Home A - Z FAQ Online Library Discussion Forum Muir Weather Maps About Search
Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management

Next: U. S. PropertyContentsPrevious: The Garrotes

The Big Oak Flat Road (1955) by Irene D. Paden and Margaret E. Schlichtmann

Chapter IX

In freighting days one of the sections of road most frequently damned was known as Second Garrote Hill and, starting near the creek, led up and out of that inconsiderable settlement. Drivers considered it almost as bad as Moccasin Hill and added an extra span of horses to the stage before attempting it.

Near the summit of the modern grade the Golden Rock Ditch crosses the road and may be seen, perfectly dry, following the contours of the mountain. A short drive, over the crest of the hill and down a slighter slope, brings one to Sugar Pine Ranch.

The first settler built a cabin here in the ’60s. He was called John Ratto. About 25 years later a French gentleman named Peri bought the land and planted at least some of the fruit trees. Between 1900 and 1902 two men from Boston, Benjamin Shaw and Lester Wiley, obtained the place from Mr. Peri and organized the Yosemite Power Company in order to use the greatly deteriorated ditch facilities of the Golden Rock Water Company. They built the present large white house as headquarters and apparently lived there also. For over a decade it was the scene of many a festivity. Mr. Wiley, who seems to have been the general manager, ceased operations about 1917 and the power company was abandoned but the Shaw family remained some twenty years longer. Two other owners made successive improvements. Then, in 1946, it was sold to Mr. and Mrs. Wesley Osborne.

They cleared out an amazing number of account books dating back to the 1860s; made the second floor over into bedrooms and built attractive cabins to act as a ranch-motel. Between hotel and cabins, bridged for easy crossing, runs the ditch. Between hotel and highway ran the original Big Oak Flat Road. This is an excellent place to see both.

Route of the Golden Rock Water Co.'s Ditches and Flumes
[click to enlarge]

Down the highway just beyond the inn is the Church of Christ— a box-like rectangle with a red roof. It is on Mr. Osborne’s land; he built it himself and officiates each Sunday. The traveler passing by during church services will find the road practically blocked with cars.

The orchard to the east of Sugar Pine Ranch was once part of the Watson acreage and, beyond it, was the Gravel Range School which educated 10 to 25 scholars.

Big Creek, fragrant with azaleas, flows north at the foot of the hill, crossing the highway and meandering off through its heavily wooded canyon. Manzanita grows to such size and in such profusion that signs designate the vicinity as “Manzanita Area.” A rough and inadvisable road breaks away to the south going to Hell’s Hollow. Investigation along its dusty miles discloses a saw mill and some nice stretches of the old ditch. Along the highway, one-half mile from its junction with Hell’s Hollow Road, is a fine meadow. At first it was known as Sprague’s Ranch and appears as such in Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California, by J. M. Hutchings, 1871. John B. Smith then homesteaded the flat and became George E. Sprague’s partner. Smith’s large two-storied frame house stood exactly where the the modern house is today, separated from the road by a picket fence. The open meadow is bordered with cone-shaped pines and cedars. The dominating feature is still a large and ancient barn which held the relays of stage horses, for Smith’s was a change station and boarded the hostlers. When the Big Oak Flat Road Company was organized, construction started at this point and the first toll gate was temporarily located here.

Curving past the barn a crossroad leads south six miles to historic Dudley Station on the Coulterville Road where lives Mr. W. D. McLean, grandson of Hosea E. and Fanny Dudley, the founders of the station.

Smith’s Flat, at about 3000 feet elevation, is gay in springtime but is too low for summer wild flowers. Across the hills to the north lies what was Charles Kassabaum’s Meadow. Both are favored spots for deer. At dawn and dusk they may be seen grazing where formerly hay was harvested for the stage horses.

John Smith came to California in 1854 and eventually his wife, Charlotte, came out to join him with the son who was born in Maine the year that his father left for the west. Young John was seventeen and had never seen his father. A daughter, Mary, was born at Smith’s Flat some years later. She became Mary Smith Lindsey of Stockton.

Smith’s was one of the first of the isolated ranches above the settlements. In the summer they had overnight lodgings for stage passengers and served hot meals. Few of the travelers made any impression on a small girl but Mary never forgot Theodore Roosevelt. They also had a steady clientele among cattlemen, sheepmen and teamsters.

Winters were very lonely.

“When the snow fell,” Mrs. Lindsey said, “there was no travel on the road and we were often shut in for weeks. When I was about ten the Gravel Range School was built and mother didn’t have to hear my lessons while she sewed as she had always done before. Beside myself the Sutton, Meyer, Watson, Boitano and Hobron families attended.

“We had many pleasures. I remember going with my father to cut the snow-piled Christmas tree. I remember the red-throated linnets in the lilacs. And most of all I remember the great tenhorse freight wagons in front of the house which, twice a year, brought supplies all the way from Stockton.

“When I was thirteen father died.

“Mr. Sprague had sold his interest in the property to father and now he deeded an extra 16o acres to mother. So for a long time,” Mrs. Lindsey concluded, “the place was known simply as ‘Smith’s Flat’.”

The Flat was afterward sold to the Cassaretto family and had also other owners but was eventually purchased by Warren Burch who is still in possession so that, after the logical manner of the mountains, it is now called “Burch’s” by most of the passers-by.

