Monday, June 11, 2007

Monumental Explorations

[written June 11, 2007]

The rock walls on the old Bradley & Gardner Ditch, above the Monuments, called me back. Catherine O'Riley and I had traced the line of this mining ditch only to its crossing of Monumental Creek. In recent days a patch of real weather broke upon us, with thunderstorms of sleet and rain. Wednesday afternoon being sunny, I dragged my teenage son, Greg, up to Emigrant Gap, and then six or seven miles in on Forest Road Nineteen. Our objective: the rock walls.

As we neared Emigrant Gap, a curtain of cloud blocked our view of the high country, and we could see sleet wafting down. We drove through that very sleet on The Nineteen, and, passing Onion Valley, hung a left on Forest Road Forty-Five, which climbs into the upper reaches of Monumental Canyon. The sleet turned to snow.

About a mile in, we parked and caught a view of Monumental Canyon, below. We were directly above the Bradley & Gardner "Canal Road," on the margins of a clearcut on steep slopes above the creek. The wet and heavy snow discouraged us from dropping down to the Canal and continuing across Monumental to the rock walls. So we enjoyed the warmth of the car and drove farther up The Forty-Five.

At a certain point, the USGS 7.5 minute topographic map (Blue Canyon quadrangle) shows the old Monumental Creek Trail (MCT) appearing out of nowhere, below The Forty-Five. We parked and walked through our minor blizzard on a gently descending side road, finally leaving the road and blundering down the side of Monumental Canyon in hopes of striking the trail.

We soon found a recent (less than thirty years) logging road, overgrown with brush and small trees, and saw, below it, another small road. Dropping to this smaller road, we saw that it looked quite old, as though it were an old narrow-gauge logging-railroad grade. Following it a little ways, we soon found some of the "small i" Forest Service blazes, and knew we were on the MCT. It was very brushy and we were already soaked. Greg had a crown of white snow on his red hair. We left the MCT and climbed back up to the gently-descending side road, following it east, imagining that soon it must cross the gently-rising MCT. We reached a hunters' camp in a grove of fir, with all manner of logging roads and skid trails in the immediate area, and as I scouted around, I found the MCT, with blazes on the older trees near it.

This was enough. We retreated to the warm car, drove another couple of miles up The Forty-Five, while the forest turned white with snow all around us, and then went back home.

Thursday dawned clear, and stayed clear, and in the early afternoon I suddenly decided to return to Monumental Canyon and visit the rock walls along the Bradley & Gardner. I had described finding the MCT to Ron Gould that morning; Ron and I had followed this trail from the top, on Black Mountain, down, into a grove of ancient Red Fir which had been logged by Sierra Pacific Industries, only a few years ago, and in the course of yarding big logs with bulldozers, they had utterly obliterated the MCT. We had found a few blazes, but the actual bed of the trail was gone. Now another piece of the puzzle had fallen into place. The position of the MCT where Greg and I had found it suggested that, farther west, this same railroad grade would be found between the Bradley & Gardner Ditch, below, and The Forty-Five, above.

Once again I drove to Emigrant Gap and followed The Nineteen to The Forty-Five, and parked about a mile in, near where Black Mountain Road forks away left. I dropped straight down the forested hillside, and sure enough, I found a little old narrow-gauge railroad grade. I saw no blazes. The area had been subjected to a thinning project similar to what is now proposed by Tahoe National Forest for large areas near Monumental Canyon and Texas Hill. The stumps of many small trees jutted from the forest floor, and the old railroad grade had been torn up a little here and there. No blazes, but this was a perfect match for the MCT. Dropping on down to the Canal Road, I followed it northeast into the clearcut, where the road climbs a few feet above the true line of the Canal. It looks as though Tahoe National Forest put their bulldozers on the Bradley & Gardner just for the purposes of this clearcut. I wish they had left the old canal alone. I wish they had not clearcut the steep slopes above the creek.

