Thursday, September 19, 2019

Mt. Lola / North-Central Sierra Nevada

“Exercise, not philosophically and with religious gravity undertaken, but with the wild and romping activities of a spirited girl who runs up and down as if her veins were full of wine.” - Lola Montez

It’s mid-September and there’s a light rain in the Deer Creek watershed this morning.  Pluviophiles are ecstatic and the aroma of moist and earthy petrichor is positively swoony – meanwhile it’s snowing on Mt Lola.  A few days ago it was warm and we hiked to the summit from the east side so that’s what this blog will be about.  Mount Lola, at 9,143 feet is located in the extreme northeast of the South Yuba watershed and is its highest peak.  Immediately below and to the west is White Rock Lake.  On the east and north sides of Mount Lola, Independence Creek and Coldstream Creek flow to the Truckee River.

How to get there:
To get there take Highway 89 north from Truckee for 17 miles to the Jackson Meadow Road. Travel west for 2 miles to the well-marked Independence Lake turnoff. Drive 0.7 mile and cross the bridge over the Little Truckee River, then take the first right. This road is a segment of the historic Henness Pass Road. Drive 3.2 miles to the clearly marked trailhead and parking lot at Perrazzo Meadows.

This 5.4 mile long trail (one way) ascends Cold Stream Creek, a tributary of the Little Truckee River.  At the lower segment there is some logging evidence but there are also wildflowers and beautiful Cold Stream Meadow.  Above the meadow the slope becomes steeper climbing through stands of red fir and mountain hemlock.  Right alongside the trail is the largest red fir that I’ve ever seen.

Coldstream Meadow

From the eastside Mount Lola is a 2,500-foot climb, and worth it. As for degree of difficulty, well that depends.  This hike was an epiphany for me – when I last hiked this trail three years-ago I don’t remember it being particularly strenuous but now that I’m older (much older that most people reading this) it was difficult for me.  Men don’t want to admit that their performance is fading, but for me there was no denying it, and I had the realization that I might not do this hike again.  While I was humbled by the mountain and my own mortality, it didn’t diminish my experience, but my knees hurt.  From now on I’ll be factoring my own frailty into planning for future hikes.  All things considered this is valuable information for keeping hiking pleasurable for as long as possible.

Coming up the East Side of Mt Lola

The views from the summit are fabulous. On a clear day you can see Mount Lassen to the northwest and the distinctive Sierra Buttes in the same direction but only 20 miles away on the North Yuba River.  To the west are Grouse Ridge, Fall Creek Mountain and the Black Buttes in the Grouse Ridge Roadless Area.  Looking south you can see Basin Peak and Castle Peaks, and along the summit continuing southward to Donner Pass and Tinker Knob.  To the east is Mount Rose and to the northeast is Sierra Valley.  At the base of Mount Lola is White Rock Lake to the southwest and Independence Lake to the east.

White Rock Lake is the highest body of water in the South Yuba watershed.  Originally it was an aboriginal campsite, then in 1850 it was dammed when the water rights were claimed for gold mining.  The Pacific Crest Trail passes just south of White Rock Lake where there is a 2 ½ mile spur trail that ascends about 1,300’ to the top of Mt. Lola.

 Dusk on Mt Lola. Looking southwest to White Rock Lake

On the summit of Mount Lola you’ll see a small rock structure and may wonder what it’s doing here.  In 1878 the newly named Coast and Geodetic Survey was surveying the west by triangulation, using very large constructs known as Davidson's Quadrilaterals with sides ranging from 57 to 142 miles in length. To do this work a station was established on Mount Shasta to measure the side between Mount Shasta and Mount Helena, which at about 192 miles would make it the longest triangulation line ever observed. The line Mount Lola to Mount Helena, one of the sides of Davidson's Quadrilaterals, 133 miles in length, was selected as the base for the triangle.

George Davidson was chosen to make the observations at Mount Lola and Benjamin Colonna was chosen for Mount Shasta. In his journal for August 1, 1878, Colonna described a momentous event:
At sunrise, I turned my telescope in the direction of MT LOLA, and there was the heliotrope, 169 miles off, shining like a star of the first magnitude. I gave a few flashes from my own, and they were at once answered by flashes from LOLA. Then turning my telescope in the direction of MT HELENA, there, too was a heliotrope, shining as prettily as the one at LOLA. My joy was very great; for the successful accomplishment of my mission was now secured.