Just one mile from Smith’s a dirt road leads north to the Lumsden bridge over the main Tuolumne River and goes on to the Jawbone country and to Cherry Creek Pack Station. The original covered bridge at this point, as well as several other bridges, trails and flumes, were constructed by James Lumsden and his brother, David. They were the sons of James and Clarissa Lumsden who settled in 1859 at Boneyard. It was never a village—just a small section on the connecting road between Priest’s Station and Coulterville. James Lumsden, the younger, lived in Groveland for nearly sixty years and raised eight sons and a daughter. The brothers are best remembered as the pair who carved out the tunnel tree in Tuolumne Grove in 1878.

*   *   *

Somewhere in this stretch, between Smith’s Flat and Hamilton’s (Buck’s Meadows), tradition has it that Nate Screech and his Indian helpmate set up permanent housekeeping.

The three Screech brothers, Joseph, Nathan and William, were well-known personages in the early days of the Southern Mines and hung out in the neighborhood of the Garrotes. They were always more notable as mountaineers than as miners and Joe has long been credited with the discovery of Hetch Hetchy, the fabulous companion valley to Yosemite and which lies to its northwest.

'49ers of the Big Oak Flat Road—A Reunion
[click to enlarge]

’49ers of the Big Oak Flat Road—A Reunion Top row, left to right: George F. Culbertson of Moccasin, Nathan
Screech of First Garrote, Barna Fox of Big Oak Flat, Jack Bell, and Caspar Cook. Lower row, left to right: James A.
Chaffe of Second Garrote, Jason P. Chamberlain of Second Garrote, James Ballentine, Tom Maxey, who participated in
the first Indian trouble in Big Oak Flat during Savage’s time (Savage’s Diggins), and Winslow Hubbard.

Courtesy of Mary Smith Lindsey

Locomobiles at Crocker’s Station, 1901
[click to enlarge]

Mr. and Mrs. Aitkin      Mr. and Mrs. Baird

Locomobiles at Crocker’s Station The first cars over the Big Oak Flat Road

Courtesy of Celia Crocker Thompson—1901

It seems almost useless to throw a monkey wrench into the smoothly revolving wheels of recorded history, but Alex Tannahill signed a written statement that the first discoverer was not Joe but Nate; and Alex Tannahill constituted the best informed and most creditable connecting link between the Screech brothers and posterity.

Tannahill has been dead many years but fortunately we have an authorized person to speak for him. Celia Crocker Thompson of Lodi was a close friend of Cordelia Tannahill, his sister, and was always a favorite guest in their house. In 1935 she asked that he write the story of the discovery of Hetch Hetchy Valley and received the following reply; which, as you will note in reading it, is the story told in the first person by Nate Screech and remembered later by Alex Tannahill:

“Once when I was hunting deer and bear in the high Sierras I saw about four or five miles ahead of me a very high mountain and as I had lots of time that particular day I put in the afternoon climbing to the top and after getting on top I had a wonderful view of the surrounding country, especially a passage way of the Tuolumne River from the San Joaquin Plains to far into the Sierra Nevadas and following a deep cut through which the river flowed was surprised to see a wide cut in the mountains that looked like it might be a deep wide valley although I could not see the bottom land or the river from where I was on the peak I had climbed. On getting home I asked the Indian chief the name of the valley and he said Nate there is no valley. It is only a cut in the hills through which the Tuolumne River runs but if you think there might be a valley keep looking and if you find such a place I will give it to you. The old chief claimed all the territory in that neighborhood.

“After hunting a couple of years I finally found the valley and entered it from the lower end and walked up toward the center and faced the Indian chief and his wives. He was surprised a little and said to his women pack up we are leaving. I promised this to Nate when he found it. To me he said I am keeping my promise to you. The valley is yours.”

Mr. Tannahill’s letter to Mrs. Thompson then continued in his own words: “Nate lived with an Indian woman and had a child by her named Jane, who when about 17 years old went to work at Savories Hotel . . .

“That’s the way one valley was found. Who do they claim found it? also the Yosemite?

“I have written what Nate Screech told me of the discovery of Hetch Hetchy Valley as nearly as I can remember it. Ask the mother’ if it checks with what she knows about it.

[Signed] Alex Tannahill.”

Mrs. Thompson, born Celia Crocker, lived before her marriage at Crocker Station near the boundary of Yosemite National Park. Fortunately she always had a flair for interviewing and photographing the early pioneers of her vicinity. Her father gave her a good camera while she was still very young, and her interest never flagged. She developed the plates herself, washing them all night in the pure, running waters of Rush Creek, and they are still in perfect condition, completely captioned and indexed. Beside this collection she has several large scrapbooks of the newspaper clippings of her girlhood. The authors are indebted to her beyond measure for the use of these irreplaceable sources of information.

On being asked what she thought about the credibility of the statement from Mr. Tannahill, Mrs. Thompson replied readily that he was one of the leading citizens of the county, very reliable and remembered the past perfectly at the time the letter was written. She called attention to another item that adds credence to the theory that it was Nate who first glimpsed Hetch Hetchy. It was known to the Crockers (for whom he worked) and all up and down the Big Oak Flat Road that it was Nate who had the Indian wife.

A few more succulent morsels, discovered at odd times, may be stirred into the medley like raisins in a pudding. It would be just as much a pudding without them, but they add interest. Charles Schmidt of Second Garrote remembered the story of the naming of Hetch Hetchy Valley told to him by Alex Tannahill. When the discoverer finally obtained his first view of the valley floor, some Indians were camped there. It was not clear from his account whether these were the old chief and his wives or others. They were cooking a variety of grass covered with edible seeds. Screech spoke their language and asked what they were preparing. The answer was “hatch hatchy”—sometimes spelled “atch atchy” according to the hearer’s idea of the sound. This chance occurrence, so various informants say, was destined to provide the lovely mountain valley with a name; and some of the old-timers, including the Schmidt brothers, continued to give that name the broader sound instead of the predominant “Hetch Hetchy” into which it has resolved.

