Thursday, September 8, 2005

Breece's Ditch

Wednesday morning I met Ron Gould and Catherine O'Riley for a foray up the Foresthill Divide to explore an old mining ditch, Breece's Ditch, depicted on the 1875 general Land Office map as drawing from the confluence of Secret Canyon and Little Secret Canyon, below Ford Point.

We took Ponderosa Way across the North Fork from Weimar (named for Chief Weimar of the Nisenan Maidu, who in 1851 or 1852 "affixed his mark" to a treaty with the United States, trading Maidu title to all the lands comprising the present Placer and Nevada counties, for a large reservation extending from (approximately) the Sacramento Valley on the west, to Chicago Park on the east, Bear River on the south, to the South Yuba on the north--said treaty never ratified by the U.S. Senate, but instead placed in a sealed secret archive, not to be opened for fifty years, by which time it was anticipated that the Maidu would have died off, so that an inconvenient treaty and reservation would not be needed)--and hung a left on Foresthill Road, driving up the Divide to American Hill Road, thence across Little Secret Canyon to a small road dropping towards the confluence, which Ron had discovered a few days before.

We parked and followed a faint trail down to Secret Canyon, where pothunters had dug up an old Chinese (?) mining camp (or, ditch-builders' camp?), and followed the merry creek down to the confluence, where we picked up Breece's Ditch just where the 1875 map had it.

How many mining ditches exist in Placer County? Hundreds certainly, perhaps thousands, if one counts every last one, some purely ephemeral, dug for the purpose of working some one small deposit of gold-bearing gravel a hundred yards away.

Others were monstrous enterprises requiring years of work and thousands upon thousands of dollars. Breece's Ditch was one of these. It seems to have formed the "upstream" tributary to another old canal, Breece & Wheeler's Ditch, which is shown on our modern topographic maps drawing from El Dorado Canyon. The Breece & Wheeler is hundreds of feet lower than the Breece, and it is likely that the latter, after winding across the undulating top of Deadwood Ridge, spilled into some ravine flowing into El Dorado Canyon, whence its waters were diverted again into the Breece & Wheeler.

The old mining ditches make tempting trails. Often they are so badly overgrown with brush one cannot follow them easily. Within the deeper canyons, they contend with cliffs, and were often flumed, that is, wooden flumes carried the water along the canyon wall, sometimes supported by a flat bench cut, sometimes suspended by stout cables pinned into the solid rock by deep-set iron anchors, or by wooden trestle work. At other times pipes made from riveted sheet iron were hung from the cliffs to carry the precious water.

We followed the Breece down Secret Canyon, which fell away farther and farther below us. There was fairly little brush on the berm. Bear sign was abundant, and at a certain huge old Douglas Fir, where the Breece passed beneath a gigantic root, a big bear trail dropped down from Macedon Ridge above, towards Secret Canyon Creek below.

The country rock was all Shoo Fly Complex metasediments, with beds of metasandstone and slate laced through with quartz veins. The creek was quite pretty, flowing over sculptured and polished rock, often fringed with the giant leaves of Indian Rhubarb.

The forest was in a typical state of transition between the old-time open forest of frequent wildfires, dominated by scattered Sugar Pine and Douglas Fir, and the present-day forest of infrequent wildfires, with large expanses of Huckleberry Oak, Mountain Whitethorn, Manzanita spp. etc., and many relatively small White Fir and Douglas Fir.

It seemed to take forever to reach Macedon Canyon, where the Breece turns sharply around a narrow ridge crest and away from Secret Canyon itself, and almost immediately disappears, as it crossed on a trestle supporting a flume. Wildfires long since erased every trace of the trestle. We found the crossing, and took a break.

We had followed not much more than a mile of the Breece, through occasional areas of heavy brush, and across various rocky and cliffy areas which required a little care; another, what, five miles stretched away before us, or ten miles, depending upon how tortuous the turns and windings of its course might be, as it crossed Black Canyon and finally reached the crest of Deadwood Ridge. We were, as usual, scratched, hot, tired, and satisfied. It is a wonderful thing to follow an old ditch down a wild canyon.

Above us, in tiny Macedon Canyon, we should have found the Macedon Tunnel, and we decided to take a look for it, and then climb up to a logging road farther up, catch the very same American Hill Road we had driven in on, and walk back to the good old Land Rover.

According to our plan the Rover would not only start up, but would shift out of "Park."

This all came off as we imagined, tho we never found Macedon Tunnel. Perhaps it has collapsed entirely. We saw some little heaps and ridges which may have been spoils from the tunnel, and yet another old ditch.

It was a very nice day in the headwaters region of the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the American River.

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