Foothills abound in history footnotes worth looking upBy Mike Dunne
Bee Staff Writer
Published Jan. 18, 1998
Every ounce of gold taken from the Mother Lode looks to have been replaced with a ton of bronze.
Heirs and historians of the Gold Rush have bolted commemorative plaques to countless buildings, sidewalks and granite monoliths throughout the northern and southern mines.
So while sesquicentennial visitors to the Sierra foothills likely will head first for the Coloma riverside where gold was discovered, or Columbia State Park, or the Empire Mine in Grass Valley, numerous other footnotes of historical significance beckon.
Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park: Combine shortsightedness, greed and haste with engineering acumen and what you get is a blazing scar of raw earth etched against an evergreen forest northeast of Nevada City.
Here, miners channeled and harnessed river water, shot it through cannonlike nozzles at gold-bearing hills, and left behind high walls of exposed soil that hang with the flow and folds of stage curtains.
The washing of dirt at Malakoff, the largest hydraulic mine along the Sierra foothills, ended in 1884, when Judge Lorenzo Sawyer halted the practice at the urging of downstream farmers whose fields and orchards were being flooded because of so much sediment in rivers.
Today, Malakoff includes the ghostly settlement of North Bloomfield, a few small and primitive rental cabins, and hiking trails through the battered landscape, littered with the rusting remains of old cables and penstocks.
Michigan Bluff to Last Chance Trail: By freight wagon, stagecoach and horse or mule, they arrived, those hopeful prospectors.
Today, visitors to the Gold Country can get a taste of that kind of adventure by hiking a 13-mile trail that parallels the north fork of the middle fork of the American River east of Auburn. The trail, which was built in the early 1850s, connects the mining camps of Michigan Bluff, Deadwood and Last Chance.
Too narrow and twisting for wagons and coaches, it was open only to pack trains and foot travelers.
Indeed, the seven-mile stretch from Michigan Bluff to Deadwood constituted one of the few toll trails in California.
(One diarist recorded the toll as $1.50.)
Rancheria Massacre: Not many monuments recall the racial animosity of California's Gold Rush history.
One that does is virtually impossible to find, and only obliquely refers to the tragic episode associated with it.
It rises from a long, convex slab of concrete high on a slope of private cattle land east of Drytown in Amador County.
The lonely monument overlooks the site of Lower Rancheria, the setting for the start of perhaps the bloodiest encounter between California Mexicans and immigrant gringos who disrupted their lives.
In 1855, about a dozen displaced Californians, most of them Mexicans, revolted.
In one day they killed six people and robbed several Chinese mining camps in and about Lower Rancheria.
That was just the start of a virtual race war along the foothills, with innocent Mexicans killed, the Chilean neighborhood of Drytown burned, and Amador County's first sheriff, William Phoenix, mortally wounded in a gunbattle.
Before calm was restored to the area, as many as 17 Mexicans may have been killed and all others had been expelled from the county.
The tombstone pays tribute to two of the victims, Mary Dynan and Eugene Francis, both "killed by bandit" on Aug. 5, 1855.
Chaw'Se Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park: Long before the Gold Rush erupted, Northern Sierra Miwoks gathered regularly at a huge outcropping of marbleized limestone just outside of what is now know as Volcano to pulverize acorns and other seeds into meal.
Today, that grinding rock -- "chaw'se" to the Miwok -- pocked with 1,185 mortars and etched with 383 petroglyphs, is the centerpiece of a 135-acre park that also includes nature trails, a reconstructed Miwok village with a massive ceremonial roundhouse, a cluster of bark houses in which visitors can camp overnight, and a museum to showcase crafts and tools of the Miwok and other American Indian groups of the Sierra Nevada.
Kennedy Mine Tailing Wheels: They look like Ferris wheels awaiting a carnival crowd, these 68-foot-tall sentinels overlooking the gold fields on the north edge of Jackson.
For about 60 years, the wastes, or tailings, of the Kennedy Mine simply were tossed aside. But this finely ground quartz gradually washed into the north fork of Jackson Creek, flowing eventually to the agriculturally rich Jackson and Ione valleys, polluting fertile farmlands.
In 1912, at the behest of anti-debris farm groups, legislators forced miners either to impound their tailings or stop operating. Kennedy officials constructed four wheels and a network of flumes to lift the tailings 128 feet over two gently rolling hills into a small valley where an impounding dam could be built.
Today, the site is a small park. Two of the wheels have been restored, two lie in ruins, a jumble of splintered redwood and rusting metal.
Argonaut Mine: About midway through the night shift on Aug. 27, 1922, fire broke out at the Argonaut Mine of Jackson, trapping 47 men about 4,000 feet below. As the blaze raged through massive timbers, the signal system, telephone and lights went dead, and heat warped the rails on which skips usually rode, preventing communication and escape.
A massive and dramatic rescue effort that seized the nation's attention was launched, consisting primarily of driving a tunnel from the adjacent Kennedy Mine.
Three weeks later, on Sept. 18, rescuers broke through to the Argonaut.
In one tunnel they found a barricade of board, rubble and clothes the miners had built against fumes from the fire. Behind a second barricade, they found 46 bodies (the 47th was found later on another level). Indications were that the miners had perished within hours after the fire was discovered.
It was the worst gold-mining disaster in the state's history.
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