Another bit was provided by James Ackerson whose meadows lay southwest of Hetch Hetchy. He told that Joe Screech and two others made the first visit into the valley and that he, himself, accompanied them on their second trip.

A simple explanation would be that both Joe and Nate Screech, with one other—possibly their brother, Bill, made up this first party of three; and that this was the occasion when Nate succeeded in his plan to visit the tempting valley glimpsed months before and searched for so long.

After the initial visit it was Joe Screech whose name became identified with that of Hetch Hetchy. It was he who cleared and blazed the trail to Hetch Hetchy later used by sheep and cattle men with their stock. J. D. Whitney states in The Yosemite Book, published in 1868, “This trail was made by Mr. Joseph Screech, and is well blazed and has been used for driving sheep and cattle into the Valley. The whole distance from Big Oak Flat is called 38 miles. Mr. Screech first visited the place in 1850, at which time the Indians had possession. The Pah Utes still visit it every year for the purpose of getting the acorns, having driven out the western slope Indians, just as they did from Yosemite.”

*   *   *

South of Smith Meadow and consequently off the Big Oak Flat Road Douglas Hobron ran a mill almost entirely supplied by Smith’s timber.

Beyond the Stanislaus National Forest Ranger Station .4 of a mile and on the north side of the road was the sawmill belonging to Caleb Dorsey, an early-day lawyer who had the peculiar distinction of representing Joaquin Murieta at court in one or two small matters—the same man who later identified the latter’s controversial head. Dorsey had business interests spread about the county but lived and maintained an office in the county seat at Sonora. His mill was powered by a wheel run by water from the Golden Rock Ditch and sawed the lumber for the high flume which Mr. Smith then hauled with an ox-team.

The maneuvers of the county line will bear watching hereabouts. By reason of a bend in the watershed which the line follows, the highway at this point travels a couple of miles in Mariposa County.

Two miles beyond Dorsey’s sawmill site another crossroad takes off for the Coulterville Road. Many privately drawn vehicles on the Big Oak Flat Road took a detour along this crossroad because there was a short period of time when they could avoid toll on both turnpikes and intersect their original road at Crane Flat; the Big Oak Flat toll gate being a few miles east at Elwell’s and later at the South Fork of the Tuolumne and the Coulterville gate at Big Meadows far below Hazel Green. Later on it was changed to the latter place and thus in no way could toll be avoided by travelers on either route. This accounts for the fact that Bower Cave on the Coulterville Road is so often mentioned by early day travelers.

The circumstances under which the cave was named seem to be worth recounting: William Ralston, junior partner in the banking house of Fretz and Ralston, married Lizzie Fry in San Francisco. The whole wedding party was of the socially elect and a large part of the group accompanied the bride and groom on the Stockton boat. At Benicia many returned but a party of thirteen continued on their way to a “honeymoon frolic” at Yosemite. Miss Sarah Haight kept a diary of the trip which starts on May the loth, 1858.

The next morning, not quite daring enough to put on her “bloomer,” Sarah attired herself chastely in a traveling dress and a “great sunbonnet.” At Mugginsville where the group ate breakfast they all added green spectacles. Staging by way of Murphys they reached Coulterville in the afternoon of the 23rd. The next day they left their horses and walked a short distance to the cave. Sarah wrote: “The cave at the top is partially open and the trees called boxwood elders2 grow among the rocks and thrust their tops out of the opening so that the rays of light that come into the cave come through the green leaves and are chastened and softened to a proper degree.” She describes the clear, cold lake on the right side of the cave with a boat on it, while up a flight of steps on the left one could enter “a spacious shantie which bears the name of the ball room.” It was, she said, inhabited by pretty green lizards and swallows innumerable and a man called Nicholas Arni (or possibly Arin) was the owner. Everything, trees, rocks and sides of the cave were covered with beautiful moss. Judge McRae of their party gave it the name—Bower Cave.

The next year, according to Catherine Coffin Phillips in her Coulterville Chronicle, John Becker, passing by on a prospecting trip, saw a flag flying. Investigation disclosed two young men whom she calls Arin3 and Shaffer. They had found this strange and charming cave and had preŽmpted the land surrounding it. Becker was struck with the possibilities of the spot; returned with his wife and little daughter and established a home at the cave site. He improved the property, using it as a picnic spot for tourists in which capacity it was famous as long as the road was traveled.

John Muir wrote of the cave in 1869: “. . . one of the most novel and interesting of all Nature’s underground mansions. Plenty of sunlight pours into it through the leaves of the four maple trees growing in its mouth, illuminating its clear, calm pool and marble chambers, . . .”

Brewer gave a few more facts: “. . . and there is a pool of very clear blue water,” he said. “It is 109 feet down to this water. The effect is charming.”

The crossroad, just mentioned, which joined the two rival turnpikes to Yosemite, has not changed its course much in three-quarters of a century. At the spot where it leaves the Big Oak Flat Road stood Hamilton’s Station. It is now called Buck Meadows but, when Alva Hamilton ran the stage stop, the large building stood on the north side opposite the dead end of the road to Bower Cave. It was opened for business when the Big Oak Flat turnpike was pushed through toward Yosemite in the early ’70s. Previously Hamilton had maintained a rough sort of mountain hospice at Tamarack Flat where he served meals to saddle tourists and to pack trains. When it became possible to operate stages clear through to the floor of the valley the custom fell off. A fire destroying his buildings proved the deciding mischance and he moved down the mountain to this beautiful meadow.