In the center is the base of the heliotrope used in 1878

This series of flashes, through the wonders of trigonometry, allowed the team of surveyors to accurately calculate that the distance between Mount Shasta and Mount Helena was 192 miles. Colonna was ecstatic about besting the French, and wrote in his journal, “And the glory is ours; for America, and not Europe, can boast of the largest trigonometrical figures ever measured on the globe.”  So, these rock features are the foundation for the heliotrope and a shelter George Davidson used while waiting for optimal conditions in the summer of 1875.  Positions held by Davidson include president of the California Academy of Sciences from 1871 to 1887, Honorary Professor of Geodesy and Astronomy, and Regent of the University of California from 1877 to 1885.  He became the first professor of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley and was one of 182 charter members of the Sierra Club in 1892 and served as a member of its board of directors from 1894 to 1910.  This bit of scientific history may or may not be of interest to you, but surely you want to know who Lola Montez was?

Lola Montez 1850
Photo by Southworth and Hawes

Mount Lola was named for the legendary Lola Montez, who was born in Ireland in 1821 and originally named Elizabeth Rosanna Gilbert.  As part of a military family she spent her childhood in India and married for the first time at age 16, apparently to get back to Europe.  After her first marriage she traveled to Spain and developed a persona as a dancer, named herself Lola Montez and toured northern Europe.  She was, by all accounts, a mediocre dancer but what she lacked in talent she made up for in chutzpah.  Her fiery temperament, audaciousness and ambition landed her in the company of Franz Liszt, Robert Peel (son of the English Prime Minister), the French newspaper editor Alexandre Dujarier, Marius Petipa (the creator of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker), the Earl of Malmesbury, the Count of Schleissen, Lord Brougham, Jung Bahadur (the Nepalese ambassador to London) and other less notable men.

In 1846 she traveled to Munich and became a dancer with the Bavarian Opera.  When King Ludwig I of Bavaria saw her he wrote, “Today I saw Lola Montez dance. I am bewitched. In this Spanish woman alone have I found love and life.”  She thrived on scandal and she created enormous celebrity, even inspiring imitators. Some of her biographers claimed that Lola Montez garnered more press than Queen Victoria herself.  King Ludwig was totally enthralled, while Lola shamelessly manipulated him.  In August of 1847 he made her the Countess of Landsfeld, which assured her a salary, but the citizens of Munich were embarrassed by the foolishness of their King and distrusting of Montez. By 1848, under pressure from a growing revolutionary movement, Ludwig abdicated his throne and Lola fled Bavaria, alone.

From 1851 to 1853 she performed as a dancer and actress in the eastern United States.  One of her biographers said that she received higher fees for her lectures than Charles Dickens who was on tour at the same time.  Her most popular play was a trite, self-promotional story about her affair with King Ludwig.  She then moved to San Francisco in May of 1853. While there she performed her suggestive “Spider Dance” in which she pretended to be attacked by spiders and searched for them in her clothing.  Reviews of her performance were pretty bad, but they generated publicity, nevertheless.  She married Patrick Hull in July and they moved to Grass Valley, California, in August.

Lola Montez 1858
National Portrait Gallery – Smithsonian Institution
Photo by Henry Meade 

Glamorous and boldly unconventional, Lola attracted an enthusiastic following based more on her cultivated persona and her beauty than on her talent – she definitely had her wild side.  In the summer of 1854 one of the most famous camping trips of the era occurred in the vicinity of what would later become Mt Lola and Lola Montez Lakes. She, and some companions, left Grass Valley for a sojourn to Donner Summit and Truckee Meadows (now Reno, NV). The party, which included Alonzo Delano, famous humorist and Grass Valley’s first city treasurer, set off with an animal pack train in mid-July and ran into difficulties after several rough days on the trail.  The horse carrying the provisions bolted and dumped all their food in a stream.  If that wasn’t bad enough, the imperious Lola quarreled with the other campers and antagonized them to the point where many of them left in a huff.

