Friday, November 25, 2005

Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road

One finds oneself a sentient being cursed with a gnat's life span, rooted upon a strange and wonderful and terrible planet--our planet, say. Faced with many mysteries, compelled to puzzle out the Nature of Things, one studies history.

From an abstract, philosophical viewpoint, from an almost mathematical position, there ought to be some optimal way or ways to pursue this "study of history." I do not know those optimal ways. I follow my instincts and my will-o'-the-wisp interests wherever they lead. I will gladly turn from the so-serious consideration and comparison of the world-views, implicit or explicit, in the histories penned by Mommsen and Gibbon; turn away, yes, to the trivial question, why in the world is it called Dutch Flat?

Why, that is, if it isn't now, and never was, either Dutch, or flat?

The answer has to do with slang, immigration, social class, and all kinds of things. The Germans, who were "Deutch," were nevertheless freely called "Dutch" in the olden days of America. So. To begin with, in May of 1851, two Prussiian immigrants drove their wagons right down the Old Emigrant Road and stopped at a springy opening in the forest.

Now, a good number of those who rushed to California in 1849 and 1850 were from Pike County, Missouri, a county, it seems, famous for drunkenness and illiteracy and all-around badness. "He was a real Piker, that one." And in the parlance of those Pike men, any pass was a "gap," and any grassy opening in the forest, a "flat."

And naturally any German was Dutch.

So it was quick to follow, when the two brothers, when Joseph and Charles Dornback, stopped in the sunny, springy meadows on the old Indian trail, and set up camp, that the place should become known as "Dutch Flat."

I have spent an embarassing amount of time studying the history of Dutch Flat. Thousands and thousands of hours! So, for me the area is rich with historical detail few people see.

Follow Canyon Creek up from Dutch Flat (by driving up I-80), and near Drum Forebay exit, you may notice a pass in the ridge to the left, between Canyon Creek and the Bear River. This pass affected the construction of mining ditches, wagon roads, and at least one railroad. For instance, the two wagon roads from Dutch Flat to Virginia City, Nevada, nearly touch at this one pass. And the Old Emigrant Road intersects the pass. It is a critical point in the local topography.

In the olden days it was called Dutchman's Gap, because it is a pass--hence a gap--and it so happened a German man, Herr Zerr, had a "ranch" nearby.

I had studied the history of Dutch Flat for fifteen years before I ever knew of Dutchman's Gap, and it took another few years to find that the Dutchman himself was Zerr.

I love diaries, and published the diary of Dutch Flat gold miner and photographer I.T. Coffin. He lived out at Texas Hill for a few years, and his diary mentions a permanent bear trap out there, above the East Fork, I guess. Probably it was what they call a deadfall trap. A bait stick, if moved, allows a heavy log to fall upon the hapless prey..

I have seen other references to such bear traps in the 19th-century literature of California.

I.T. Coffin always expected the first storms of the season to begin near the Autumnal equinox. You could almost smell his sense of satisfaction in a well-ordered world, when he recorded rain around September 21..

Another local diarist, Josephine Bonaparte Foulks Freeman, also believed in Equinoctial Storms. She summered in the upper North Fork for many years. I have her diary from 1899 to 1916.

What follows, tho, is an article from the July 9, 1864 "Sacramento Union," written by one "Q.S.," and describing the brand-new Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road (DFDLWR).

The author, Q.S., is a knowledgeable man, but when he writes that Dutch Flat ditches obtain all their water from Canyon Creek, he is wrong. The two largest ditches, at the time of his article, drew from the East Fork of the North Fork of the North Fork American, and from Bear River.

The "extensive reservoir above Bear Valley" is today's Lake Spaulding. It is this same Captain Kidd for whom Kidd Lake, near Devils Peak, was named. And the ditch proposed in the article was actually built, in 1865; the South Yuba Canal served the hydraulic mines of Dutch Flat and Gold Run for years.

This may seem far afield from the subject of trails--but the DFDLWR often folllowed the Donner Tral closely; the Donner Trail followed an Indian trail, marked with petroglyphs; that Indian trail followed, let's say, a bear trail; and now, today, we have I-80!