Hamilton did some farming. For instance, he raised beans and used that succulent commodity habitually instead of currency. His wife was formerly Johannah Grayson from the Grayson Hotel, south of the river at Knight’s Ferry on the elevation known as Buena Vista. She was invaluable as a hostess. In spite of a certain crudity of construction Hamilton Station was always kept inviting. The lean-to milk house stood under a large black oak and over an icy spring which provided a sort of cooling system for the food. Cream at Hamilton’s flowed smoothly from a pitcher and dissolved instead of rising in chunks to the top of one’s coffee as was the habit of the unrefrigerated cream of the period. Puddings were chilled and meat kept free from taint. One habitual traveler of the road wrote, “I could enjoy a meal there as well as at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco.”

So many fine oaks grew in Hamilton’s meadow that it was an annual event for the Mono Indians to cross the mountains and camp here until the women had gathered enough acorns for the winter. To save space they were husked and dried, then repacked in the large cone-shaped baskets and fastened to either side of ponies to be carried back over the summit.

At the eastern end of the Meadow just beyond modern Big Oak Lodge, was the location of what was by far the most amazing project ever to be consummated along the road—the great flume that brought the water of the Golden Rock Ditch across the depression of the “Big Gap.” The company conquered this obstacle by walking a flume across the gap on legs 264 feet high (Brewer recorded them as 288 feet). These towers were as tall as a twenty-story building and built almost entirely of sugar pine. Their fearful and wonderful construction would make a modern engineer shudder. The flume was 2200 feet long and supported by eleven towers of which the two center units attained the height mentioned. It was the most magnificent flume in the state. It cost $ 80,000. It lasted seven years.

Its collapse was also colossal. A summer wind storm simply tore it apart and let the giant structure fall. Holt and Conrad, the contractors, had stated that its life would not be much over seven or eight years but the financial backers had gambled on getting somewhat more. It did not give to Tuolumne County a future quite as rosy as predicted but it did make mining possible for the span of its usefulness.

The Sonora Union Democrat of July 11, 1868, told the story: “The flume of the Golden Rock Ditch fell Thursday, the 9th inst., with a crash that was heard for miles. Being held on all sides by iron guys, it crashed right down on its foundation, leaving scarcely a beam erect, a vast heap of broken and rotted timbers. Just previous to the fall, a break had occurred in the ditch above which necessarily turned the water out of the flume. When it was again turned in, the increased weight coming upon the dry and absorbent timber brought on the collapse.

“The crashing timbers, cables and guys together with the air current, carried everything in their course, stripping the large pine trees adjacent and crushing to atoms the smallest growth.”

Contemporary papers noted that the fallen flume would probably be replaced by an iron pipe which could be laid much more cheaply. J. M. Hutchings described the “Big Gap” in Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California, and concludes: “Now a large iron tube placed upon the ground answers the purpose of the flume. This only cost, we are informed, some twelve thousand dollars.” It was purchased in San Francisco by Andrew Rocca in May of 1869,4 just after gaining the controlling interest in the company. There were 2,500 feet of pipe weighing over 28 tons.

Today a small portion of the useful old siphon remains—all pushed out of shape. And who can wonder, remembering the construction crews, building first the Hetch Hetchy Railroad and later the highway, that have banged it around. To see it pace 180 feet east from the marker at the county line; turn right and cross the abandoned railroad grade. It is a disappointing and unimpressive piece of pipe, battered but big enough for a child to crawl within, partially covered with dirt and trash. But, at that, the simplicity and relative economy of the plebeian pipeline which answered the same purpose as the flume, points the difference between the grandiose effects of the golden age in the Mother Lode and the enforced common sense of later years.

The finest viewpoint on the road, short of Yosemite itself, is beyond Buck Meadows where the highway strikes the cliffs. There is an adequate turnout. The canyons of the South and Middle Forks of the Tuolumne open up below while, beyond, spread relief-map mountains molded in blue, forming a mighty barricade to the waters of the main Tuolumne River. The forested ridges and deep, mysterious gorges are usually enveloped in a soft haze. Only on an exceptionally clear day, such as comes in early spring with a north wind, may be seen the majestic white-topped peaks from which infant snow-trickles find their way to the beginnings of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne above Hetch Hetchy Valley. More often visible, to the right, are the twin falls of the Middle Fork glimpsed before it sinks from sight beyond the dark ranks of the ranges.

At modern Colfax Springs was a pioneer station. Charles Elwell probably came here in the middle ’60s and built a modest stopping place patronized by teamsters at mealtime. About ’74 it was enlarged and named the Eagle Hotel because of a large eagle shot by a proud small son. The patrons were still freighting men. To the stages Elwell’s was simply a watering place by virtue of the unfailing cold spring which had its beginnings in the marshy area luxuriant with watercress south of the highway. The Eagle stood, in its new dignity, back from the road behind the site of the modern building. Through its ruined foundation were laid in 1916 the Hetch Hetchy Railroad tracks.

Elwell had been a sailor. His acreage on the side of a narrowing mountain canyon with rolling paths and stiff climbs presented no problem to him, and when the Big Oak Flat Road was completed in 1874, it was obviously the very place for a toll station. There was then no possibility in the rough and timbered canyon for even a horseman to circle the gate.

