none of them took mining seriously or made any pretense of real work with pick and shovel." Mr. Neal knew James Gillis intimately and admitted he was a great story-teller. In fact, at the bare mention of his name he broke into a hearty laugh. "Oh, Jim Gillis, he was a great fellow!" he exclaimed. He said unquestionably Mark Twain got a good deal of material from him, and feels certain that Bret Harte must have met him at least on several occasions. Mr. Neal stated that up to the time of the Midwinter Fair, the output of gold from Tuolumne county reached the astonishing figures of $250,000,000! What it has amounted to since that time, I had no means of ascertaining.
It is only twelve miles from Sonora to Tuolumne. From the top of the divide which separates the valleys there is a beautiful view of the surrounding country, the dim blue peaks of the Sierra Nevada forming the eastern sky-line. One of the chief charms of an excursion through these foothill counties is the certainty that directly you reach any considerable elevation there will be revealed a magnificent panorama, bounded only by the limit of vision, range after range of mountains running up in varying shades of blue and purple, to the far distant summits that indicate the backbone of California.
Tuolumne is situated in a circular basin rather than in a valley, and thus being protected from the wind, in hot weather the heat is intense. If there are any mining operations in the immediate vicinity, they are not in evidence to the casual observer. It is, however, one of the biggest timber camps in the State. In the yards of the West Side Lumber Company, covering several hundred acres, are stacked something like 30,000,000 feet of sugar pine. The logs are brought from the mountains twenty to twenty-five miles by rail, and sawn into lumber at Tuolumne. I was told that the bulk of the lumber manufactured here was shipped abroad, a great deal going to Australia.
Tuolumne, in Bret Harte's time, was called Summersville. It was destroyed by fire about fourteen years ago, but the new town has already so assimilated itself to the atmosphere of its surroundings, that its comparative youth might easily escape detection. Altogether, I was disappointed with Tuolumne, having expected to find a second Angel's, owing to its prominence in Bret Harte's stories. A lumber camp, while an excellent thing in its way, is neither picturesque nor inspiring. I spent the night at the "Turnback Inn," a large frame building, handsomely finished interiorly and built since the fire. It is, I believe, quite a summer resort, as Tuolumne is the terminus of the Sierra Railway, and one can go by way of Stockton direct to Oakland and San Francisco.
Returning to Angel's the next day, I lingered again at Tuttletown. There is a strange attraction about the place - it would hold you apart from its associations, The old hotel, fast going to decay, surrounded by splendid trees whose shade is so dense as to be impenetrable to the noon-day sun, is a study for an artist. And as I gazed in a sort of day-dream at the ruins of what once was one of the liveliest camps in the Sierras - with four faro tables running day and night - the pines seemed to whisper a sigh of regret over its departed glories. Jackass Hill is fairly honeycombed with prospect holes, shafts and tunnels. I was surprised to see that even now there is a certain amount of prospect work going forward, for I noticed several shafts with windlasses to which ropes were attached; and, in fact, was told that the old camp showed signs of a new lease of life.
Musing on Tuttletown and its environment later on got me into serious difficulty. Having crossed the Stanislaus River and cleared the cañon, I abandoned the main road for an alleged "cut-off." This I was following with the utmost confidence, when, to my surprise, it came to an abrupt end at the foot of a steep hill. In the ravine below was a house, and there fortunately I found a man of whom I inquired if I was in "Carson Flat." "Carson Flat? Well, I should say not! You're 'way off!" "How much?" I asked feebly. "Oh, several miles." This in a tone that implied that though I was in a bad fix, it might possibly be worse. However, with the invariable kindness of these people, he put me on a trail which, winding up to the summit of a ridge, struck down into Carson Flat and joined the main road. And there I registered a vow: "The hard highway for me!" As a consequence of this deviation, I materially lengthened the distance to Angel's. It is thirty miles from Tuolumne by the road, to which, by taking the "cut-off," I probably added another three!
It is surprising how these towns grow upon one. Already the Angel's Hotel seemed like home to me and after an excellent dinner, I joined the loungers on the side-walk and became one of a row, seated on chairs tilted at various angles against the wall of the hotel. And there I dozed, watching the passing show between dreams; for in the evening when the electric lights are on, there is a sort of parade of the youth and beauty of the town, up and down the winding street.
On account of the great heat that even the dry purity of the Sierra atmosphere could not altogether mitigate, I decided the next day to be content with reaching San Andreas, the county seat of Calaveras County, fifteen miles north of Angel's.