So, Q.S.'s article below represents a little chapter in the history of an ancient trans-Sierran trail, now a freeway. I find it notable because it adds a new name to our lexicon of old names: Bear Trap [Summitt; Pass; Gap], just west of Crystal Lake. Notable, too, because it mentions the petroglyphs at Indian Springs, on the South Yuba near the Eagle Lakes exit.

This Bear Trap Gap could be regarded as the "true" Yuba Gap, since it is a pass and it does in fact divide the waters of the North Fork from the waters of the South Yuba.

Read the article. You will see.

The "Polly" mentioned is Dutch Flat's Henry Polley.

Thanks to Ed Hodges for sending this article my way. It is but one of a series. The author, Q.S., has already led the reader up-country from Newcastle, past Illinoistown, past Cape Horn, past Secret Town. He has reached Gold Run--no, no, he has passed Gold Run, and he is, to be precise, on the wagon road between Dutch Flat and Gold Run, atop that narrow neck of ridge balanced precariously between hydaulic diggings, the ridge crest where the mining ditches run, and where, two years hence, a few thousand Chinese will make the cuts and fills and lay the tracks which admit the snorting, fuming Iron Horse.

Yes, Q.S. is on that narrow ridge, heading east. He passes the old road to Dutch Flat (via Sacramento Street) as it drops away north, to his left; the new road, the far-famed Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road, veers to the right. This point, today, is the more eastern railroad crossing on Lincoln Road. But again, the rails had still not arrived, when Q.S. was there.

One last note: here at the beginning of the article, realize that the "road from Dutch Flat about a mile and a half east" is today's Main Street, and its juncture with the DFDLWR is at today's Lake Alta (then, Bradley & Gardner's Reservoir).

[Sacramento Union, July 9, 1864]

We have now reached "the Flat," and commence on our new road proper. This does not go down to the village, but turns to the right at the brow of the hill, about a mile west of the town, and winds around the hill above it, being joined by the road from Dutch Flat about a mile and a half east thereof. The new road-everywhere wide enough to allow two teams or vehicles to pass each other easily and safely-skirts "Ca–on creek," a tributary of the American, and from which, and where, the Dutch Flat ditches obtain all their water. The supply was so scant this season that only about two months run was furnished. This was, and is, very bad for miners and merchants of the Flat, for the miners here are very rich, and the hydraulic apparatus abundant. Give them but nine or ten months water, and you would hear stories from Dutch Flat that would throw Washoe into the shade. I heard that parties were in negotiation with Captain Kidd to bring in a ditch from his extensive reservoir above Bear Valley. I should think the Captain could make a great deal more by such an operation than by running a steamboat opposition on the Sacramento river. But I suppose he knows his own business best.

The ascent of the road up this creek is gradual, varied by much level and also of descending grade-a great relief to horse and man flesh generally. The whole country from Illinoistown to the end of the road is densely timbered with lofty pines, spruce, etc., there being more on this route than on any other, and one can pronounce the supply inexhaustible. There is enough of lumber within ten miles of the line of this road (or railroad, and both follow the same general line of survey) to supply California and Nevada both for a dozen generations. At present the principal value of the trees, as they stand in all their grandeur, is to furnish a most grateful shade to travelers nearly the whole length of the road.

Ten miles of such a road as has been described-and here I may remark, once for all, that there is no part of the entire distance where the least danger from precipices may be entertained by the most timorous-brings us to Zerr's Station, at the head of Ca–on creek, and where will be the first change of horses by the California Stage Company. About two miles of the maximum grade follows and we are in full view of Bear valley, which, in all its beauty of green at this season, stretches away for miles at our very feet. Kidd's mammoth South Yuba ditch skirts the mountain on the opposite side of the valley, and even from the distance we were off one could imagine somewhat of the difficulty and expense that attended his project of bringing in an abundant supply of water to the whole Nevada [city] section of country. But he did it while others talked about it, and has a "pocket full of rocks" in consequence, as he deserves to have.