George E. Sprague, who had been surveyor and engineer for the upper reaches of the road, settled down as toll collector and ran a small store in connection with it, but Mr. James Ballentine, another ’49er, is said to have handled the toll gate during the last few years it was located at Elwell’s. Charles Schmidt said that the rates were high and that he had paid as much as $9.00 to pass his freighting outfit along the road.

Down the grade ahead there arc indications of the old road snaking back and forth over the straighter course of the highway. Descending sharply one comes to the bridge over the South Fork of the Tuolumne.

Even in the era of the canny pack mule this crossing was not forded for very long. It was too dangerous to animals and too easy to bridge. A few logs felled across the stream at much the same spot served until 1870 when the Big Oak Flat-Yosemite Turnpike Road Company (no less) built the first covered bridge.

It has been difficult out of all reason to unearth the date when the toll gate was changed from Elwell’s to Crane Flat and then again to the South Fork bridge but change it they did some time between 1894 and 1897 and a droll character named John Cox was, for about twenty years until the road became free in 1915, the one and only toll collector. He had been a Confederate bugler and teamsters leaving his place often heard the clear notes of his bugle sounding the retreat.

Cox had been a news reporter in San Francisco and it was generally (but wrongly) accepted that an unfortunate love affair had caused him to adopt the mountains. It was he who first felt the fascination of the waterfall below the bridge. A large rock overhangs it. He decided to build his cabin there. He was alone and must never get beyond earshot of the toll gate; consequently he had always to write for instructions. One letter asked: “What toll should I get from the new horseless vehicles that occasionally struggle by?” The reply set a price and defined an automobile as “A vehicle not used with horses.”

John Cox felt that his small castle on the rock was perfect. Of course his sphere of action was limited to a hundred yards or so, but what matter? He had all the conveniences. A supply of fuel arrived daily, for so steep were the canyon sides sloping to the river that teamsters habitually cut young trees growing at the tops of the grades on either side of the bridge; tied them behind the wagons to serve as brakes and discarded them within a few yards of his door. Bathing facilities were readily available without the labor of filling and then emptying a tub. Cox just trotted a few feet from his threshhold and jumped in the deep pool below the fall. Paul Morris said, “In the winter he sometimes had several feet of snow to wade through but he never failed to take his daily plunge.” During the spring flood season, though, one imagines that he made slightly different arrangements; especially as he was well into his eighties when the state took over the road and his job was abolished. The teamsters brought him all supplies, food, tobacco, medicine and his favorite long red flannel underwear. They always stopped to gossip. They were his companions and his safeguard against a lonely illness.

He liked to appear crusty but he had a soft heart just the same. One day a man carrying a pack plodded down the hill and turned his pockets out to show that they were empty. The river was in full flood. He asked Cox if it would not be possible to look the other way just for an instant; it was so dreadfully necessary that he get across the bridge and up the mountain. But John Cox was an honest man and didn’t feel that he could wink at anything irregular. “I’ll tell you what,” he offered, “seeing that the rate is twenty-five cents for a man walking, suppose you run instead.” So the man picked up his weary feet and loped across the bridge while John watched him with a clear conscience.

In 1924 Mrs. Nellie Bartlett and her brother William H. (Tug) Wilson leased the property and added room by room to Cox’s cabin. It soon formed the nucleus of a popular resort. “At first we called our place Fall Inn,” Mr. Wilson wrote, “but later we re-named it Cliff House. Many of our guests were nationally famous artists, writers or politicians and, when the O’Shaughnessy Dam was constructed at the mouth of Hetch Hetchy we boarded the engineers.”

In July of 1939 it burned. Not to the ground—that was impossible, but to the rock on which it was founded. The whole structure blazed from rock to roof while the excited guests rushed outside doing what little occurred to them.

In a small shack nearby an inebriated character from the mountains was stretched on a cot sleeping off the effects of a week or two of indulgence. On him a helpful guest dumped the cash register which he had somehow rescued and with which heavy and abrasive article he had staggered across the road. The gentleman of leisure thus rudely awakened to the noise of crackling flames and many shrieking voices, leaped for the open and, being fortunately still able to use his legs, was seen for the last time running up the road toward Yosemite.

The proprietors started rebuilding as soon as the ashes cooled and had a successful party before the roof was on. [Editor’s note: Cliff House burned again in 1958 and was not rebuilt—dea.]

A small modern bridge just above the fall replaces the old covered structure built at nearly the same spot by James Lumsden in the employ of the Big Oak Flat-Yosemite Turnpike Road Company. It was called Lower Bridge. Upper Bridge re-crossed the South Fork at what is now the Berkeley Recreation Camp farther up the mountain.

On the far side of Lower Bridge the highway and the old road are coincidental for about one-tenth of a mile when the latter turns to the right and proceeds steeply above the modern graded thoroughfare.

As the highway swings around the end of the mountain it connects with the private approach-road to the Oakland Recreation Camp. There used to be a fairly large Indian encampment on the Middle Fork in the area now partially occupied by the camp. Near the entrance are a few boulders having in them grinding holes used for making acorn meal.

The highway now climbs gently to where it is rejoined by the old road which has come straight over the mountain without benefit of grading. Opposite its point of entry a good road takes off to the north to Mather and Hetch Hetchy.

The more or less level ground at the top of the hill is called Sweetwater Flat, named from the spring now tanked and used by the Recreation Camp. Sweetwater Spring was anticipated by thirsty travelers all the way up the first long unshaded hill from South Fork.

