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The Big Oak Flat Road, proper, began in Chinese Camp and carefully picked its way between digger pines and scrub oak to the brink of the hill above Woods Creek. The present highway would have nothing to do with this route and keeps well to the north of it. To see a couple of the landmarks on the abandoned section turn right about half a mile out of Chinese Camp and follow the Menke-Hess Road.
Those who turn aside here with permission from its owners, will find themselves crossing Shepley’s Flat, originally known as Red Hat, but which is passion-fruit yellow a good part of the year and redolent of tarweed. Less than a mile sights the buildings owned in the ’60s by William and Levi Null and known simply as “Null’s.” Beside the Wells, Fargo & Company’s Express agency, a change station was kept for the stage lines. In pack-mule days this was an important stop and scores of animals were stalled in barns of which one large specimen remains. A tiny building next to the road, built of wide boards and battens of an outdated fashion, is said to have been the express office. There is a gate to pass through at this point.
Usually one may drive unquestioned as far as a second gate but, at that point, the old road becomes almost indistinguishable in a grassy field to the left and the fire hazard in mid-summer is so great that the gate is chained and strung with a bangle bracelet of padlocks.
This was the West property but was purchased many years ago by William H. Menke, father of the present owner, W. E. Menke, who personally conducted us along the old road on his ranch. He lives over the next knoll in a handsome house constructed in 1908 out of brick salvaged from the Garrett House after it burned.
West preŽmpted the land by squatter’s right and, for three years, his property marked the end of wagon travel. At this point everything had to be unpacked and loaded on mules. There were not always mules enough to carry the freight from a large wagon so it filled a real need when a shelter was built to hold the overflow. It was called West’s Warehouse. Almost obliterated adobe foundations protrude through the weeds, guarded by a few ancient and untidy fig trees; a trash pile crowds a feeble little creek. This is all that remains of the nine or ten buildings that formed the first terminus of the road and were its connecting link with the Big Oak Flat Trail until the year 1852. At that time the trail was improved sufficiently to permit wagons as far as Jacksonville.
The spacious home of the Shepley family stood conveniently near and was the favored gathering place for the young teamsters from the ranches up and down the road. Every excuse was made to break the journey at West’s in order to enjoy a musical evening. The Shepley organ played by the women-folk provided accompaniment for the voices and fiddles of the young “knights of the ribbons.”
A small village of Indians lived nearby in West’s era; lazying away the summer days in the shelter of the oaks, waiting until the acorns should be ripe enough to gather. The burial place of this primitive people is of indeterminate extent and new activities on the Menke Ranch, such as road building or excavating, are apt to be accompanied by the disconcerting appearance of dead Indians.
Returning to the junction of the highway and the Menke-Hess Road, the traveler follows the highway about 4 miles to the site of the inelegant Campo Salvador. The Big Oak Flat Road kept well to the right of the highway, now called the Shawmut Grade and built after the turn of the century.
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At the crest of the present Shawmut Grade, a trail led northward down a gully. One branch went to Algerine Camp, forming a short cut to the diggings along Rough and Ready Creek. Another led off to the Eagle-Shawmut Mine on Woods Creek, richest in Tuolumne County. The latter path connected with a heavy suspension bridge over Woods Creek nearly in front of the dumps of the Tarantula Mine which are still visible upstream and higher on the hill than the Eagle-Shawmut. This swinging bridge would carry a mule and the trail was intended for people who lived in Chinese Camp and worked at the mine but was frequently traveled furiously by Dr. Stratton in his light buggy; for almost any summons from the mine was bound to be an emergency and the wagon road, which detoured clear to Jacksonville and back the other side of the canyon, took too long. About one-quarter mile downstream from the mule-bridge was a lighter foot-bridge connecting the tunnel with the chlorination works on the west side of the stream. It was near the present Miners’ Club.
The Eagle-Shawmut Mine, situated on Blue Gulch and feeding 100 stamps, was by long odds the most important project of Jacksonville and its payroll did everything from keeping the town a going concern to lining the purses of the shoddy bandits of the area. All freight for the mine went down the Big Oak Flat Road— its first grade (paralleling the present Shawmut Grade but just above it) being known as the Jacksonville Hill. Jacksonville lay at the foot of the grade, between the mountain and the main Tuolumne River, on the far side of Woods Creek. The wagons headed for the mine forded Woods Creek at the edge of town and went back up its canyon on the far bank to where the big stamp mill stood, opposite the midsection of the Shawmut Grade.
Originally the project was the “Eagle Mine,” owned by Mr. Musser who ran it with an overshot mill, meaning one powered by flume water striking the top of a water wheel. Later the mine merged with the Shawmut.
The mine buildings were torn down in 1951. Previously they had been a seemingly indissoluble part of the landscape.