The road then crosses over again to the American river side, which soon runs out, and after passing through Wilson's valley, a good sized grass and hay ranch, and then over another one and a half mile of maximum grade, the Bear Trap summit is reached. The elevation here is 5,600 feet above Sacramento, or 2,260 above Dutch Flat, all overcome so gradually in this distance of eighteen miles as scarcely to give the rider any idea of hill at all. This summit-which divides the headwaters of the American from the South Yuba-is named from a huge log trap once used to catch the foolish grizzlies, and still standing, though "Othello's occupation's gone," before the advancing tide of civilized men.


A ride of a mile or so down hill brings one to "Polly's" Station, nineteen miles from the Flat and the second change for stage horses. Polly is the present Superintendent of the road, and having taken up a large section of land, intends to build a good house for the accommodation of travelers. At present, however, things are only to be had in the rough and as one best can manage matters. A small lake, some eighty by forty roads in dimensions, comes squarely up to the road at this place. Polly has dammed up its outlet, and christened it Crystal Lake, a name it justly deserves. It will be a good advertisement for his hotel, "other things being equal."


From Polly's there is a maximum twenty-inch down grade of half a mile and then the Yuba river is reached. From here, for miles, the ascent is so gradual and the valley of such general width, that the whole is called Yuba Bottoms. The road follows this river from here to the Summit. There were two points where much rock was to be excavated and these are designated as Rocky Points Nos. 1 and 2. I can well believe the assertion that money melted away fast, as powder and the hardest kind of work were called into requisition to change an almost impassable trail into a splendid wagon road. But, Messrs. Editors, my letter is long enough already, and I must reserve to my next and last a description of certain remarkable hieroglyphics to be seen on these Yuba Bottoms, near Rocky Point No. 1. I shall only write of what I saw and leave to others to furnish a satisfactory explanation.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Big Granite Trail

Julie, a tremendous hiker, sent me this account of her recent adventure on the Big Granite Trail.

The Big Granite Trail or BGT leads down to the North Fork American just below the Royal Gorge. It starts at 6600' and hits the river at 3000'. It was damaged by logging in 1991 and then again in fall of 2004. It has become hard to find and follow. Ron Gould and Catherine O'Riley and I have been working on it and have restored some small sections but much remains to do.