Near James Hardin’s fence line at the crest of the second (or Hardin’s) Hill commenced the trail to Hetch Hetchy blazed by Joseph Screech.5

The top of the grade is barely reached before one goes down again—this time along heavily-timbered winding, steep Hardin’s Hill. At the bottom lies Hardin’s Flat.

The small eccentric Englishman, James Hardin, who owned the fence and the land just here, called himself “Little Johnny ’Ardin” and lived alone. Most of the road from the “Lower Bridge” to his ranch was personally wrested from the timber by Johnny himself with the aid of two tremendous oxen. It has been logged lately and a sawmill stands today in Hardin’s Flat—the legitimate successor to a sawmill run single handed by Johnny and his capable brutes.

It was at Hardin’s in the late ’50s that the Golden Rock Water Company built the dam which supplied water for the great flume and ditch. It is best seen in September when the water is low. South Fork, released from its timbered prison, comes lazying through the sunny flat but deep-cut banks and whole trees piled like packstraws in its rocky bed attest the power of flood season.

At the west end, where the flat pinches out into a canyon, are the remains of the old dam—simply two heavy logs protruding from the far bank. The intake for the ditch begins just opposite what is (at this reading) the most westerly house in the flat. A fallen tree lies across the opening. It is possible to walk down the canyon which is heavily wooded on the south side and rocky on the north but the river must be waded. The water acquired by the Golden Rock Water Company was conducted, by ditch or by flume as proved necessary, along the south side of the river through the timber.

It is a good place to view the remains of this typical business venture of mining days. Although similar ditches were constructed all through the diggings it is doubtful if many paid interest on the money invested. Certainly this one in later years did not.

Hardin’s Flat is now a hodge-podge of buildings—old and new, of piles of used lumber and the debris incidental to a logging mill. But the clean pitchy smell of freshly sawn boards makes it attractive.

When the Golden Rock Water Company was at its short-lived peak it was felt necessary to increase the water supply. To this end water was brought from the Middle Fork by means of a ditch, with the accompanying flumes, which conducted it into the South Fork at the Hardin’s Flat dam. The Alta California of April 6, 1860, printed a paragraph about the project before its completion: “To insure permanent water, the year round, the Company intends soon to cut an additional ditch about three miles to the middle fork of Tuolumne River. Fifty men would do it in a month, as one half the distance is said to be a natural ditch, running through the ‘Big Meadows’ and, when done, the ditch will be likely to supply permanent water the whole year around.”

Articles written after that time speak of the Golden Rock Ditch as taking its water supply from the Middle Fork instead of the South.

Modern hikers sometimes make inquiries about evidences of this abandoned and ruined ditch-line which they see to the east of Hardin’s Flat, but the authors have found it impossible to follow in its entirety.

James Hardin was not responsible for, nor indeed much interested in, the ditch aside from supplying lumber for the flumes. The road was his concern. Having got it thus far by great exertion, he demurred at having it extended through his land. Above him only pack trains went on to convey supplies to the few settlers whose summer cattle range and rude cabins were located in the higher mountains, and to take sightseers and supplies to the hotels beginning to be established in Yosemite. To his disgust, in 1868, the more far-seeing citizens of Tuolumne County spurred on by J. M. Hutchings of Yosemite, commenced legal proceedings to provide a wagon thoroughfare. But Hardin had planned to open a stopping place for tourists and proceeded to do so. It was small but rated very well. He commenced a law suit to prohibit the extension of the road through his land.6

By June, 1870, the new road had been pushed up the mountain to Hodgdon’s, just within the present Yosemite National Park boundaries. By August it had reached Crane Flat. In 1871 it was extended to Gentry’s. The law suit was won by the road company.7 Johnny, thereupon retaliated by putting up several gates and the stage drivers had to open and close them. Rumor has it that some of the gate posts remain.

When the infirmities of age overtook him and he could no longer live alone in such isolation his friends procured him a little place in Sonora; but a longing for his mountain home overcame caution; he wandered back and was found there dead by the same man, Fred Schmidt, whose neighborly instincts led him to look for and to find Jason Chamberlain on the day of his death.

At Upper Bridge, which used to be a covered structure, the road re-crosses the South Fork of the Tuolumne. Below, to the right, is the Berkeley Municipal Recreation Camp. Immediately beyond the bridge the old road proceeded up the canyon to the left, coming in to the highway again at the Santa Maria voting precinct.

When the Yosemite National Park was first established the western boundary ran hereabouts and a troop of cavalry was installed to enforce the rule concerning cattle grazing. Nearby Soldier Creek took its name from this circumstance.

Hodgdon's House and Hotel, 1901
[click to enlarge]

Hodgdon’s House and Hotel Barn to the right of the road, original log cabin in upper center

Courtesy of Celia Crocker Thompson—1901

Galen Clark and George Fiske
[click to enlarge]

Galen Clark, Guardian of the Valley, and George Fiske, well known Yosemite photographer,
taken in the Valley

Courtesy of Celia Crocker Thompson

A mile and seven-tenths beyond Upper Bridge was Stuart’s Flat with the hotel run by Leo Stuart (or Stewart) somewhere on the south side of the road. The vicinity once maintained a small scattered population. It began with a group of Mexicans who worked the Santa Maria Mine less than a mile to the south, and gradually accumulated others who lived in cabins flung haphazard through the woods. Life for these men centered at the point where the road crossed their sphere of action—where they got their mail and made contact with the outside world. The community became known as the Santa Maria voting district and, much later, as Sequoia. The men of isolated mountain sections were jealous of their voting privileges and rarely missed an election.