The Jacksonville Hill was a one-way road with infrequent turnouts. It lies in the digger pine country. Many of its curves are densely wooded and, in the days when stages often carried fortunes in gold dust, the drivers dreaded it with good reason. Road agents were a part of the regular scheme of things. A story is told for truth that, on a suitable stretch of the hill, a lone bandit once held up seven stages filled with visitors for Yosemite. They had left Chinese Camp at timed intervals. The bandit, having thoroughly informed himself as to the spacing, had just sufficient time to line up the passangers of each in turn, get their valuables and guns, bundle them back in the stage and have them drive down the road. Then he was ready for the next. The seventh coach, filled with baggage, he didn’t touch; feeling, with some justice, that it was time to go.
The bandit (name not supplied) could not have done such a job with impunity if there had been, for instance, a shipment of gold dust in the express box. In that case there should have been a “messenger” with a sawed-off shotgun loaded with whatever his individual taste dictated. Failing that, the driver would have done his best. It is a good bet that someone would at least have pulled a trigger. But it was far safer for the passengers to permit the melodrama to be played as scheduled even though, as in this case, the chief actor bowed out and was never seen again. Their valuables were nothing to the driver but he had engaged to see that they, themselves, arrived at the end of their journey—and preferably arrived intact.
Woods Creek was named for one of the first four men to sample the mines of Tuolumne County. He, Rev. James Woods, arrived in the summer of 1848 with three companions, J. H. Rider, Charles Bassett and James Savage of whom we will hear more later. Their encampment, up the stream and just south of Sonora, is credited with being the first white settlement in the county. It was called Woods. Nearby a Mexican headquarters, Sonorian Camp, came into notice. It was dubbed Stewart from one of the early non-Latin arrivals. When the state was divided into counties, February 18, 1850, Stewart was selected as the “Seat of Justice” for Tuolumne County. The name Sonora came into common use later but it is still the county seat.1
At the foot of either the old road or the newer Shawmut Grade, Woods Creek had to be crossed before the traveler could enter Jacksonville. Miners and freight must get across somehow. For many years pack mules and wagons forded. “A six horse team,” wrote the unperturbed Saul Morris, “had no difficulty although the water sometimes ran over the horses backs.” The earliest fording place, according to the same authority was almost at the mouth of the creek but it proved disadvantageous during high water and it was later customary to ford farther up stream, above the pedestrian bridge.
Miners afoot fared much better. The early business men of Jacksonville combined to build a pedestrian suspension bridge. The motive was frankly that of bringing as much gold dust as possible into town to be passed over counters and bars.
Jacksonville was founded by Col. Alden M. Jackson in June of 1849, although he was not the first settler. An individual named Smart had located there earlier in the spring but was too busy planting his famous “Spring Garden” to worry about starting a town. Instead of looking for nuggets he raised potatoes. Within a few months he asked, and got, $1.00 a pound for his carrots, turnips and beets. And at that he was a public benefactor. There were many cases of scurvy among the miners and a dollar expended for vegetables was well spent. In a remarkably few months he had fruit, which, from its rarity brought even higher profits. Possibly the owner of the garden was “Julian” Smart. Most persons whom we interviewed seemed to lean to that opinion but The Miners’ and Business Mean’ Directory for 1856 gives W. S. Smart from Louisiana as the proprietor of Spring Garden and Nursery and “Julius Smart” as attorney at law. In the cemetery a marble slab marks the grave of Ann Elizabeth Frederick, wife of W. S. Smart. Died Feb. 1862. At first Colonel Jackson mined along the creek but, by the summer of 1851, he was operating the first trading post. The town owes its name to him as does also Jackson, Amador County.
James Marshall, famed as the discoverer of California’s gold, mined here quietly and not too successfully for a time but left no mark on the future of the place.2
Chinese Camp was always hampered by too little water. Jacksonville had too much, but river gold is said to have been worth $6.00 an ounce more than “grass-roots gold” which was porous and full of dross, so the men persisted. Mining along the river could only be accomplished when the current was low. This led to the building of dams and the digging of large diversion ditches by amazing cooperative effort.3 One, of which we have record, was 2380 feet long by 20 feet wide and 18 inches deep. At least two of these attempts were washed out by the uncaring winter floods of the Tuolumne. They form, however, good examples of the seemingly spontaneous organization and self government so characteristic of the California miners.
