Friday, June 23, 2006

Smart's Crossing

Dutch Flat was once the largest town in Placer County, surrounded by loud-roaring hydraulic mines, and well-loved by a thousand Chinese (who had both a Joss House, and a fancy headquarters for the Chee Kong tong), and high enough in the Sierra to enjoy an occasional heavy snow. I sometimes remark that it is a town where ghosts outnumber the living, a fact of which both the ghosts and the living are fully aware! It's enough to drive a psychic crazy.

It is true that, now as then, a kind of perpetual dream grips the place, with its tall sighing pines and poplars, and Victorian houses, and winding streets.

Truth is stranger than fiction, and in 1870 one could find the Opera House pressed into service as a roller-skating rink, with red-shirted miners and their wives thundering around the broad floor. And the red-shirted roller-skating hydraulic miners of Dutch Flat did not stop there, oh no; they contrived to have roller-skating costume balls, with prizes and everything.

Why, London itself did not get its first roller-skating rink until 1877 or so; but Dutch Flat has long been ahead of the world.

Once upon a time it was a favorite resort, and the several hotels would fill every summer with visitors from the Bay Area, who arrived by train. Off they would go, into the canyons to angle for trout, or out to Lovers Leap to marvel at the view, or up into the high country. By following The Old Emigrant Road north and east towards Alta, one could turn onto an ancient wagon road, which led past more mines and through a million curves, to a bridge over Bear River, thence climbing to Liberty Hill, yet another hydraulic mining town, on the far side.

This bridge was named Smarts Crossing, for the Smart family of Dutch Flat, who operated a sawmill across the Bear at one time. I think of Addie Smart, a vivacious young feminist and artist of the 1890s, who came walking up out of the Bear River canyon carrying the rattles of the largest rattlesnake ever seen in these parts, which she had despatched herself.

This afternoon my kids and I drove as far down Addie Smart's family's rocky old road as we dared, and walked the last third of a mile to the Crossing. Usually, in these canyons, bridges span narrows, where an inner gorge traps the river into a deep pool, and such is the case at Smarts Crossing. The pool is quite deep and very dark, with a waterfall at its upper end, a more or less permanent Water Ouzel nest clinging to the rocks beside the falls, and cliffs on both sides, from which to jump or dive. It is quite a magical and beautiful place. Many many a a time I have lounged there with friends on a summer afternoon, swimming briefly from time to time (I can't tolerate the cold water well), and practicing rock-climbing on the sheer cliffs. If one falls, one gets wet, but not hurt.

Kids and adults who act like kids have been diving and jumping from the 21-Foot Rock (I measured it myself) for many a year; one can't doubt but that the Indians, the Nisenan and their predecessors, also jumped from the 21-Foot Rock and lounged on the water-polished bedrock above the deep deep pool.

It must have been a favorite for Dutch Flatters of hydraulic mining days, for there were no mines of consequence upstream from Smarts Crossing, altho just downstream Stump Canyon enters from the Liberty Hill Mine, to the north. So the water would have been clear at the Crossing, but muddy for mile after mile downstream, with all the mine tailings.

Smarts Crossing lies within Section 26 of Township 16 North, Range Ten East. Being an even-numbered section, Section 26 would otherwise be public land, not granted to the Central Pacific Railroad by President Lincoln, as were the odd-numbered sections, to twenty miles either side of the right-of-way; would be public, except, many a mining claim was patented therein, so the section is a patchwork of public and private lands.

One triangle of Tahoe National Forest land lies at or quite near to Smarts Crossing, itself, and to the good old swimming hole; another irregular, multi-angled parcel wraps into and around the Elmore Hill Diggings, which are directly across the Little Bear River from the famous Polar Star Mine. These mines mark the line of the Dutch Flat Channel, a tributary of the Eocene South Yuba which joined the latter master stream at Dutch Flat itself, coming from Liberty Hill. So the Eocene channel crosses the canyon of the Bear at quite a slight angle.

The main Tertiary South Yuba flowed north into Dutch Flat from Gold Run, Iowa Hill, Yankee Jims, and Michigan Bluff, to the south. It then continued north of the Bear, exposed again at Christmas Hill, Little York, You Bet, Red Dog, Waloopa, etc.etc.

Now, the old wagon road down to Smarts Crossing, which required some fancy cuts and dry-laid stone walls for its approach to the inner gorge at the pool, and the bridge (gone since the late 1930s)--the old wagon road, today, forks north off Drum Powerhouse Road, just shy of the signs telling us that the main road is now a PG&E road.

This road, by the way, is a favorite with local residents who like a nice level walk or bike ride; for miles, it is cut directly into the line of the historic Miners Ditch, one of the three huge canals which served the hydraulic mines of Elmore Hill, Dutch Flat, and Gold Run. It offers to view three different fault-bounded "terranes," exposed in cross-section, as it were, by both the main canyon of the Bear, and by the roadcuts themselves. After driving (or walking, or biking) past the PG&E signs, one first sees rock of the late-Paleozoic Calaveras Complex, rock of the same sort exposed at Smarts Crossing, tough metavolcanic stuff. It is also exposed to the south, in Giant Gap.

Then, continuing east up the Bear, a fault is crossed, razor-sharp and near vertical, and one passes into the late-Paleozoic Melones Fault Zone serpentine, or as sometimes called, the Feather River Peridotite. This serpentine "belt" is about a hundred miles long, and at right angles, about, with all the major canyons. It crosses the North Fork American at Green Valley.