Hey, I finally had the opportunity to try your handywork at Big Granite. A friend and I were there and I remembered that you guys had done some reclamation. We were able to follow it for the most part, drifted off of it a time or two, and then of course just sort of spilled out onto the road just a little below the trail . So were you saying that the area there sort of along side the creek in that flat area is Four Horse Flat? Because I have never been quite sure. I had been thinking more up the hill and on the other side of Little Granite, say that flat area before the current Cherry Point Trail comes down and hits the logging road. I have explored around up there and seen plenty of great sights, but nothing to suggest Four Horse Flat. Well, the hike was really beautiful, and it was good to finally reach the river. You might remember it has taken me a few journeys there, searching , and finding, then searching again. Kasa and I first looked for it coming down from Loch Leven, via Cherry Point. We hit the logging road, crossed Little Granite Creek, and walked on and on... no Big Granite. Next we headed in >from Salmon Lake, down Cherry Point, onto the log road , across the creek and voila! suddenly the trail appeared! The reason we had not seen it before was very high buckbrush growing along the road, which had been bulldozed for the recent logging. Suddenly the trail with a sign and everything were right there for all the world to see! The day was late but we proceeded for a bit, staying on the , what would it be... west side of the trail, rather then crossing near the top. Waning daylight sent us back once again. Next I headed in from your directions off of Forest Road 38, through the hunter's camp. But I had a bit of trouble with the log skidding area. Next , Kasa and I returned , with directions from you, and were able to thread our way through the skid trails and water bars, and finally arrive at the large landing where the road is the trail...On that wonderful day we were able to continue quite far down into the canyon, but just shy of Big Granite Creek we turned back, with Kasa having knee problems. And so, after all thes previous attempts, imagine how pleasing it was to finally reach the river.All the creeks and the river were very low , of course. What Kathi and I did when we reached the sign post overlooking the river, was to turn right ending up at Big Granite Creek and the pretty pools and waterfalls. We had lunch there, and explored around the creek Observing the American River Trail on the other side we decided to cross over and scramble up to it. There were some thickets of poison oak to get through, and some manzanita fields, that hindered us a bit. Once on the other trail, we thought we would follow it upriver until we could see where it would cross, we just assumed we would see the crossing, come back across, and hop on the trail , then just zip along the trail and head home. But, as often happens in the canyon, what we thought were trails when looking across the river, were just high water courses and gravel bars, meandering back to the river. We crossed back over at the Sailor Flat Trail, and wandered around on this and that almost could kinda be trails. We scared a small bear from the brush and he bounded away , looking fluffy and appealing We crashed around through the brush, up this hillside and back down, searching, thinking we had struck a trail, only to be dissapointed. Odly, in the most tangled and brushy area, a pink flag appeared. But it seemed to point to nothing. Scratching our way through the most obscure thickets, we encountered these flags sveral times , but couldn't really make sense of them. Finally we returned to the river and decided to cross again.I was quite worried about daylight by now and felt we would make better time if we hit the Americam River Trail, and hightailed it back .This we did, While Kathi crossed and was putting her shoes back on, I went to see if the trail was near us at this point., and I encountered another one of the flags. Using the open trail we hurried along. I felt sure that waning daylight was going to be an issue, and I sort of pushed us along rather quickly.What worried me was the idea of navigating those skid trails near the top of the trail, in the dusk. We were able to cross again on wonderful big boulders without having to take our shoes off. Then it was just a matter of scrambling back up to the trail and moving along. I was very aware of impending dark, and I'm affraid I pushed along rather heartlessly... but all for nought.We did indeed walk in the dark. The dusk had hit profoundly by the time we had come up most of the steep portions. Once darkness came, I quit rushing us: what was the point now? The stars were magnificent. When we reached the log road we got out Kathi"s light (She had one!) I looked for , and found the sign on the tree positioned for hikers coming up, but not down... Kathi observed that , due to all the logging roads and skid trail confusion, the signs don't really help anyone, because the only people who see them are people who already know where they're going. Good point.In the full darkness it was very slow going through the skid trail, and up to the hunter's camp, making me think how it would be great for some of us to put that last bit back into trail...You can sort of see a trail in the dark if you gaze ahead and let your eyes relax, but in those mazes of bulldozer mounds it's just not the same.Well, the hike was supperlative in every way. And I suppose, given the shortness of the days, our decision to do so much exploring could be viewed in one of two ways... as either ambitious, or unwise! Thanks for all the tips in helping us find the trail. Julie

Friday, November 18, 2005

Visit to Green Valley

I've been working on various projects for several weeks and have had little time for hiking in the North Fork. Yesterday, tho, I joined Catherine O'Riley, Jerry Rein, and Alex Henderson for a visit to Green Valley, an old mining camp east of Dutch Flat (see the USGS 7.5 minute Dutch Flat quadrangle).

We would walk down the old mule trail, beaten deep into the ground by the pack trains coming from Illinoistown, ten miles west. Parking is on Moody Ridge road, near Alta.

The river flows west at 1800' elevation, while volcanic mudflow tablelands to the north and south stand at 4200', hence a canyon 2400 feet in depth. In one of the great curiosities and contrasts of local geomorphology, two of the most notable strips of Sierran bedrock are in faulted contact in Green Valley: the serpentine of the Melones Fault Zone, also called the Feather River Peridotite, to the east; and the massive metavolcanic part of the Calaveras Complex, to the west.

The strips are near a hundred miles long, but only a mile or ten wide.

So in a few steps one crosses from a weak, shattered, sheared rock--serpentine--to a dark, heavy, not at all slate-like, but metamorphic, something?--I always used to think of the rocks of Giant Gap as metabasalt; they are something iron-rich, dark, mafic; but really I've little idea of the true origin of these metamorphosed volcanic rocks. They may be a mixture of ocean-floor basalts, quasi-sedimentary layers of ocean-floor basaltic ash, with patches of underwater turbidity flows, mixing pebbles of lava and basaltic ash and whatnot into something like a mudflow.