For many of the miners homesickness was the greatest drawback to life in the diggings. David S. Smith and party were typical. They happened to work a waterless claim in the mountains east of Stockton and spent months piling up dirt to pan out when the rains should come. When the better part of a year had passed without one line from their families David and another man couldn’t endure the separation and the anxiety and agreed suddenly to leave for home. To get funds for the trip they carried some of the dirt to the nearest water supply and found it quite rich, including a nine dollar nugget. But the pull was too strong. They left the next day, although David wrote, “It was a little hard to leave that pile of dirt even for home and babies.”4
Mail delivery—any kind of mail delivery was a Godsend to these lonely men. In The Adventures of William T. Ballou we read that he, operating alone, started the first express in California. He worked in and through the Southern Mines charging $4.00 apiece for letters and newspapers. Later he sold his line to Adam’s Express Company. However, old-timers have stated that, in 1849, young Johnny Metson, equipped only with horse and gun, started a short-lived mail delivery between Jacksonville and the neighboring camps which was the forerunner of the numerous express companies that flourished throughout Tuolumne and Mariposa Counties. In some manner Johnny faded from the picture and Alexander H. Todd brought a shrewd mind to bear on the subject. His own health was not up to the heavy work demanded by mining but he could bring in the mail. Each man expecting to hear from home paid Todd a dollar to have his name placed on the list. Then Todd journeyed to San Francisco and collected mail for the men listed. The fortunate recipients paid one ounce of fine gold per letter on delivery. The plan was a great success. Those who received mail paid gladly. It also sheds light on certain passages in letters, written by men in the diggings to their wives or families, telling of the improbable sums it cost them to get the mail from home, but always adding “write again at once. It was worth it.” One can understand, after learning of Mr. Todd, that an accumulation of letters such as might arrive by boat during several months, would prove expensive. Certain side lines were also profitable. For instance, a New York Herald sold readily in the mines for eight dollars a copy. Todd himself stated, “I had at one time over two thousand names on my express list. . . . For months and months these over net earnings were a thousand dollars a day.”5
As the business grew the name became Todd & Company’s Express, taking in every camp between Stockton, Jacksonville, and all parts of the Southern Mines south of the Stanislaus River, until, in 1851, it merged with its competitor, Reynolds and Co. of Stockton. It was for this firm that the well known rider, Pillsbury “Chips” Hodgkins, rode from camp to camp. Reynolds and Co. served both Tuolumne and Mariposa Counties since late in 1850— but it was by no means unique. One paper stated rather resignedly, “There are so many express companies daily starting that we can scarcely keep the run of them.”6
By this time Jacksonville was second largest town in the county, exceeded only by Sonora. It assumed the aspects of any mining settlement. George B. Keyes, who had reaped a harvest as an early comer to the Southern Mines, erected a hotel, the Tuolumne House, in 1852 and was postmaster as well. At that time he was but 31 years of age. By June, 1855, Snow’s Express advertised four regular trips a week, running a double wagon and accommodating half a dozen passengers. In ’56 S. B. Kingsley was also running a hotel. An early newspaper tells us that, in July of the same year, Miss Sophia A. Thomas was married to Mr. Isaac Dessler, blacksmith and livery stable owner—a gala and extremely social occasion which took place in the Tuolumne House Hotel. In the ’60s and ’70s Dave Ackermann ran still another hotel on the south side of the road about where Woods Creek empties into the Tuolumne River.
Kanaka Gardens, owned by John Keith, were in full production in the ’60s. They were just out of town upstream and above the river, on a slope known as Skinner Hill and near the road which followed up Kanaka Creek. It provided a spot of beauty in the days when the abandoned diggings were both ugly and depressing. Helen Hunt Jackson passed Keith’s low, cabin-like house in the ’70s. It was bowered in honeysuckle and oleanders while a low table was piled with pears, figs, apricots, plums and apples. A spring gurgled beside the house. Later in the season S. B. Kingsley’s vineyard, also near Kanaka Creek, produced wagon-loads of grapes. Passing on Mrs. Hunt saw deserted cabins, wheels, sluice boxes, rusty mining tins and great piles of crushed quartz presided over by ragged Chinamen looking “like galvanized mummies,” panning for a few pennies worth of gold.7
The main Tuolumne at this point is rough and dangerous; it is visibly narrowing down for entrance into the canyon just below. Consequently Jacksonville had no river crossing at first, but went about two miles upstream to ford at a wide, shallow riffle called Stevens’ Bar. A miner on foot could jump dry shod from rock to rock during the season of low water and wagons crossed easily. The only trouble with this simple solution was that everything for use in the camps above had to be thought of and provided before the river rose again.
Stevens’ Bar, named for Simon Stevens who ran a trading post and miners’ hotel, was a tiny community but was a voting precinct in its own right casting some thirty votes. It seems better, however, to consider it as an adjunct of Jacksonville, at least while discussing bridges. It was an enterprising little place. James H. Deering, a ’49er, ran a miners’ supply store and loaned his own small home on the river’s north bank as a school for whatever children happened to be available. In the ’60s Tyler Bither ran a “comfortable hotel” near the crossing and prided himself on a large supply of assorted liquors.
