[written June 14, 2007]
Wednesday morning Ron Gould and I drove up to Emigrant Gap on I-80, and then in on Forest Road 19 to Onion Valley (a lush wet glacial meadow just below the 4800' contour), hung a left on Forest Road 45, and very soon went right on 45-2. Our objective was the old Bradley & Gardner Ditch, or Placer County Canal. Following it in and out of Monumental Canyon we would reach the East Fork, and in another mile, the "take," where a small dam once diverted the East Fork into the Canal.
There we would find the old riveted steam engine boiler, twenty feet long and four feet in diameter. I had conjectured that this might be the source of the "Legend of the Lost Locomotive," the abandoned narrow-gauge logging engine supposedly hidden away in that remote, many-ravined East Fork Country.
The East Fork of the North Fork of the North Fork of the American River might better be named Azalea Canyon, for the Western Azalea, a species of rhododendron, is in full bloom along the banks of the creek, the large and graceful white flowers sweetly scenting the air. This shrub seems especially common there.
We parked at the end of Road 45-2 and began our hike.
All went as planned and Ron much admired the admirable old rock walls along the Canal, and the fine view of the Monuments, below, on Monumental Creek.
We reached the "take," and the putative Lost Locomotive. Ron has a keen eye. I had examined every exposed surface for some kind of maker's mark, but I found nothing. Ron immediately saw some tiny letters on two of the riveted iron plates forming the giant cylinder; one set of letters was legible, and read "CH#1," the other, longer set of letters seemed to spell "LOCHAIR" but was very faint, and may have had one letter preceding the "L."
Later, from the internet, Ron learned that "CH#1" means "charcoal hammered number one grade." This was a specialty rolled iron used for boilers.
We paused for lunch at the Lost Locomotive (which may well have been some kind of stationary steam engine, and in any case has no running gear or cab), and discussed its position, really right down in the bed of the Azalea Canyon, inches from the water. On the one hand, it might have rolled down the canyon wall: there was some denting to the cylinder. On the other hand, it might have been carried down Azalea Canyon from somewhere above, in a flood event, such as occurred in January of 1997. There are scratches running lengthwise on the cylinder.
Ron felt that, had the tons of metal been carried down the river, it would show more and deeper scratches. I on the other hand, who started by insisting it must have rolled down from some point above, now began to think that it must have been washed down Azalea Canyon to its current position.
We found a number of pieces of strap iron in and around the creek, which seemed to have nothing to do with our lonely Lost Locomotive, and I speculated that they may have been used to tie together the logs of the vanished diversion dam.
I was wrong, however, as will soon be made clear.
After lunch, we climbed to a century-old narrow-gauge logging railroad grade less than a hundred feet above the Bradley & Gardner, and followed it up the canyon, through occasional patches of thick brush. This old railroad grade bade fair to continue up Azalea Canyon for miles. However, in half a mile it turned into a side canyon and seemed to end altogether.
We could see a strange area of raw dirt across Azalea Canyon, and in the course of scouting the forested slopes in our ravine for any sign of our railroad grade's continuation, we drew nearer, and saw that near the area of raw dirt, some cliffs feel steeply to the river. So we made our way back to the river's edge, and saw immediately that a road descended to the river from the Texas Hill side, ending in a huge turn-around and log deck. A very high bank had been left by the big bench cut. So, there was our raw dirt.
Immediately upstream were the cliffs, and we entered a fascinating little gorge within Azalea Canyon, Shoo Fly Complex metasediments carved into pools and rapids. Smooth and rounded rocks along the stream gave way to ragged cliffs of slate rising hundreds of feet above. It was easy going, with the water so low, to ascend the gorge, and shortly we entered a more typical part of the canyon, with White Alders along the banks, and many boulders of glacial outwash and glacial till in the stream.
We rested. The day was quite warm and the shade was welcome. Looking at our maps, we saw that a certain road descended to the river from the north, only a little ways upstream. Ron began wandering up the creek, and soon a shout brought me scampering along after him. He stood triumphantly over a train wheel, which must have weighed hundreds of pounds, lying beside the creek on a bedrock outcrop. Now we must be within an ace of the road-from-the-north, so we forged on up the stream, finding more strap iron, and then, some narrow-gauge railroad track, and then ...