Tuolumne County had special problems induced by the early advent of several thousand souls from France, Mexico, Central American and Chile who centered around Sonora and were no more guaranteed to be law abiding than were other camps. Few of these men spoke English and were lumped together under the slighting term “foreigners.” The men from the States have been rightfully accused of drastic measures in dealing with them but no one will dispute the necessity of some sort of imposed discipline—imposed at once.8

Because of the early advent of the hard-rock miners from Mexico, Tuolumne County boasted several fine specimens of an ore-crushing device not often seen in this country—the arrastra. It was cheap, reasonably effective and practically indestructible. There were three or four within walking distance of Santa Maria.9

During the depression of the 19305 some of the old arrastras were repaired and put into use again and some were even moved to more convenient locations. However, the scattered and almost obliterated remains of one could be found five years ago in the bottom of a brushy gully about a quarter mile north of the Santa Maria Flat, and which was called Seavey Gulch.

Leo E. Stuart’s hotel was actually a boarding house for the miners from the Santa Maria. It was never of importance to the stages which commenced to pass in the early ’70s. They hesitated only long enough to throw off the mail. Close to Stuart’s was a cabin whose joint occupants were his partners in a placer mine. These were a man named Seavey and the omnipresent Mr. George Sprague who seemed to have a finger in almost everything.

Less than one hundred yards from Stuart’s, on the north side of the road, John O’Keefe kept, in the ’70s and ’80s, a store and saloon. One gusty winter the snug dwelling was completely demolished when a falling pine crushed it flat on the snow. Ten years later his son restored the business which was promptly wiped out by fire. Stuart’s burned also—probably at the same time, and the flat gradually was left lonely.

The road to Babcock’s soon turns off to the south. The sign now says “Sunset Inn.” Franklin Babcock was best known as a shake maker. It is an art to split out shakes from big sawn sections of cedar or sugar pine, and Babcock was a real artist. Most of the nearby cabins had his shake roofs and some used them for walls as well.

Babcock is known to have had an arrastra. It was probably the one north of the highway and opposite his house site. It had been made too small and the mule pulling the drag-rock must be kept blindfolded in order not to become dizzy. One day the contents had been pulverized to an uncommon degree of fineness and all the unlikely bits of rock picked out. The mule had the blindfold removed and was allowed to graze on nearby brush while this was being done. Then it was decided to run the arrastra a few more minutes before the clean-up. In the excitement he was put back to work without the blindfold and, after a few rounds, became dizzy and fell into the rich, gold-bearing crushed ore. When they extracted him his shaggy winter coat was practically gold plated. Probably no mule was ever more carefully polished and manicured. It took them hours to be sure that he took no unearned increment to the stable at the end of the day.

This arrastra was replaced by a small Huntington Mill, almost as great a curiosity in its own right.

The private road to Crocker’s Station leaves the highway three-tenths of a mile beyond the road to Babcock’s (Sunset Inn). It formed a semi-circle to the north, encircling Crocker’s Meadow. The buildings stood about midway. Crocker’s vied with Priest’s Station as the most important stop during staging days.

Henry Robinson Crocker of Massachusetts followed the sea and was due to become captain of a whaler when the gold urge intervened. He arrived in California by way of the Isthmus in 1853 and later built a cabin on this fine open meadow—the nucleus of the later stage stop. All the level, grassy land for several miles up the mountain was at that time known as Bronson’s Meadow. Mr. Curtin informs us that the original Bronson maintained an early camp near what was later Crocker’s, for the convenience of saddle travelers to Yosemite. Bronson Meadows sloped northward to the South Fork of the Tuolumne whence, on the far side of the river, timber meanders up into beautiful Ackerson Meadows. James T. Ackerson was a ’49er who, from his vantage point in the high mountains, was in a position to know most of what went on along the Mono Trail and in the Hetch Hetchy and Yosemite Valleys. Before his time his land was known as Buckley Meadows. After his occupation it was purchased by T. C. Carlon and used as summer pasture by that well known cattleman.

Henry Crocker considered Ackerson a near neighbor.

Having acquired land and a cabin, the next need of Henry Crocker was a wife. He married pretty Ellen Hall, daughter of Captain and Mrs. Perry Warren Hall who arrived in California in the ’50s, leaving her in the east until her education should be complete. Her father died and Ellen came west in 1871 to join her mother who had remarried and was now Mrs. John Woodruff of Deer Flat. Ellen’s brother, Charles, married Alice Mecartea of Big Oak Flat, the only daughter in that astonishing household of thirteen children. The pioneer families became, after two generations, pretty thoroughly related.

Ellen was a light-hearted girl twenty years the junior of her husband-to-be. Accompanied by her step-father, she happily rode horseback to Cutting’s store in Chinese Camp to buy serviceable brown silk poplin for her wedding dress. After the wedding they went immediately to live at the cozy cabin in Bronson’s Meadows where a son and a daughter were born. It is not likely that the elegant dress was taken out of the trunk very often in the next few years.

The wagon road to Yosemite was completed the year after their marriage and travel grew heavier each season. John Shine, superintendent of the stage company, became embarrassed at the lack of sufficient accommodations and, coming privately to Henry Crocker, asked that he build and operate a stopping place. Mr. Crocker agreed and, in 1880, erected fifteen buildings and named his inn “Crocker’s Sierra Resort.”

Ellen Harper May gave her remembrances of Crockers: “The meals were famous, family style, with the tables laid for six or more. Each table had a long white cloth, a castor set and spoon holder. They served great roasts or racks of venison or lamb chops, platters of crisp mountain trout, mutton, chicken and fine beef. They baked their own pies of course, mince, gooseberry, squash, cherry, peach and apple. Large pots of hot coffee topped the dinner.