Immediately above the low water crossing was a suitable place for a toll bridge—narrow with good anchorage. In 1857 James Deering, his brother, Ed, and a partner named Davis constructed one. The firm was known as Deering & Bros. Because it preceded the ferry there has been much controversy as to whether it ever existed but it had some five years of active use.
Came, however, the deluge—the incomparable, never-to-beforgotten flood of 1862. According to W. H. Brewer, who traveled with Whitney on the Geological Survey of 1863, seventy-two inches (six feet) of rain fell at Sonora between November 11, 1861 and January 14, 1862. Even in the level lands of the Sacramento Valley roads were impassable, mails cut off and the telegraph rendered inoperative by reason of the flood waters submerging the tops of the poles.8 At Stevens’ Bar the tossing current tore the bridge from its foundations. According to Samuel E. McGlynn of Moccasin who was an eye witness, the bridge “. . . looked like a ship floating down the river and when it reached the turn near Jacksonville it went to pieces.” The public-spirited owner, James Deering, was drowned; his brother, Ed, en route to Jacksonville, was drowned crossing Sullivan’s Creek. The San Joaquin Republican of January 11, 1862, and the Alta California of the 17th, told the story and added that during this overwhelming flood the mining camps were scenes of despair and illness and that a great many unfortunate Chinese were washed down the canyons and never seen again. In Jacksonville the river backed up into Woods Creek and inundated the community from two sides with ten to twelve feet of turbulent water. The Daniel Munn family was rescued precariously from the second story window of their home.
Mr. Deering’s property was acquired by one, Charles Hoswell, who decided in his own mind that, as an institution, bridges were too transitory for the Tuolumne and made arrangements to start a ferry. Joseph G. Skinner, a local mechanic, built a suitable scow to be operated by pulling on a rope. Hoswell then personally shuttled it back and forth on a patch of clear water below the bridge site but above the white-water riffle where they still forded at low water. Indians with canoes of which we have never had an adequate description ferried occasionally at their own pleasure but Hoswell’s was an all day, every day service during suitable river conditions. He also allowed the school to continue in his house as it had when the building belonged to James Deering.
“Charlie,” as Hoswell was called by everyone, became part of the life of the vicinity. Catherine Munn Phelan, of Moccasin, spoke about him: “When we lived at the base of Moccasin Hill,” she said, “we children walked to school to Stevens’ Bar—a good three miles—and there good-hearted Charlie took us over the river and never charged us a cent. He did that twice a day, back and forth, and even donated a part of his house as a school. There were about twenty of us. Mr. Gamble was our teacher and he handled all the grades, coming horseback from Big Oak Flat each day.”
The late Charles Schmidt, of Second Garrote, remembered Charlie Hoswell: “When I was sixteen,” he said, “I used to haul freight into Yosemite with a six-horse team. I’d often start from Oakdale and go along the old route to Charlie’s ferry. I had to pay two and a half to get my team across the river. Coming back, if the water was low and my wagon empty, I’d cross the riffles and save the toll. The miners had some row boats they used when the river was just too high to ford, but the Indians had much less trouble with their canoes than the miners with their boats.”
Old-timers report that Charlie Hoswell did a thriving business, an optimistic estimate in which he did not share; but, until 1885, he continued to run the ferry. And then Moffitt’s bridge was built opposite the town of Jacksonville.
Charlie had all his eggs in one basket. He had counted on a bridgeless river. He went down to Chinese Camp; took room 13 at the Garrett House and ended his life with a bullet. He was forty-six years old. His ferry lay in the river near his home until it disintegrated and gradually floated down with the current.
J. H. Moffitt was a man of parts, a doctor, engineer and inventor. Rumor has it that he built his famous bridge at Jacksonville as the result of a quarrel with Hoswell when the latter lost from his ferry some crates of chickens belonging to Moffitt. There is little doubt as to the quarrel but the bridge had probably been planned to the last spike long before. Its total length was 300 feet with one span of 160 feet which hung high above low water in the Tuolumne. It was but twelve feet wide and was supposed to be capable of supporting one hundred tons.
As the bridge neared completion in 1885 a road was run on the south side of Woods Creek from the bottom of Jacksonville Hill to the bridge approach. “I remember,” Robert Curtin told us, “it was always a relief to have the bridge in back of me while driving our cattle up to the high mountains in the spring when the Tuolumne was high. The bridge would rattle and shake in every direction. This caused the cattle to run and made my hair stand on end. I thought at any moment the bridge, cattle and I would all go down together.”
