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.

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