“The land at Crocker’s sloped down toward the canyon of the South Fork. There were tiger and leopard lilies on the hill and they used them to decorate the tables along with daisies and bleeding heart from the moist meadow. Sometimes spikes of snow plant were cut for the house, as that was before any law prohibited it. “The paths were always raked. All the dry leaves were cleaned up at once as fire was about the only thing we pioneers really feared.

“Crocker’s had a reputation to maintain and always lived up to it. Through the years the register showed many well-known names. I remember Joseph LeConte, Margaret Anglin, John Muir, J. M. Hutchings, Stewart Edward White, Edwin Markham, William Keith and Herbert Hoover. It was the showplace of the road.”

Henry and Ellen Crocker had other guests, as interesting, if not as elegant—the Indians from the Miwok rancheria. They liked Henry and he liked them so they made the twenty-five mile trip on foot.

Old Grizzly, then head of the tribe, was a frequent visitor. Shoeless, clad in flapping, shapeless cast-offs (but clad, that was the important thing) horribly chewed and scarred as a result of slight miscalculations during his many bear hunts, Grizzly was a chief of distinction. Mr. Crocker always fed him. It was expected. To the best of everyone’s knowledge he was about one hundred years old when he died in 1903.

The younger women of the rancheria confidently came to Crocker’s Meadow for the choice herbs to be found there. They filled the finely made pointed baskets that were bound to their foreheads with deerskin thongs, ate the feast that Henry Crocker provided and carried their burdens back down the mountain.

The Indians of the Mono country also came to Crocker’s, crossing the great Sierra nonchalantly to see their friend. “Where Henry?” asked one anxiously. He was told that Henry was away and was not producible. The dejected Mono sat on a rock by the wayside and waited a long time. When at last Mr. Crocker was seen arriving he jumped up in great excitement and cried, “Here Henry. Now hello.”

The Miwoks of the rancheria could not be called neat by present standards, but the Monos were dirty beyond any power of that ordinary word to describe. They usually came bearing tokens of affection—fish. Fish caught on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada and carried for a day or two tucked into some recess in their scanty attire. They brought also koo-cha-bee, made from the dried larvae of flies, nourishing and relished by them because it was salty. Hutchings spells it kit-chavi.10 Henry Crocker received their largesse, gave them unimaginable amounts to eat in return, and did something suitable about the fish and other comestibles later.

In 1904 the founder of Crocker’s Station died and six years later his widow sold the property. Subsequently it was turned over to the Yosemite Park Company and was for several years within the park, four miles from the western boundary. It was during this period that a detachment of U. S. Cavalry camped on Soldier Creek. Then the boundary was changed and the property fell into private hands again.

Under different managements Crocker’s Station took guests as late as 1920. Then, in the next few years it began to disintegrate. Some of the smaller buildings were moved over the mountain to Carl Inn. Uncared for, the rest fell victims to the heavy snow.

A logging camp spread its ordered disorder upon the remains of the resort. The entrance road was rutted and gouged by the ponderous wheels of trucks. Trees were cut and underbrush crushed. Its beauty was completely despoiled.

Years went by and this, too, passed. Healing rain washed clean the dust-caked face of nature; grass grew; torn branches mended.

Patiently, its beauty slowly returning, the old place awaited quietly the coming of the new half-century.

*   *   *

The exit road toward the east led along the north fence of Crocker’s Meadow. Their private road, taken as a whole, was a semi-circle leading off and then back into the main road. All that is left of the hostelry is a small portion of the foundation. There is some of the picket fence and a few orchard trees. In a deep gully down the hill from the hotel are the remains of a curious little two-stamp mill for crushing ore where Mr. Crocker did some mining on the side.

Leaving the western entrance to Crocker’s it is three-tenths of a mile along the highway to where the eastern end of the private driveway cuts back in time to use the bridge over Rush Creek. From there the old Big Oak Flat Road kept to the right (or south) of the highway—going straight up and over the mountain to Hodgdon’s about two miles away.

Beyond Rush Creek a road on the right turns sharply back at an angle. It leads through fine timber and giant lupine, over Crocker Ridge to Hazel Green. It is picturesque and rewarding but is not to be lightly undertaken by a driver unaccustomed to mountains. Just opposite it, on the left, a little thoroughfare starts north—the original “Tioga Road.”11 If one wishes to investigate, it is easy to go down two-tenths of a mile to a leaning black oak on the left, with a scarred blaze; to leave the road a few feet beyond and walk up the hill to the right to the cabin of Thomas Jefferson Quimby—one of the best relics of mining days. The cabin may be seen from the highway but not so readily reached. Down the hill from the blazed oak, to the left of the road are the remains of Mr. Crocker’s arrastra, later used by Quimby. Instead of being mule driven it was powered by a water wheel operated by a flow of water ditched from Rush Creek. Very little is now left of it—not even enough to photograph. The ore was brought down here to water from a mine near Quimby’s cabin.

It seems too bad that these sunny meadows which once housed hospitable families and teeming resorts should be, for the most part, lonely. But each year the prospect seems more hopeful and the timber shows the gradual but continuous obliteration of scars. Each year the promise is brighter that, at some not too distant day, the friendly little clearings may again be filled with homes.

Next: U. S. PropertyContentsPrevious: The Garrotes

Home A - Z FAQ Online Library Discussion Forum Muir Weather Maps About Search
Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management