One of Moffitt’s main projects was to recover from the river bed, about three-quarters of a mile below Woods Creek, a great mass of rich dirt which had been accumulated by the men of Jacksonville to await winter panning and had then been swept resistlessly into the river by the first freshet of the season. To this end, about the
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Moffitt married Eugenia, daughter of Joseph Ferretti of Moccasin, and they maintained a health resort on the northwest bank of the river. His bridge made a great change in the habits of the nearby townspeople. It was no longer necessary to go through Jacksonville or Stevens’ Bar. The new route came from the foot of Jacksonville Hill straight across the river. After crossing, traffic now had to go upstream a couple of miles along the south bank of the Tuolumne to a spot opposite Stevens’ Bar before being able to turn away from the river up the canyon of Moccasin Creek. Moffitt constructed this new road at his own expense.
About 1890 Paul and Saul Morris of Chinese Camp took over the management of the bridge and had the toll collected until the turn of the century when, through the efforts of Supervisor John D. Phelan, a new toll bridge was put up at Stevens’ Bar. It, too, served its day and has been replaced by a steel structure.
Moffiitt’s Bridge went the way of the others, only this time the destroying force was dynamite, and travel came back through Jacksonville and along the north bank to Stevens’ Bar.
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On entering Jacksonville, Smart’s property spread on both sides of the road. The “Spring Garden” lay between road and creek while just back of it was one of the two early pedestrian bridges. Glimpses still can be seen through the trees of the Big Oak Flat Road coming down Jacksonville Hill. On the knoll to the left, and above what is still known as Smart’s Gulch, is the early citizens’ cemetery, while below it, completely obliterated, lies the inevitable Chinese burial place. Col. Alden Jackson’s property reputedly extended from the gulch to the present Stent Road, once known as the trail to Poverty Hill.
In the near angle of the highway and the Stent Road was the Orcutt Hotel, afterward L. B. Sheafe’s of the town’s later decades. Part of its concrete watering trough may be seen close to the intersection. Dave Ackermann’s Hotel stood on the right and Isaac Dessler’s livery stable, erected in 1851, to the left just east of modern Penrose Service Station. Just beyond the site of Ackermann’s Hotel was the other suspension bridge over Woods Creek.
From this point there is a good view, down river and partly around the bend, of the two small black pitons that remained after the demolition of Moffitt’s bridge. They should not be confused with the two much larger pitons that are nearer to the town. These are the remnants of a bridge begun in 1904 to carry the tracks of Yosemite Short Line, a 30-inch gauge railroad then being built down the west bank of Woods Creek, and intended to connect the Sierra Railroad Company at Jamestown with Yosemite. About twenty miles of track had been laid; the bridge was well under way and the piling had been driven in ‘o6 when the financial recession of 1907 made it impossible to resume operations in the spring. The two flood years of 1907 and 1909 then not only washed the bridge away but tore out the tracks all along Woods Creek Canyon.
The project died right there.
Then, because the city of San Francisco needed water, the O’Shaughnessy Dam was begun on the Tuolumne River at the mouth of Hetch Hetchy, the beautiful companion valley to Yosemite and, at that time, almost as deep and unbelievable. Supplies and men must be transported so another railroad was planned to cross the river near Jacksonville and to use the low-level shelf along the south bank of the river graded first for Moffitt’s Road to Stevens’ Bar. This time the project was completed and functioned.
The bridge over which the Hetch Hetchy Railroad trundled with supplies for the dam may, at this date, still be seen in the mouth of the canyon below the town.
The history of Jacksonville is tied up with that of its bridges.
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The early freight road leaving Jacksonville didn’t go as the highway now does, entirely along the river. It took to the north bank hills after leaving the last houses, followed Kanaka Creek a short distance and then went over what they then called Skinner Hill. It was along this section that Mrs. Hunt regaled her eyes, and probably her appetite, with the products of Kanaka Gardens. Some of Keith’s fruit trees are still there.
At the place where Kanaka Creek crosses the highway, a glance upward to the left will disclose the rock work of the terraces of Kanaka Gardens. Palm and figs are still green and healthy.
In another half mile, near the Cleo-Harriman Mine, the Skinner Hill Road came back into the highway from the left. The riffles where the wagons forded the river are unmistakable. Then, at the near end of the steel bridge and north of the highway, was the site of Deering’s home and trading post, one room of which was used for the school, and which later came into the possession of Charlie Hoswell. A foot trail led from here over the mountain to Algerine Camp and Jamestown.
At the far end of the bridge on the upstream side, some of the ferry cables still are at the water’s edge; while, looking back across the bridge and also on the upstream side, the rock work that anchored the previous bridges stands firm and solid.