Blurring our focus, the two notable strips run north and south. But the canyons of the Sierra run east and west. Hence many Sierran canyons cut these same strips. For instance, this same serpentine reappears in the South Yuba to the north, around the town of Washington.

But rocks, whether in big strips or terranes like these, or in foot-thick sedimentary cake-layers, as in, a stratum of sandstone, can vary along strike. Say one finds the edge of a bed of sandstone and follows it; and after walking along a ways, it changes from sandstone to shale. It has varied along strike.

Similarly these terranes, like the Melones serpentine and the Calaveras Complex, vary along strike.

It so happens that just where that weaker-than-usual rock, the Melones serpentine, is near its weakest, and most like serpentine, and least like peridotite, is also just where the metavolcanic part of the Calaveras Complex is at its strongest, at its most massive, with the widest possible spacing of major joints and fractures in the rock.

And this is at Green Valley. At the west end of Green Valley, to be precise, where the fault separating the "two notable strips" crosses canyon and river alike.

One fully expects a canyon to change form if it passes from weak rock into strong rock. To study such changes is the joy of the geomorphologist. The Great American Canyon, the American River Canyon, the North Fork of the American River canyon, changes very dramatically here, as it passes from Green Valley, into Giant Gap.

One goes from an exceptionally broad portion of the canyon (Green Valley) to an exceptionally narrow part of the canyon (Giant Gap).

Or rather, I should say, one *doesn't* go: Giant Gap is renowned for impassability. Cliffs drop directly into long deep pools, ruffled by the perpetual canyon winds. There is no walking along the river.

The canyon depth is the same: 2400 feet.

It is always a pleasure to visit Green Valley and marvel at the dark cliffs of Giant Gap, of Lovers Leap and The Pinnacles, to the west. Down and down and down through manzanita and Digger Pine until at last the great complex of Ice Age sediments is met and its associated great forest of Ponderosa Pine spans the valley.

Within this broad forest are meadows and springs and many mines and old cabin sites and even a grave, that of one Joe Steiner.

I have an old photo of Joe Steiner standing on the suspension bridge, just below where we almost but did not ford the river. He died in Green Valley in 1949. He was the caretaker of the mining claims of the Dunkhorst family, who had purchased the old Opel mines in the 1890s.

Thursday was warm and sunny, one of those miracles of California weather. Temperatures were in the seventies. We saw flowers in bloom, some purple daisy-like things I take to be Erigeron foliosus, Leafy Fleabane, and some Scarlet Columbines. Oh: we also saw a Common Monkeyflower.

And many mushrooms, thousands and thousands of mushrooms.

And butterflies, and gnats. No, it was a lovely warm and sunny day, but for all that Alex astounded us by jumping right into the river, at the deep pool near the west end of Green Valley!

Earlier, we had thought to ford the river and visit the Gold Ring Mine, on the south side. Near the old bridge site we took off shoes and pants and hesitantly approached the water, over big boulders slick with dew. The sun warmed the trail a few feet above and behind us, but we were in an abyss of damp and cold and shade.

I stepped in, about mid-calf deep, and probed ahead with one foot, over the rounded, foot-diameter boulders which made the river's bed. The rounded boulders were slick, and would have to be crossed very carefully. But time to consider this was not given. An excruciating pain was building in my very bones, where my feet and legs were underwater. Immediately it became intolerable, and I exclaimed I could not do it, and climbed out as quickly as I could.

And then Alex jumped in! Astounding!

Later we would climb past old mines and through sunny woods to one of the old mining ditches, and follow it nearly to the east end of Green Valley, in a very pleasant and winding hike of perhaps a mile or a mile-and-a-half, and then, the sun lowering, we took a chance on following a cross-country route downslope and back west, and hit the river again at White Rocks, just upstream from the Hotel Site.

Here a big gravel bar was in fully sun, and we rested for a time before beginning the long climb up and out.

Willows and cottonwoods were yellow and gold, the river, calm and clear and cold and slow; calm, so that all day I was admiring the reflections of things, of cliffs, or trees, or brash bunches of river grass, willows, boulders, or sky.

So, it was a nice Indian Summer day in Green Valley, a bit short, as the days at large are short this time of year, but quite pleasant.