Did Tahoe National Forest know, when they bulldozed the Bradley & Gardner, when they bulldozed mile after mile of double-wide, freeway-style logging road in the area around the North Fork of the North Fork, and Onion Valley, and Monumental Canyon, that they were bulldozing the uniquely derived recreational territory of the town of Dutch Flat?

What I mean is, since the 1850s the people of Dutch Flat have hiked here, camped here, hunted and fished here. It is a matter of tradition. Begin with the 1850s: vast treasures awaited discovery at Dutch Flat, pending construction of a big ditch carrying lots of water, for hydraulic mining. The line was surveyed: it ran away up past Blue Canyon into the fabled canyons of the North Fork of the North Fork. There, miners lived in remote camps and cabins, receiving their supplies by mule train, from Dutch Flat. Work began on the ditch: it was called Gay's Big Ditch, after a man I take to be one Elkanar Gay. He built a sturdy fort on the sunny slopes above Blue Canyon, Gay's Fort, for which Fort Point on the Central Pacific Railroad was named, although the chances are about nil that any railroad historian knows that tiny fact.

Fort Point is quite close to Horse Cock Ravine, a name which has not survived on modern maps. A certain pillar of andesitic mudflow stood above the tracks, there. It is seen in some of the old railroad photographs.

So, yes, there was a "fort" along the line of Gay's Big Ditch, a fort probably made from thick logs. And ahead, to the east, lay the Complex of Canyons. The ditch would cross all of those canyons, finally reaching the East Fork itself. But the project failed, probably for lack of funds, and it remained for Elisha Bradley and Melvin Gardner, with their Chinese work force, to complete the Placer Canal, in 1859. Dutch Flat held a parade in celebration, with the individual mining companies carrying large banners inscribed with their names, their symbol and motto (if any), and exclamations of confidence and hope burning bright. Then came the speeches, and the tables groaning with food and drink, and then came the dance.

There were reservoirs, and remote ditch camps, and constant inspection and maintenance. This ditch was crucial to the future of Dutch Flat. Finally the mines could be well and truly opened.

But the summers burned hot and dull, then as now. The water in the ditch failed every summer, the mines shut down for their own cycles of maintenance and preparation for the next "season" of work, to begin some time in November, most likely. By then the first of the winter storms should have blanketed the high country in snow, and drenched the lower elevations in rain. But in the summer, and early fall, the people of Dutch Flat found ways to get to higher elevations. A wagon ride up the Old Emigrant Road brought one to Emigrant Gap, to Yuba Gap and popular Crystal Lake, but it also put one within reach of the East Fork.

Work on the Bradley & Gardner predated the Central Pacific's arrival (1866) by ten years or more. It is possible that Forest Road Nineteen actually dates back to the 1850s. The Nineteen stays high within the Complex of Canyons, where glacial till predominates and road-building is easier. The Canal hews to the 4800-foot contour in this country, having a slight grade down to the west, and can't choose to rise high or fall low to avoid a cliff or other obstacle, as a road can choose. This near-level path through the Complex of Canyons means making long turns in and out of each canyon. It makes for a poor trail, at least, for getting to Point B from Point A. For walking in the woods and canyons, it makes a truly great trail.

So, I would suggest that road access from Emigrant Gap may itself date from the 1850s, and in any case, preceded any significant logging in the area. Not until the Central Pacific arrived could the timber be brought to market. And way back in that East Fork country were the various mining camps, including Monumental Camp, and Texas Hill, and Burnett Canyon, and the folk from Dutch Flat would come up and camp and picnic and fish and hunt and hike. Here was the epochal mining ditch which fed the very mines. The Bradley & Gardner.

Both Bradley and Gardner became fabulously wealthy. Eventually they sold out to the Cedar Creek Company, of London. But that's another story.

Onion Valley may have been the site of Monumental Camp, from which a man named Gunnoldson would ski over to Texas Hill, to visit I.T. Coffin. They hiked and skied all the trails. The China Trail, the Sawtooth Trail, the Burnett Canyon Trail, and so on. Later they both moved to Dutch Flat itself. Decades later, about 1915 or 1925, cartoons were drawn of Dutch Flat men camping at Onion Valley, on a hunting trip. Buster Sharon and friends ... Buster Sharon, who had been one of the hard-hitting young men of Dutch Flat in the 1890s, who had killed a tall Swede with a single blow of his fist. The Swede worked as a logger for the Towle Brothers.