The towering dark rock that crowds the highway at the southern bridge-end is called, with unfortunate lack of originality, Robbers’ Roost. Just up river from the steel bridge Moccasin Creek flows in from the southeast. A smaller span immediately crosses the creek and takes Highway 120 up Priest’s Grade, used since 1912. It is a winding course—curve after excruciating curve but has recently been subjected to a “permanent straight” and has had some kinks removed. The grade is not over 5 per cent. The early Big Oak Flat Road may be followed by taking Highway 49 to the town of Moccasin and from there up “Old Priest’s Grade” which is about a quarter as long as the new one with the resultant effect on the steepness of the pitch. A connecting road will take you from Moccasin to a point about midway of the new grade if conditions make it unwise to take the shorter and steeper one. They both end at Priest’s Resort at the top of the mountain.
We could not get names or dates for specific holdups at Robbers’ Roost. It simply bore a bad name and the stage drivers were glad to be safely past its shadow. But in days when a private individual was known to transport (Brewer tells us) as much as $28,000 in his carriage, banditry was to be expected. One gentleman of the road with a predilection for other folks’ jewelry is said to have frustrated several posses of riders and hounds by the inexpensive expedient of tying open sardine cans to the soles of his shoes.
Certainly all such nefarious practices at Robbers’ Roost must have occurred in the lonely days after the placer mining boom was over; for, during the height of the mania the entire canyon of Moccasin Creek was teeming with miners and there was little of the privacy necessary for the best regulated banditry. The side hills were lined with tents and the whole sphere of activity was open to view in the shallow creek bottom. The banks were measled with red shirts.
The men who first populated Moccasin Creek shoveled dirt into sluice boxes or squatted at the current’s edge slopping water from shallow-beveled mining pans. Every daytime hour was marked by beehive action. If a miner stopped to eat, the watchful but hitherto inert Indians moved in on his claim and the squaws panned industriously until he returned to drive them off. Every foot of the bottom was turned over and for years the long low mounds—tailings from the long toms—remained above highwater mark, having evidently been operated from a supplementary ditch. Broken picks, rusted pans, disintegrating gold cradles, old tin cans and whisky bottles lay under the bushes. Now it is all a forgotten thing, buried under tons of rock from recent dredging.
When the miners gradually moved out, the mountain lions just as gradually moved in. Evidently the canyon had been a favorite haunt for them and now the coming of ranches with cattle formed an attraction to call back the hungry beasts.
The first settlers seem to have been a miner named Powell, a ’49er, and a man named Cassassa who ran a trading post possibly a mile from Robbers’ Roost and established squatters’ rights in his land. In 1871 Daniel Munn purchased a holding from Cassassa and moved his family down the creek from the foot of Old Priest’s Grade (or Moccasin Hill) where they had lived since being flooded out at Jacksonville. Meeting a large mountain lion between the house and the barn was fairly nerve shattering; and Mr. Munn recalled one occasion when he shot four within twenty-four hours.
Catherine Munn married John M. Phelan, of a prominent family in the county living at Noisy Flat, between Big Oak Flat and Groveland. For many terms he was a county supervisor and was responsible for the immediate predecessor of the present steel bridge at Stevens’ Bar. The Munn Ranch of the ’70s is represented by a small structure on the right of the road with a stone base and wooden top. It is built over an unfailing spring and sheltered by an oak tree. Across the road and a few yards upstream was the first school house of this section. It replaced the classes held in Mr. Deering’s home.
The road up Moccasin Creek is an easy trek in the very footsteps of the ’49ers. It is almost level and shaded in the afternoon by a low bluff from whose top black-trunked digger pines lean out precariously. Two miles from the bridge is another landmark which has been looked at with interest, and usually misinterpreted, for decades. It was the hospitable home of Guiseppi or Joseph Ferretti. His daughter, Maria Ferretti Sandner wrote: “In 1869 father, whom every one knew as ‘Happy Joe’ Ferretti, bought squatters rights from Mr. Cassassa and took over his small store or trading post. At that time 1500 people of all nationalities lived and mined along the creek. Fourteen years before at the peak of the gold diggings about 2000 were in the canyon. You know, of course, that after awhile the government made a regulation that the early squatters’ rights must be homesteaded to be legal, so father and many others got government patents, or homesteads. Father got his in 1884 and, about the same time, decided to build a little roadside shrine such as he had seen in his native Italy. He intended to put a figure of St. Joseph in it but somehow never got to it. Many present day travelers think it is a drinking fountain.”
The Ferretti house, built by Charles L. Harper of Big Oak Flat, with its accompanying winery and vineyards, have vanished; just some foundations are left, and walls breaking up into piles of loose rock. A few straggling apple and pear trees remain with the seemingly indestructible figs. But across Highway 49, landscaped with dry weeds and the silver filagree of wild oats, the shrine stands high. It was meant to be seen and heeded. “Happy Joe” did what he could. Rocks were plenty and so the body of the shrine took form. Very likely it was difficult to get the statue of his patron Saint Joseph and, from one year to the next, it was delayed. His dream never was completed but it was a better dream than most.