After a couple miles of serpentine, the main trace of the Melones Fault is crossed, and one enters the curious "screen" of Mesozoic metasediments separating the serpentine from its nearest-neighbor, in a more global sense, the early-Paleozoic metasedimentary Shoo Fly Complex (of discrete formations). Rocks in the screen vary between a funny strong black slate, and bodies of limestone grading into limy muds, and weaker slates.

And at last, near the powerhouse itself, where big Pelton wheels are housed in a sturdy industrial building of the 1920s or so, one gets clear of the rocks of the Mesozoic screen and enters the Shoo Fly Complex proper. But I do not recall that its rocks are actually well exposed at the powerhouse; they extend for miles and miles up to the head of the Bear, where it is cut off by the larger South Yuba canyon.

Smarts Crossing Road passes through a welter of parcels, including, I think, the aforementioned triangle of TNF land, before reaching the Bear, and the historic and prehistoric swimming-hole.

And so it was that, when one of the private parcels along the old road finally changed hands, in the early 1980s, a gate was installed, "no trespassing" signs nailed up, and people who wished to swim were turned back at gunpoint.

Thanks the efforts of various local residents, including the famous Bill Newsom, and his old friend, attorney Ed Stadum, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the property owner, on behalf of We the People, asserting that the Smarts Crossing Road was a public road, and could not be gated closed.

And we prevailed, in the Superior Court of Judge James Garbolino, in Auburn. The gate was removed, and the "no trespassing" signs came down.

Thus it came as a shock when PG&E itself installed its own gate across the Smarts Crossing Road, in 2004 as I recall. The reason? Some campers, down at the Crossing, had been rousted form their sleeping bags by a sudden rise in river level, PG&E having made a sudden discharge, up at the powerhouse; and they wished to protect the Public from danger, and themselves from liability. Hence the gate, and offensive signs ordering there be No Camping. Even down at the Crossing itself, a PG&E signs orders one not to approach the river!

Not to approach the river! At the one swimming hole above all other swmming holes, within easy reach of Dutch Flat!

No, no, no, no, no!

Several people complained, and the record of Judge Garbolino's decision was mailed to PG&E, and after a time, it was announced that the gate would be unlocked.

What was not announced was, that the gate would remain, and so also, the offensive signs. My kids and I let ourselves through (the gate is secured with a chain), and found the road below rough going, and seldom traveled. Brush is beginning to overgrow the old road quite badly. We thrashed on down a half-mile with many a shocking clunk and scrape as the low-slung little Subie crawled through the miry, boulder-strewn roadbed, parked a quarter-mile shy of where we usually park, fearing worse conditions, and walked the last bit to the river.

It is always one of the most horribly cold swims, Smarts Crossing. Perhaps it is the "reservoir water" function, but here the reservoir is not Drum Afterbay, a tiny thing which cannot let water stratify into colder bottom layers, but Lake Valley Reservoir, up at about 6000' in elevation. Hence the coldness, I suppose, and it never really relents.

So. Public access to the old public road is again hampered. Selfishly, I like that, for it means I share Smarts Crossing with fewer people. More perspicuously, I abhor the partial closure. It follows a pattern so widespread, it scarcely even shocks us at all, any more, but inch by inch and mile by mile we are losing access to The Commons, and that is quite a terrible thing.

So the divine Smarts Crossing, which I always had to mention in the same breath with Lovers Leap, whenever first describing the wonders of Dutch Flat to an "outsider," to one who has not rubbed shoulders with a thousand ghosts for lo so many years, yes, the divine Smarts Crossing is at risk, threatened in many ways, actually.

For just one thing, PG&E seems to believe it has the right to operate the Bear River itself as though it were its own private canal, despite the fact that it passes through fairly much in the way of public lands, and that many people visit it to swim and hike and fish or whatever.

Also, the very parcel which occasioned the original gate, farther down the road from the new PG&E gate, now belongs to a certain well-known real estate developer: if one or more houses were built along the old road, it would mean the very kiss of death, i think, to sustained public use; and add to that, Tahoe National Forest is considering the sale of these funny old left-over, unpatented mining claims, which are all that remain of our public lands within Section 26.

When, if anything, Tahoe National Forest should be trying to purchase the private inholdings in Section 26!

It seems strange that after all the effort expended on the 1984 lawsuit, with so very much time by attorney Ed Stadum donated, free, gratis, to the cause, after all that, Smarts Crossing could be lost forever.

Moreover, applying geology's founding Principle of Uniformity to this complex instance in which the very soul of a town, Smarts Crossing, is tottering, poised on the brink of destruction; well, we immediately deduce that, if it is happening here, it is happening elsewhere, and we realize that the ancestral Commons, and the very soul of the Commons, is either lost already, or is about to be lost, all up and down California in general, and the Sierra in particular.

I'm afraid Smarts Crossing needs a much stronger advocacy in its support, than it now benefits from, if it is really to be preserved for the enjoyment of future generations, as we would hope.

1 comment:

Amy said...

I grew up in Alta enjoying the beauty of the area and the joys of the local rivers. Smarts Crossing is still one of my favorite spots. I was turned away a few years back by the PG&E gate. Last year I was happy to see that it had been vandalized and remained open. The road has never been worse, at one point you tilt sideways in at a very scarey angle. Once you reach the water you remember why it is worth all the trouble. I love the cliff jump just as much now as I did as child. We all need to protect our public lands.