Monday, May 8, 2006

A Logging Railroad

Arriving on Moody Ridge in 1975, I walked a few yards past ancient Kellogg's Black Oaks, down the Green Valley Trail, to where a spring issued from a rusty old pipe into a wooden trough. The creamy rhyolite ash of the Valley Springs Formation was visible. Such springs are ubiquitous, found throughout the Northern Sierra, two or three hundred feet below the flat crests of the ridges dividing major canyons. When blessed by sun, there is always Indian stuff around these Druidic springs. I said as much, and in reply, my girlfriend reached down and picked up a perfect arrowhead of dark chert.

To the south, the brushy sun-baked serpentine of the Melones Fault Zone fell away 2000 feet to the North Fork American. In the hot flat light of a summer's midday, the canyon was uninspiring. But I returned in a few days, riding my Honda Dream, following Moody Ridge Road up to the flat andesite mudflow uplands atop the ridge, and spotted a broad bear trail beaten through dense manzanita. I parked and set out on foot. Dropping a couple hundred feet, I struck an old human trail in the oak woods, leading from one spring to another, with several Indian grinding rocks scattered around.

Scattered artifacts along this old trail suggested a more recent history of desultory mining and firewood and timber harvests, during the 19th century. I used to follow this old trail west, and grab a game trail climbing gently, breaking out onto a strangely level old logging road atop Moody Ridge, which led to other oldish roads, linking together to lead me to Lovers Leap, a mile or so away.

But soon the tall trees of the old Towle Estate lands were laid low, as the lands sold to a gang of real estate developers and loggers; first they stripped off the heavy timber, leaving a horror of stumps and slash and skid trails, and in a few short years, Moody Ridge had been illegally subdivided, the usual "no trespassing" appeared, and my old route of old roads, to Lovers Leap, was no more.

Since then, I have discovered other old trails, and yesterday, wandering the woods on top of the ridge, I found an ancient road running perfectly level, clearly over a hundred years old, cut in many places by more recent logging roads and skid trails. I had followed this old level road ten years ago, but not until yesterday I did recognize it for what it really is.

This "old level road" is a narrow-gauge logging railroad roadbed! It almost certainly dates from the 1870s and will likely have been made by the Chinese road gang who worked for the Towle Brothers Lumber Company. For, I had heard tell of an old Towle logging camp at the head of the Green Valley Trail, and a fellow student of local history, Doug Ferrier, had once remarked that he felt sure a certain road on Moody Ridge was originally a Towle narrow-gauge line.

This narrow-gauge railroad is quite hard to recognize, for it is cut in many places by skid trails and other newer roads. It is also badly overgrown, in a densely overstocked coniferous forest, with many many young Incense Cedar and Douglas Fir and White Fir dying for lack of light, and yet they will stand dead for decades at a time, unable to fall for the other trees all around them. They are often thirty or forty feet high.

So, to follow this old logging railroad is to fight through thickets of dead trees and to duck under, or clamber over, numerous larger fallen trees.

Yesterday, after realizing that it must be a railroad, I scouted the thing more thoroughly than ever before. To the west it led to Lovers Leap Road, and from there who knows. But back east, as I followed along, I noticed new subtleties. At a certain point it forked, the left hand climbing gently into a shallow valley on the crest of the ridge, the right holding level to cross this same valley, in the kind of tight arc only possible for narrow-gauge roads.

A few stumps from the Towle-era logging remain; these are almost invariably Incense Cedar stumps, charred black by a series of wildfires. In rare cases, portions of pine stumps remain, also, but these are just the pitchy cores of giant trees, unpalatable to termites and such. Pine stumps more commonly disappear within a few decades. They become infested with ants, with termites and giant boring grubs, and are then torn to pieces by hungry bears.

I crossed the little valley and held the logging railroad southward, passing another fork right, until odd mounds of dirt began to blur its course. I saw a modern logging road to my left and realized that bulldozers had bladed off the mounds of dirt onto the logging railroad, probably during the 1976-77 logging. I carefully maintained the level line of the railroad, guided by a few remnants of its grade, until I was stopped by a knotted thicket. Slamming into it with loppers and might and main, I broke through onto the nearby logging road.

To my surprise, I was exactly at one end of the "strangely level old logging road atop Moody Ridge" mentioned above, which used to form part of my route to Lovers Leap. That is only to say the my "strangely level old logging road" is part of this same Towle Brothers' narrow-gauge logging railroad.

Considering how much logging has taken place on Moody Ridge since the Towle Brothers, 130 years ago, it is a minor miracle that any trace of their old logging railroads still exists.

Back in the 1990s I tried to get Placer County and Tahoe National Forest and the Nevada County Land Trust interested in protecting the main Towle narrow-gauge roadbed, from Drum Forebay on the south to Highway 20 on the north, by way of the Zeibright Mine and Steephollow, etc. etc. Of course I failed. It would have made a wonderful hiking trail, good for equestrians and mountain bikes too, I would have thought. From Highway 80 to Highway 20.

The first mosquitos of the season, here at 4000', flirted with my sweaty face as I ducked and crunched through the forest. Soon there will be a million trillion of them.

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