The Towle Brothers Lumber Company, of Dutch Flat, had extensive holdings up in the Texas Hill country, and established the Burnett Canyon Mill there, in the 1890s. They had sawed the lumber for the snowsheds of the Central Pacific Railroad, and had been paid, partly, in land. By 1890 they owned 19,000 acres and had thirty-eight miles of narrow-gauge railroad, not counting the temporary tracks which were quickly laid up this or that canyon to bring the logs out, and then as quickly dismantled.

Many Dutch Flat men worked for the Towles. The payroll was in the hundreds. Among these were the Chinese road crew, who laid in the railroad grades and set ties and tracks. There were about fifty in this crew alone.

Hence many Dutch Flat men who might otherwise never have visited Onion Valley and Texas Hill and the East Fork, came to know it through the Towle Brothers. And for many reasons, the gold mining, the construction of the Bradley & Gardner, the Towles, and the sheer magic and beauty of this land of tall trees and sparkling streams and waterfalls and lush meadows, over the decades a special connection arose between Dutch Flat and this East Fork Country.

But then came the bulldozer, and so many, many timber harvests, and so many, many miles of logging roads. The old trails, wrecked; the Bradley & Gardner, wrecked; the soulless calculations of the Forest Service, of how many cubic feet of wood, per acre per year, could be grown, calculations which returned that horrible and equally soulless solution, the clear-cut; and today very extensive "thinning" is proposed, much using ground-based equipment, and while trying to be a reasonable man, I can't help but feel that way more than enough damage has already been done in this area.


Regaining the line of the canal, I followed it up Monumental Creek to the crossing, skipped over the stream boulder-to-boulder, and soon I was sailing along atop the rock walls I had seen from a distance. Numerous small bits of blue flagging had been tied to small trees along the Canal, by Tahoe National Forest employees who were marking it for some reason. They litter the ground in places. Apparently this old ditch needs a lot of flagging.

Logging operations which seemed to be roughly contemporaneous with the clearcut, that is, roughly twenty-five years past, had come all the way down to the line of the Canal from the ridge above. Below the Canal were some huge Douglas Fir and Sugar Pine. This "ridge above" forms the divide between the East Fork of the North Fork of the North Fork (East Fork) and Monumental Creek. The ridge is made of Shoo Fly Complex metasediments in the usual near-vertical strata, like one sees in most of this area, and it seems as though a global westerly flow of the glacier in Monumental Canyon and the nearby East Fork had gone right over the tops of the Monuments, which inhabit a south-flowing section of Monumental Creek. Possibly glacial till had settled in deeply there, beneath the ice, and protected these precarious columns, these unusual rock towers which would have been instantly struck down if the main Monumental glacier had flowed south, along the present creek, rather than west, above it.

At any rate, the Monuments present a bit of a geological mystery. Despite the intense glaciation of this area, rock outcrops are not conspicuous; they exist, but far more commonly, the bedrock is blanketed with glacial till, which today supports the rich forests. This till contains numerous boulders of granite which were ripped from the South Yuba basin, somewhere "up-ice." For here, as in so many other areas, we see that South Yuba ice overflowed to the south, into the North Fork of the American basin.

I followed the Bradley & Gardner past the Monuments, gleaming in the midday sun, and into the East Fork proper.

I had reached this point twenty-five years ago, and found the brush very thick along the Canal, and so I did not follow it then. Today I was not going to be stopped. To my surprise, there was fairly easy going, through the thickets of Huckleberry Oak and Ceanothus and Manzanita, for bears had been using the Canal as a trail, as one often sees. There will often be a gap in the bushes one can sidle through, even though it can't be seen for all the leaves and branches. A closer examination reveals that many branches have been broken off by the bears, who perform their own version of trail maintenance. The bears also rip down small trees along their favorite paths, before they can mature into large trees which block the paths.