Apart from its name, there is something about San Andreas that suggests Mexico, or one's idea of pastoral California in the early days of the American occupation. The streets are narrow and unpaved and during the midday heat are almost deserted. Business of some sort there must be, for the little town, though somnolent, is evidently holding its own; but there seems to be infinite time in which to accomplish whatever the necessities of life demand. And I may state here parenthetically, that perhaps the most impressive feature of all the old California mining towns is their suggestion of calm repose. Each little community seems sufficient unto itself and entirely satisfied with things as they are. Not even in the Old World will you find places where the current of life more placidly flows.
On the main street - and the principal street of all these towns is "Main Street" - I had the good fortune to be introduced to Judge Ira H. Reed, who came to Calaveras County in 1854, and has lived there ever since. He told me that Judge Gottschalk, who died a few years ago at an advanced age, was authority for the statement that Mark Twain got his "Jumping Frog" story from the then proprietor of the Metropolitan Hotel, San Andreas, who asserted that the incident actually occurred in his bar-room. Twain, it is true, places the scene in a bar-room at Angel's, but that is doubtless the author's license. Bret Harte calls Tuttletown, "Tuttleville," and there never was a "Wingdam" stage.
That evening as I lay awake in my bedroom at the Metropolitan Hotel, wondering by what person of note it had been occupied in the "good old days," my attention was attracted to the musical tinkle of a cow-bell. Looking out of the window, I beheld the strange spectacle of a cow walking sedately down the middle of the street. No one was driving her, no one paid her any attention beyond a casual glance, as she passed. The cow, in fact, had simply come home, after a day in the open country; and it became plain to me that this was a nightly occurrence and therefore caused no comment. Unmolested, she passed the hotel and on down the street to the foot of the hill, where she evidently spent the night; for the tinkle of the bell became permanent and blended with and became a part of the subtle, mysterious sounds that constitute Nature's sleeping breath.
This little incident in the county seat of Calaveras County impressed me as an epitome of the changes wrought by time, since the days when in song and story Bret Harte made the name "Calaveras" a synonym for romance wherever the English language is spoken.
From San Andreas my objective point was Placerville, distant about forty-five miles. The heat still being excessive, I made the town by easy stages, arriving at noon on the third day. Mokelumne Hill, ten miles beyond San Andreas, also lends its name to the little town which clusters around its apex and is at the head of Chili Gulch, a once famous bonanza for the placer miners. For miles the road winds up the gulch, which is almost devoid of timber, amid piled-up rocks and debris, bleached and blistered by the sun's fierce rays; the gulch itself being literally stripped to "bedrock." I had already witnessed many evidences of man's eager pursuit of the precious metal, but nothing that so conveyed the idea of the feverish, persistent energy with which those adventurers in the new El Dorado had struggled day and night with Nature's obstacles, spurred on by the auri sacra fames.
A little incident served to relieve the monotony of the climb up Chili Gulch. A miner, who might have sat for a study of "Tennessee's Partner," came down the hillside with a pan of "dirt," which he carefully washed in a muddy pool in the bed of the gulch. He showed me the result, a few "colors" and sulphurets. He said it would "go about five dollars to the ton," and seemed well satisfied with the result. I shall always hold him in grateful memory, for he took me to an old tunnel, and disappearing for a few moments, returned with a large dipper of ice-cold water. Not the Children of Israel, when Aaron smote the rock in the desert and produced a living stream, could have lapped that water with keener enjoyment.
The terrific heat in Chili Gulch made the shade from the trees which surround Mekolumne Hotel doubly grateful. Mokelumne Hill is, in fact, a mountain, and commands a view of rare beauty. At its base winds the wooded cañon of the Mokelumne River, on the farther side of which rises the Jackson Butte, an isolated peak with an elevation of over three thousand feet, while in the background loom the omnipresent peaks of the far Sierra.
The Mokelumne Hotel is regarded as modern, dating back merely to 1868, at which time the original building was destroyed by fire. The present structure of solid blocks of stone, should resist the elements for centuries to come. I was surprised at the excellent accommodations of this hotel. In what seemed such an out-of-the-way and inaccessible locality, I was served with one of the best meals on the whole journey, including claret with crushed ice in a champagne glass! What that meant to a tramp who had struggled for miles through quartz rock and impalpable dust, up a heavy grade, without shade and the thermometer well past the hundred mark, only a tramp can appreciate. I fell in love with Mokelumne Hill and, after due consultation of my map, resolved to pass the night in this picturesque and delightful spot. I was also influenced by its associations, as it figures prominently in Bret Harte's stories.
