Sunday, July 9, 2017

Mark Twain's Cabin & More

Mark Twain's Cabin
California's Sierra Nevada foothills, the California Gold Country, is full of Old West history. It can be found in both it's original form, meaning ruins and such, or in the form of re-creation as with the replica of a cabin that Mark Twain had supposedly lived in. 

It's true, on Highway 49, about 1 mile northwest of Tuttletown, right there in Tuolumne County, is a California Historical Marker that points to the location of Mark Twain's cabin. It is part of the Mark Twain Bret Harte Trail, at the top of Jackass Hill. Fact is the original cabin burned down, but in the 1920s it was recreated.

So yes, it's a replica of the cabin where Mark Twain spent the winter of 1864-1865. That's supposedly the spot where Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the man who we know by his famous pen name of Mark Twain, is said to have been a guest of his friends the Gillis brothers, Steve, Jim and Bill Gillis.

The Gillis brothers were local miners, and the story goes that Twain was with Steve Gillis in a saloon in Angels Camp when he heard a story about a jumping frog. After returning to Jackass Hill and the cabin, Twain wrote about what he had heard earlier that day. That tale became his first book titled "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." That book launched Mark Twain's career. 

It is said that it was in Angles Camp that he gathered material for his book "Roughing It" which is said to be a semi-autobiographical book about Twain's travels through the West during the years 1861–1867. 

Supposedly, after briefly serving as a Confederate soldier during the Civil War, he joined his brother Orion Clemens, who was pretty established politically. Orion Clemens had been appointed Secretary of the Nevada Territory. Twain is said to have consulted his brother's diary, borrowing heavily from it, when he wrote "Roughing It." That book is pretty interesting because it talks about the gold fields in California and silver prospecting in Nevada and elsewhere. 

Jackass Hill was once a mining camp. It's said the camp achieved notoriety in 1851 and 1852 when hundreds of miners rushed to the newly discovered diggings there. The gold there was coarse and said to be plentiful. The gold often appearing in "pockets" that could make a miner rich in a matter of hours. One account says that some claims of only one hundred square feet yielded as much as $10,000. 

The mines played out quickly and soon most of the population left. That is all except the die-hards who refused to give up. They continued prospecting the area, and it's said they occasionally turned up a small pocket of gold here and there. 

Jackass Hill was named for the mules in the pack trains that stopped there to rest overnight on their way to and from the mines. It's said that as many as 200 mules were picketed there at the same time. They were known to make their presence known by their incessant braying which was said to be heard for miles in all directions. The area was named Jackass Hill to remember their "concerts" each evening during the heyday of the California Gold Rush.

North of Jackass Hill, along California Highway 49, is New Melones Lake. The Archie Stevenot Bridge that spans the lake was built in 1976. It is an impressive structure, and near the center of the bridge is a sign designating the Tuolumne County/ Calaveras County lines. 

In reality, the lake is actually a reservoir on the Stanislaus River. The New Melones Dam and reservoir stores and ships water collected for the Central Valley Project. New Melones Lake provides irrigation water, hydroelectric power, flood control, and even wildlife habitats. The lake itself has a 2,400,000 acre ft capacity with a surface area of 12,500 acres. When full, New Melones has a shoreline that's more than 100 miles long. The reservoir and the dam are located west of Jamestown and Sonora, and south of Angels Camp. 

The site of the reservoir is at the very heart of the California Gold Country. And believe it or not, water was already being diverted and the development of that area began with the arrival of the miners in 1849. Water was immediately diverted to get to the riverbeds, that was where the gold was found. Soon the area was built up by miners and businesses that served their needs. 

About now you're saying, nice travel log, but what's so interesting about the New Melones Lake? 

Well, today the New Melones Visitor Center and Museum has information about cultural and natural history of the area. The museum has exhibits on how the Stanislaus River was used by historic peoples, including the Miwok Indians, during the California Gold Rush, by ranchers, and the now defunct community of Melones. Before being renamed Melones in 1902, that town was known as Robinson Ferry. 

It was there on November 3rd, 1883, that stage driver Reason E. McConnell stopped at the Reynolds Ferry Hotel on the Stanislaus River to pick up a passenger by the name of Jimmy Rolleri. As the stage headed for Funk Hill, the stage was robbed.

Today the town of Reynolds Ferry, later known as Melones, and its hotel are at the bottom of the New Melones Lake. Upon the dam's completion, the valley was filled with water. That water covers the ruins of the original smaller Melones Dam and what's left of the old mining town of Reynolds Ferry. That water also covers the very last place where a stage was robbed by the legendary bandit Black Bart. His last stage robbery. Imagine that. 

Tom Correa

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