While living in Grass Valley she held salons in which the local intelligentsia gathered to meet artists, actors, writers, entrepreneurs and adventurers.  Her benefactor at this time was John Southwick, manager and part-owner of the Empire Mine.  By the time she arrived in Grass Valley she had been married twice and had many amorous alliances.  She was also fluent in several languages, was abreast of contemporary literary and artistic trends and mixed with Gautier, Alexander Dumas, George Sand, Walt Whitman and others.  The salons at her house included rich feasts with champagne.  Guests included, businessman Sam Brannan; US Supreme Court Justice Steven Field; William M. Stewart, later a U.S. senator from Nevada; the great Norwegian violist, Ole Bull and humorist Alonzo Delano, among many others. Biographer Ralph Freidman (Lola Montez in Grass Valley, 1951) commented, “…she was probably the least provincial person to ever reside in Grass Valley.”  When she left town in 1855, W.B. Ewer, editor of the Grass Valley Telegraph said “Lola is no ordinary person.  She is possessed of an original mind, one decidedly intellectual and highly cultivated.  She delights in change and excitement and is bound to create a sensation wherever she goes.”

In May of 1855 Lola Montez and an actor named Augustus Noel Follin decided to take a theatre company to Australia where gold had recently been discovered.  The foray created more scandal and notoriety but no wealth.  In June of 1860, while living in New York, she suffered a stroke that resulted in partial paralysis.  She then found religion, but contracted pneumonia and died in 1861 at the age of 42.

Lola Montez, despite her infamy, created her own myth and wrote herself into history by the force of her own personality.   The many biographies written about her dwell on her outrageous behavior, but I’m sure she was also charming and interesting to be with.  Unlike many other women in the Victorian era, who may have been notable because of their birth, or marriage, she invented herself.  Lola Montez described herself best when she dedicated her 1858 book, The Art of Beauty, to “those who are not afraid of themselves, who trust so much in their souls that they dare to stand up in the might of their own individuality to meet the tidal currents of the world.”

Dusk on Mt. Lola. Sierra Buttes to the Northwest

• • •

Tuesday, August 20, 2019


"No traveler, whether a tree lover or not, will ever forget his first walk in a sugar-pine forest. The majestic crowns approaching one another make a glorious canopy, through the feathery arches of which the sunbeams pour, silvering the needles and gilding the stately columns and the ground into a scene of enchantment." – John Muir

“I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.” – E.B. White

For 18-year old Dick Hotchkiss it was an exhilarating experience to drive a Robinson & Sons logging truck in the Grass Valley, California July 4th parade in 1956.  On the truck was a single sugar pine log, 11-foot in diameter and 32 feet long, that had for hundreds of years lived in the canyon of the Middle Yuba River.  It was a trophy, a demonstration of the faller's craft and symbolic of a traditional skill that supported families for generations. The big log was also a cultural affirmation and a display of pride for work well done.  The last hard-rock mine in Grass Valley, until now a reliable employer, had just closed and those workers were probably transitioning to logging, or lumbering to use the traditional term.  Logging had become the economy of the western slope of the Sierra Nevada in an era recently described to me by an old-timer as the “timber rush.”  After WW II there were returning veterans who deserved houses and those houses were made of wood.  In the 1950’s and 1960s the foothills were peppered with sawmills, many of which were small operations with the owner and a few employees on site.

When I started working for the Tahoe National Forest in 1975, most employees were in the “timber shop” and the forest-wide concern was “getting out the cut.”  My job as an archaeologist was created by regulations and requirements of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA).  The concerns of wildlife biologists, botanists, hydrologists, ecologists, archaeologists and others were initially seen as an impediment to getting the cut out.  It took some time and attrition for foresters and road engineers to get beyond their purely productive patriotic stance.