Mr. Ferretti was a powerful, stocky man who wore earrings, loved his accordion and told stories inimitably. He gained his nickname from a trivial incident and bore it the rest of his life.
Mrs. Sandner’s letter continued: “One day a very aloof woman traveler with her husband stopped at our place for refreshment, as father made and served delicious wine. These travelers were on their way by stage to Chinese Camp. Father, who was always jolly and very informal apparently didn’t impress the woman favorably, for, when she arrived at the Garrett House she asked Mr. Solinsky who ‘that character’ up the road might be. Mr. Solinsky, who was a good friend, laughed heartily and said, ‘Oh, that’s Ferretti— Happy Joe Ferretti.’ Some other friends overhead this and from that day he was always called ‘Happy Joe’.”
Mr. Ferretti was known as the leader of the Italians in the vicinity and it is said that his preference ruled on election day. There were Italians along the canyon of Moccasin Creek, just as they were to be found scattered all through the Southern Mines. Good solid family men who had come to live as well as to mine; who brought their skills and their wives from the mother country; planted their orchards and vineyards; made their wines and raised their families to be a stalwart bulwark of society and a force for good in their counties and in the state.
The road passes the hillside where the Raggio winery stood and the vineyard ripened its grapes in the warm autumn sunshine. It dated back into mining days, as Joseph Raggio came into the canyon about 1852, just after his arrival from Genoa, Italy.
The Hughes Ranch of the ’60s is marked, at the present time, by a fish hatchery. The old covered bridge over Moccasin Creek was built by Charles Harper who did much of the heavy construction work of the surrounding settlements. It stood possibly 200 yards upstream from the present dam. Hung at either end were the signs, once so familiar, “Ten dollars fine for riding or driving over this bridge faster than a walk.” The low stone abutments may still be seen.
A statement from Thomas Hughes was obtained nearly twenty years ago: “The first white settler at Moccasin,” he said, “was a miner named Powell in 1849, and in ’55 the gold fever really hit the place. Of course all these paths that the miners used in getting into the mountains were actually Indian trails. The one that comes in from Coulterville to Moccasin was always used by Indians and also the road up Moccasin Hill, or the Old Priest’s Grade as some call it. Pack trains began to come over the trail from Coulterville and before many years the packers got the miners to widen it. When this vicinity became thick with new arrivals the widened trail was made into a road so that ox-drawn freighters could get through to the upper mines. In fact, from 1852 on, most of the merchandise that the old Sun Sun Wo store in Coulterville carried was sold and freighted up Moccasin Hill. The Marsh’s Flat Road and the Coulterville Road through to Penon Blanca started right here at the covered bridge over Moccasin Creek.
“My father knew all the owners and drivers of the stage line. In the ’60s my folks served supper to the drivers and passengers as the stages arrived at the next station on the crest of the hill [ Priest’s Station] too late for that meal. We served breakfast too. The down stage left above too early for that.
“Some mighty good friends used to live along this creek in early days. Joseph Cavagnaro and Luigi Segale were successful miners. There were Paddy Welsh, Mr. Powell, Mike Donahue, Daniel Newhall and George Culbertson. Everybody mined to begin with. It was exciting but it didn’t last. Joseph Raggio was a good neighbor; his daughter, Caroline, married Mr. Cavagnaro. When the mining gave out they became ranchers or vineyardists. They were all fine people.” The trail down Moccasin Creek from Coulterville, mentioned by Mr. Hughes, passed by the small, unruly settlement of Italians and Chinese miners known as Sebastopol. It was about one and a half miles upstream from the Hughes Ranch.
A small portion of the old road, as it made an exit from the covered bridge, may still be seen approaching Moccasin.
To get into the village of Moccasin the present road crosses the creek on a dam. The power house through which flows the water supply for San Francisco stands in handsome dignity just upstream. It is apparent that lots of water has always rolled down the canyon during the wet season but, for all that, it was never bridged until 1880.
At the end of the dam, immediately at the foot of the mountain, is a snuggle of small, contented houses. They are vine-covered, lawn-surrounded, tree-shaded—really beautiful, and are occupied by the employees of the Moccasin Creek Power House.
We are greatly indebted to Mrs. Catherine Munn Phelan and to Mr. and Mrs. Lynn Owen Brabazon of Moccasin for assistance. Mrs. Brabazon collected historical information of the region for the Native Daughters of the Golden West using Mrs. Munn as a prime source and was able to confirm the names of the old-timers and the proprietors of the Moccasin stage stop. Mr. Brabazon gave us valuable data on the sequence of bridges at Jacksonville.