From the sunny point between Monumental Canyon and the East Fork, where the brush grew thick, I entered shady woods where I had easy going.

It was exciting to venture into unknown territory. I hoped I had seen the last of the logging, and would find the ancient ditch undisturbed the rest of the way to the "take," higher on the East Fork; but no. The logging of roughly twenty-five years ago had extended all the way down to the line of the Canal, and even below it, into the well-watered heavy timber along the creek, in alluvial terraces of glacial outwash sediments. However, this area must have been logged using helicopters, at least, it was not riven every which way by bulldozer skid trails, and the ditch itself was fairly intact, although often covered in logging slash.

Finally I left the logging behind. The Canal was very close to the East Fork, now; it was very close to the 4840' contour. I reached a bench cut in slaty bedrock directly above the creek, where some tall Douglas Fir had come crashing down along the line of the Canal itself, and--there was no more. I had reached the "take," where doubtless a log dam had been carefully fitted into the bedrock exposed on both sides of the creek, raising the water the ten feet needed to overflow into the ditch.

At just that point, a huge cylinder of riveted sheet iron lay in the creek. "Ah ha," thought I, "they used some hydraulic-mining penstock to convey the waters for the first twenty feet or so, from the dam." I clambered down through the wreckage of the fallen trees to the cylinder, and found it to be the boiler of a steam engine. It measured four feet in diameter, and twenty feet long, and was made from about quarter-inch-thick sheet iron. I could find no maker's mark.

Instantly I recalled the Legend of the Lost Locomotive. Many versions exist. The most common is that one of the Towle Brothers' narrow-gauge locomotives had fallen into a creek, somewhere in the East Fork country. No one knew where it was.

Some claimed that it had been lifted out of the area at long last, around 1990, by a logging helicopter. There are so many rumors, so many versions of the Legend of the Lost Locomotive. I remember one authority on local logging railroads assuring me that the lost locomotive dates from the 1920s, that it was in use by the Smart Lumber Company, of Dutch Flat, that a certain trestle had burned down, trapping it in the remote area, and eventually, it had tumbled into the creek.

Could this boiler be the legendary Lost Locomotive of the East Fork?

Perhaps. But it had not one speck of running gear. It was a boiler for a steam engine, plain and simple. It is slightly dented, as though it could have rolled down the side of the canyon. It must have rolled down; for it is far too heavy to have ever been floated by the East Fork, I should think.

I took some pictures. On the way out, I followed an old logging railroad grade I had spotted above the ditch, and ended up atop the dividing ridge, between Monumental and the East Fork, on more recent logging roads,but the brush became to bad, so I dropped back off the ridge to the Canal, and followed it back in and out of Monumental Canyon, until I could scramble up the steepish slope to my car.

Sunday I joined my sister, Karen, with her husband, Barry, and geologist Dave Lawler, for a return to the Bradley & Gardner, and the East Fork, and the putative Lost Locomotive. Dave and I had explored sections of the Bradley & Gardner further west, in the Complex of Canyons, some ten years ago, covering most of its course between Sailor Ravine and Lost Camp. So this was a return to an old subject of ours. Dave, Barry, and Karen much admired the ancient Canal, and the Monuments, and we found the Western Azalea bushes in full bloom, near the boiler, sweetly scenting the air. Some beautiful clouds, struggling to become thunderstorms, drifted overhead, and for a while a pair of hawks watched us, soaring in circles. I took the chance to explore more of the old logging railroad grade above the boiler. It clearly dates from about a hundred years ago, probably from the era of the Towle Brothers and the Burnett Canyon Mill and the Texas Hill Incline. It continues up the East Fork on a gently rising grade. I followed it for nearly half a mile, before brush closed in tight and stopped me. Soon I hope to follow it farther. On the way out, Barry and Karen and Dave and I saw that this same railroad grade had a spur dropping steeply to the East Fork.

Such have been some recent explorations in the good old East Fork Country.

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