In the mid-1850s when Bayard Taylor, a 19thcentury traveler, poet and literary critic, was riding on Washington Ridge, northeast of Nevada City, he noted an unbroken forest of “pillars two hundred feet high and six feet in diameter.”  He likened their splendor to a “grand natural cathedral.”  Taylor was awe struck: “No Doric column could surpass in beauty these stupendous shafts. They are the demigods of the vegetable world”.  The forest that Taylor was describing was a forest probably dominated by sugar pines.  Subsequent lumbering and silvicultural practices have since created a more “productive forest” on that ridge, one that favors faster growing ponderosa pine and Douglas fir.  We take them for granted, but trees, whether we know it or not, provide in addition to “forest products”, habitat for many species and spiritual support for humans.  Sugar pine was once an abundant species in the Yuba and adjacent watersheds but that is no longer the case.

Sugar Pine is the largest pine in the mixed conifer forests of the Sierra Nevada.  In the North-Central Sierra they are found between 2,500’ to 7,500’ where they reach heights of 175’ to 200’ with diameters of 36” to 60” and they can live from 300 to 500 years.  Their cones, typically 10 to 20 inches in length, are the longest of any conifer with a mature cone producing an average of 150 seeds or nuts, with the best nuts found in the cones of the oldest trees.  Intervals between heavy cone crops averaged four years.  Sugar pine, gray pine, and piñon pine are considered the best tasting pine nuts in California.

In the early 1980s some of my friends formed work crews and contracted for forestry-related jobs like tree-planting, thinning, wildlife habitat improvement, trail construction and maintenance and erosion control.  It was hard work but rewarding.  My least favorite job was cone-gathering in order to provide a seed crop for tree nurseries – I’m not happy working high-up in trees.  The cones of sugar pines are way out on the ends of tapering branches – by far the most difficult to collect.  It fascinates me that indigenous people were gathering sugar pine nuts without spikes to climb with, belts, belay rope and pole pruners.

Sugar pine in the North Yuba canyon on Fiddle Creek Ridge

Sugar pine seeds/nuts were a favorite and abundant food for the local Nisenan and Washoe and they knew the location of reliable seed producing trees. Traditional burning practices favored sugar pine regeneration – it is very resistant to low-to moderate-severity fires and has adapted a thick, fire-resistant bark and open canopy that retards aerial fire spread.

It’s difficult to imagine how indigenous people were able to gather cones because branches begin in the upper third of the tree and the cones are located at the end of long, supple branches.  The Nisenan climbed sugar pines by hooking young trimmed sapling over a lower limb and the cones were pulled loose with a stick that had a projecting branch at the end.  Lizzie Enos, a Nisenan traditionalist, said that in the Sugar Pine Hill area, on the south side of the Bear River, men dislodged the cones by jumping up and down on branches.  Another method is for the climber to press down with his foot to get the branch moving in a rotary manner causing the cone to drop by virtue of its own weight.  The Sierra Miwok propped a dead tree against the trunk or used a special climbing pole.

Gray pine grows at a lower elevation usually in a savannah or oak woodland setting.  Edwin Bryant, while traveling the Emigrant Trail, wrote in his 1847-48 diary, “We saw in a number of places, ladders erected by the Indians for climbing the pine trees to gather the nuts, and the poles used for the same purpose.”  He was only a few miles from Johnson’s Ranch so these would have been gray pines

When the Nisenan and Washoe harvested sugar pine seeds they used campsites that had been used for generations.  Ideally the site would have a spring or stream near a knoll or meadow in a transitional zone where there were also berries, grass seeds, vegetable matter, tubers, medicines, plants used in basket-weaving and firewood. 

In the Yuba River watershed there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of bedrock mortars in sugar pine habitat.  Nut hunters would often camp at a favorable elevation then search for the most productive trees.  Archaeologist David Hunt applied GPS data and statistical analysis to the location of Nisenan and Washoe campsites in the watersheds of the Middle and South Forks of the American Rivers and determined that sugar pine nuts were collected at many locations and processed at numerous small bedrock mortar locations.  In his opinion sugar pines probably extended farther westward than they do now.  This is substantiated by the observations of USGS forester, John Lieberg in 1902, ”Old stumps of sugar pine standing among Digger (gray) pine and oak, where not a sapling or seedling of the species is to be found, show a more extensive westward range within recent times.”