From a modern point of view this foot-of-the-mountain village is one of the most attractive spots on the road to Yosemite.
When the first miners arrived they found here (and extending north along the right bank of the creek) a few Miwoks. They led a placid, torpescent existence. In summer they were very comfortable. In winter it wasn’t to be expected so they didn’t worry about it. Meat and acorns were plentiful. The canyon seemed to be a favored hunting ground for deer and, almost every year, a visiting tribe of 50 to 100 people would come from higher in the mountains to replenish their food supply, taking the meat back with them.
Among the things that add spice to the study of the town’s history is the good-humored controversy over the reason for the name, Moccasin. One theory exploits the abundance at the old ford of tiny slithering watersnakes, causing the wading stage horses to shy and frightening the lady passengers. The first comers, it is thought, might have mistaken them for water moccasins. Another (and probably more likely) theory was told by Ellen Harper May, daughter of Cornelius McLaughlin, a ’49er, and whose first husband was Charles Harper, the builder. She was told that, when the first prospectors were making their way along the Indian trail leading up the mountain, they saw an Indian moccasin hanging from a branch beside the footway. In speaking afterward of their route they said “the hill where we saw the moccasin,” and it soon became shortened to Moccasin Hill. The trail was widened to a road and, after Priest’s Hotel was established in the ’70s, it received the name Priest’s Grade; but everyone with the exception of a very few who said either “Rattlesnake Grade” or “Big Oak Flat Hill” spoke of it as Moccasin Hill. The creek and later the town fell heir to the name from proximity.
George F. Culbertson was the first, we are told, to homestead in the community. He was a ’49er. In ’56 he settled down and planted a vineyard. He and his partner, Daniel B. Newhall, had a winery and also made brandy of such excellence and potency that its memory is cherished with suitable regret. In 1871 it took first prize in the state. Their vineyards spread over the space where the power house and town now stand.9 For twenty years Culbertson was county treasurer and, being an excellent manager, was called “the Watchdog of the Treasury.” Sometime in his career a man who owed him $100 settled that onerous debt by building him a two-story house of native rock south of the road and at the base of the hill. Culbertson and Newhall lived there for an indefinite time and then rented it to the Munns. It was one of the most pretentious houses on the road and was so gratifyingly permanent that it had to be torn down at last to make way for the improvements around the power house. How much, one wonders, could you get for $100 in those days if you really put your mind to it.
Daniel Newhall was equally well known and well thought of in the county, being a director of the Yosemite Turnpike Road Company. The stone house stood on a site within the gates of the private road to the power house and at the rear of the first dwelling.
Close to Culbertson’s was the home of Augustine Gardella, a friend of Mark Twain.
It was in the stone house that the Munn family lived from ’62 for almost a decade before moving down Moccasin Canyon to contend with mountain lions just south of Robbers’ Roost. While still renting from Culbertson, Daniel and Mrs. Munn kept a small general store. They had six children. To one of them, Catherine Munn Phelan, we are indebted for valuable information generously given. She was born here in 1867. She wrote: “Moccasin had no church and my father, being a devout Catholic, arranged to have mass said in our parlor whenever a traveling priest from Sonora came our way. Often it was Father Slattery who came. Baptisms and confirmations took place in our house also.
“Mother worked hard, living as she did at the foot of the grade. It was the stopping place for teamsters to rest themselves and their animals. The freighters came from all directions, Stockton, Oakdale, and Sonora, filled with miners’ supplies and goods for their families. Mother served the drivers a meal, but fortunately only one or two arrived at a time.”
It was ’71 when the Munns moved down to Robbers’ Roost and we know from Nelson’s Pictorial Guide Book that in 1878 the stopping place at the foot of Moccasin Hill was again known as Culbertson’s.
Mr. Newhall died in 1879 and Culbertson then sold his stone house to Fred Cavagnaro who ran the mountain store and stopping place in much the same manner.
As ridiculous as it sounds, the California Associated Cycling Club’s Touring Guide and Road Book of 1898 strongly recommends Cavagnaro’s, at the foot of Moccasin Hill (then a 20 per cent grade), as a stopping place for cyclists. Granting that they had arrived thus far, one would certainly recommend that they stop before going one hundred yards farther.
In the last five years the grade has been widened, straightened and the worst parts eliminated. Its two miles of continuous climbing may not be pleasant in the middle of the day for there is no shade but it has the advantage of getting one to the top without fooling around. There is no particular object in going that way, though, as there is a connecting road from the foot of the old grade to the middle of the new one and each may be seen plainly from the vantage point of the other.
The route taken will depend on each driver’s idea of what constitutes a pleasant ride.
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