And then we reached the road-from-the-north, which I saw at once was a century-old railroad grade, unusually steep, but Ron kept on finding new and more exciting bits and pieces of old railroad junk down below, and I rejoined him. A little flat at the base of the old road held a sign on a tree reading "Time Bandit Mining Claim." The miner had found many square nails and spikes and whatnot in the course of suction dredging the creek, and these were in a pile. We saw large pieces of old iron equipment scattered beside the creek nearby, and another old railroad grade seemed to climb steeply away on the Texas Hill side. I followed this up a couple hundred yards, where it became indistinct, but did seem to continue, and then struck directly back down to the stream, crossed, and found myself in a vast springy area with an acre of Lady Ferns putting on new growth in the sunshine. I found a squishy path through the ferns and entered the forest above, immediately striking another old railroad grade, which I followed up the canyon a short distance, before it seemed to end.
Retreating, I began to see more old metal scattered in the woods, and soon found a cabin site, with pieces of an old cast-iron woodstove, and other oddities, scattered about. Ron joined me, and after looking at the antiquities, we saw a Forest Service sign advising that it was a historic site, and artifacts could not be taken.
Walking down the old railroad grade towards the flat with the mining claim sign, we saw some more old metal at the edge of the large springy area, much obscured by alder trees, and walking over, found a second boiler, like the first, about twenty feet long and four feet in diameter. This boiler had various appurtenances bolted on which were missing from the Bradley & Gardner boiler. Nearby were what appeared to be long sections of riveted light sheet iron smokestacks.
We interpreted this second boiler to be a stationary engine used at the base of a steep, tracked, "incline," although in retrospect I suppose it may have powered a sawmill. But we saw no sawdust pile, no artifacts which could only have derived from a mill.
Seeing all this antique logging gear, scarcely half a mile above the Bradley & Gardner boiler, led me to conclude that it had indeed been carried down the river in a flood event.
After exploring the area fairly thoroughly, we debated whether to follow the road-from-the-north up to where the top of the incline must have been, on the ridge dividing Azalea and Monumental canyons, but decided instead to follow back down the East Fork and look for the base of the Texas Hill Incline.
This historic incline connected the East Fork (Azalea Canyon) to the summit of Texas Hill, and thus to the Towle Brothers Lumber Company's "Burnett Canyon" mill, of the 1890s.
On our way back down Azalea Canyon, we saw more and more old strap iron, and soon enough found long pieces, some still nailed to wooden rails. This was a relatively primitive way of moving logs around; instead of laying "real" railroad track, which is expensive, one used wooden beams or logs for rails, and nailed strap iron on top. Then flat-cars, or log-cars, of some kind, could be rolled down these tracks, using oxen or even mules for motive force. It looks very much as if one of the primitive strap-iron railroads followed right down Azalea Canyon, sometimes directly beside the stream itself, sometimes fifty feet above it. We saw hundreds of feet of strap iron before we reached the Bradley & Gardner.
From the Canal, a few yards west of the "take," we followed an old railroad grade down to the stream, and immediately struck a continuation of the strap-iron railroad. As we followed downstream, crossing from side to side to take advantage of forested flat terraces of glacial outwash, so did the strap iron cross back and forth.
Eventually we reached the near vicinity of the Texas Hill Incline, but frustratingly, could not see it. Trees over a hundred feet high have grown up since then.
However, we did find a cable spool, which may be what was sometimes called a "gypsy head," associated with a stationary engine used for yarding logs, at about where we felt the base of the Incline must be.
Proceeding downstream, a much more substantial narrow-gauge railroad grade replaced our fragile strap-iron line, and this led to a crossing of Azalea Canyon exactly at the confluence of Monumental Creek. From there it was a short but not all that easy scramble back up to Road 45-2 and Ron's truck.
Before returning to the freeway and Civilization, we drove up Texas Hill Road past the spring of that name, and found the upper section of the Incline. However, we could not see all the way down into Azalea Canyon. The exact course of the Incline as it nears the stream will be found on some other trip.
Such was a very interesting day in the East Fork Country.