That stingy winter has brought an early Fall. The sun is moving dramatically toward the South, and the days are getting shorter. The sycamores next to my house are shedding like crazy, I’m already into Leaf Management Season. Our garden is petering out, the tomato plants look like me – haggard and ready for a good long sleep.
At this time of year, when Chico Creek starts to get low and skanky, it’s nice to head up Butte Creek. There are a lot of good spots, along various highways. Some people like the road up toward the covered bridge, but that area is pretty overrun. There are more secluded, less used spots higher up in the uninhabited regions of the canyon, on BLM land. One popular spot is The Forks.
Most people probably know, The Forks was once a town. It’s hard to stand down there and imagine that, but I been to a lot of Gold Rush ghost towns, and that’s what you find in most – nothing but a few overgrown tailings.
I have always called these piles of displaced boulders “tailings,” but apparently, “tailings” are actually the nasty slimy mud left over from a mining operation. That stuff is all long gone from Butte Creek. I’ve seen pictures from 150 years ago, and these canyons were completely trashed, nothing left, not a living bush or tree. The used hydraulic mining for years before it was made illegal. The tailings would wash down the canyons and flood over the farm lands below. It was the farmers and ranchers who finally stopped strip mining, but not before half the Sierra had washed into the valley.
Earth abides. I’ve heard that the tailings – which included all those trees and other organic material washed away – eventually made very nice compost around the Oroville area, and cattle ranchers and fruit growers supposedly attribute the loamy soil up there to the old strip mining days. Who knows. All I know is, while you can still see the “sugar loaves” left here and there, you also see a rich forest with lots of wildlife. Not like the old days, for sure, but still viable.
The boulder piles you can see, for example, along Highway 70, are properly called “overburden.” They are rocks that were knocked down all those years ago by “high bankers,” miners digging for veins in the sandy creek banks. The boulders fell down along the creek and created the rolling surface we have there today, it’s really quite beautiful and even natural looking.
It’s amazing to stand there along Butte Creek at The Forks, and try to imagine a rollicking town of more than 600, mostly men. It was apparently a nasty town – at one bar, I’ve heard, they kept a jar on the counter, for donations to pay for the scalps of the local natives. I’ve heard that about the Lassen Steak House too, might just be a story.
Over one hundred and fifty years ago my grandfather landed in “Coyoteville”, which is now a Motel along Hwy 20 leading into Downieville. D-ville had not yet been established. “Coyoteville” was a collection of holes, dug out, first with sledge and pick, two or more men taking turns swinging, until they had a cavity large enough to put in a little explosive charge. A lot of the fellows who landed in the area were old miners from Cornwall and Wales, in the British Isles. My grandfather came from Quarndon, in Derbyshire, that’s all I know about his early life. What I found out is, Derbyshire, even today, is a huge lead mining area. Yech! Now I know why my gramps left his home and made the long and dangerous journey to California. Look at this “open cast” lead mining operation currently going on in England:
I also learned, in the old days, lead was mined like gold, by individuals who wanted to make their “stake” and didn’t know what handling lead would do to a person. Lead is detected and extracted much the same as gold – apparently, you look for surface signs, and then you look for a vein. That’s coyote hole mining. You look for surface signs, and then you look for a vein, and then you stick that pick in there, and you swing that sledge. When you get yourself in there, you plant your charge. Hopefully you know what you’re doing – the Cornish miners who infested the area we know today as Grass Valley/Nevada City were experts at all the above.
And then there’s “pasties,” but I’ll get back to that another time!
They built these “towns” overnight, even houses and huge buildings, bridges and dams. In Summit City, which only lasted three years or so, they built a stocky little stone observatory on the peak of a mountain. I’ve heard the stories, seen a turn of the century picture of that stone observatory, but as far as I know, it’s gone, kaput, disappeared.
My aunt Belle wrote about her childhood in the Sierra, and her travels along the same roads as the Superintendent of Schools from about 1900 into the 1940’s. She looked for the towns in which she’d lived as a child, sometimes not even a stone foundation remained of towns that had boasted hundreds of residents in The Day. She lived in Poker Flat as a child – I can’t even get my husband to drive me up there. Even the die-hard 4-wheelers will warn you, don’t go in bad weather. And there’s nothing there but a big meadow. My aunt’s recollections of Bret Harte’s famous hub in the 1870’s were of a dying town – completely gone by the turn of the century.
What will Chico look like in 150 years? I’m afraid to ask.