Of the four famous rivers - the Stanislaus, Mokelumne, American and Cosumnes - which I crossed on this trip, the Mokelumne appealed to me the most. Whatever the meaning of the Indian name, one may rest assured it stands for some form of beauty. Jackson, the county seat of Amador County, is but six miles from Mokelumne Hill and a town of considerable importance, being the terminus of a branch line of the Southern Pacific Railway. It is situated in an open country where the hills are at some distance, and presents a certain up-to-date appearance. About a mile from Jackson the Kennedy mine, running a hundred stamps, is one of the greatest gold producers in the State.
Sutter Creek, erroneously supposed by many to be the spot where gold was first discovered in California, four miles north of Jackson, is picturesque and rendered attractive by reason of the vivid green of the lawns surrounding the little cottages on its outskirts. This town, too, has a flourishing look, accounted for by the operation of the South Eureka and Central Eureka mines. A gentleman whom I met on the street imparted this information, and asked me if I remembered Mark Twain's definition of a gold mine. I had to confess I did not. "Well," said he, "Mark Twain defined a gold mine as 'a hole in the ground at one end, and a d - d fool at the other!'" The appreciative twinkle in his eye suggested the possibility that this definition met with his approval.
Amador, two miles beyond Sutter Creek, did not appeal to me. "Stagnation" would probably come nearer than any other term to conveying to the mind of a person unfamiliar with Amador its present condition. One becomes acutely sensitive to the "atmosphere" of these places, after a few days upon the road, for each has a distinctive individuality. in spite of the fact that it was mid-day in mid-summer, gloom seemed to pervade the streets and to be characteristic of its inhabitants. With the exception of an attempt to get into telephonic communication with a friend at Placerville, I lost not a moment in the town.
On reaching Drytown, three miles north of Amador, I noted the thermometer stood at 110 degrees in the shade on the watered porch of the hotel, and deciding there was a certain risk attendant on walking in such heat, determined to make the best of what was anything but a pleasant situation, and go no farther. Drytown, in the modern application of the first syllable, is a misnomer, the "town" consisting chiefly of the hotel with accompanying bar, and a saloon across the way!
Drytown was in existence as early as 1849, and was visited in October of that year by Bayard Taylor. He says: "I found a population of from two to three hundred, established for the winter. The village was laid out with some regularity and had taverns, stores, butchers' shops and monte tables." One cannot but smile at the idea of "monte tables" in connection with the Drytown of to-day; pitiful as is the reflection that men had braved the hardships of the desert and toiled to the waist in water for gold, only to throw it recklessly in the laps of professional gamblers.
The Exchange Hotel, a wooden building dating back to 1858, stands on the site of the original hotel, built in 1851 and burned in 1857. Upon the front porch is a well furnishing cold, pure water. I found this to be the most acceptable feature of several of the old hostelries. The well and the swinging sign over the entrance suggested the wayside inn of rural England; more especially as the surrounding country carries out the idea, being gently undulating and well timbered.
The following evening I put up at Nashville, on the North Fork of the Cosumnes River and well over the borders of El Dorado county, passing Plymouth en route. Plymouth, on the map, appeared to be a place of some importance, but a closer inspection proved that - in spite of its breezy name - it would take the spirits of a Mark Tapley to withstand its discouraging surroundings. Plymouth is "living in hopes," an English syndicate having an option on certain mining properties in the vicinity; but Nashville is frankly "out of business."
At Nashville, in fact, I had some difficulty in securing "bed and lodging." There appeared to be only three families in this once flourishing camp. Strange as it may seem, money appears to be no object to people in these sequestered places. You have "to make good," and in this instance it required not a little tact and diplomacy.
I arrived at Placerville the following day. Due to taking a road not shown on my map, I went several miles astray and for some few hours was immersed in wild, chaparral-covered mountains, with evidences on all hands of deserted mines; finally crossing a divide at an elevation of two thousand feet and descending into the valley where slumbers the little town of El Dorado, formerly bearing the less attractive designation "Mud Springs." This title, though lacking in euphony, was more in keeping with actual conditions, since the valley is noted for its springs, and Diamond Springs, a mile or two north, is quite a summer resort. Nor is there any indication of the precious metal anywhere in the immediate vicinity.
In Placerville - known as "Hangtown" in the Bret Harte days - I registered at the Cary House, which once had the honor of entertaining no less a personage than Horace Greeley. It was here he terminated his celebrated stage ride with Hank Monk. I found that my friend Harold Edward Smith had gone to Coloma, eight miles on the road to Auburn, and had left a note saying he would wait for me there the following morning.