Sugar pine cones. Cherry Hill/Middle Yuba

Sugar pine nuts and acorns were very valuable because they could be stored.  In the winter of 1849-1850 a group of vigilantes calling themselves the California Blades destroyed a group of Nisenan settlements and camps on the divide between the Bear River and the North Fork of the American River.  They claimed it was retribution for stealing horses and mules and boasted about destroying extensive caches of acorns and sugar pine nuts.

While sugar pine nuts are small compared to acorns they were valued for their taste and the extra effort required to get them was considered worth it.  Even the intruders enjoyed the flavor of sugar pine nuts.  J. D. Borthwick, an artist visiting the Nevada City area in 1854 remarked, “… they have a taste even sweeter than that of filbert.”

The unique quality of sugar pine lumber caught the attention of miners, lumbermen and builders.  With few lower branches most of the wood is clear, or free from knotholes.  Theodore Judah, who surveyed the Central Pacific Railroad route noted, “It is well known that the sugar pine of these lands often runs 125 feet high without a limb, and often measures eight feet at base – while a tree is seldom found measuring less than three and a one-half feet at base.”

When the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 it opened additional markets and greatly accelerated the amount of lumbering.  With the railroad, lumber could easily be transported to the east as well as to valley and coastal cities in California.  Narrow gauge railroads, constructed specifically for lumbering, were used extensively in the upper reaches of Deer Creek, on the Dutch Flat Divide and in the Truckee River basin.  Typically, lumbermen constructed mills in the best timber stands then constructed their narrow-gauge railroads to connect with the standard gauge transcontinental railroad.  According to historian David Beesley, everything marketable was cut, creating a two-and-a-half to three-mile circle of devastation with no seed trees remaining.

By the end of the 19th century the loss of trees and the resultant erosion was clearly detrimental to forest health and water quality.  John Leiberg, inventoried and reported on federal forest reserves including Yuba River country.  He observed, “… where the cut is exhaustive a great change has taken place.  Of the sugar pine in the region examined, the tree is losing ground at a rapid rate on all the areas logged, … the coming forest will contain only 2 or 3 per cent at the most.  The deficiency of sugar pine in the reforestation is due to one general cause, and that is wasteful and unscientific logging methods – everything capable of yielding immediate profit being cut, without the slightest provision for sparing a sufficient number of seed trees to restock the cut-over areas.”

Shake manufacturing at Clipper Mills/Slate Creek/North Yuba (1907)

Bob Paine, a former Nevada City journalist, spent summers in the early 1920s with his uncle at the Hegarty Ranch, near Graniteville.  He noticed that two Chinese men living on the property were engaged in manufacturing shakes from sugar pine.  The shakes were dried and bundled then floated downstream in the Milton Ditch where they were stored on a landing downstream then transported to market by a wagon.  Shakes were split from a round of sugar pine, or sometimes cedar, by using a froe, which is a wedge-shaped blade with a handle that is hammered with a hardwood mallet.  Dimensions vary, but in the Sierra Nevada roof shakes were typically 32” by 5”.  Shakes shingled the roofs and were often the siding of historic structures. They were also used to make door and window sashes and crates. 

Clear lumber from sugar pine was in great demand.  Lumbermen despised shake makers, calling them “highgraders”.  When the U.S. Forest Service was created in 1906, shakes were the most valuable forest product maintaining a market value well above dimensional lumber.  “Shakes were produced only from the choicest sugar pines, and only from select portions of the bole – no more than 40 percent.” Swift Berry, a member of the U.S. Forest Service timber management staff wrote, “Since most of the shakes are made from the most valuable species, sugar pine, and only the best and straightest trees will rive, the shake-maker constantly lowered the value of the stand by skimming out the best trees.”

Shake structure at French Bar/North Yuba

Abuses of the mineral laws, for logging purposes, was common on the California national forests.  From 1902 to 1918 lumber companies filed mining claims for no other purpose than to gain surface rights to the timberlands.  The Forest Service contested a large number of these so called "sugar pine mining claims" which were particularly rampant in areas adjacent to railroad rights-of-way.

After WW II there was a period of “intensive management” on National Forests that included clear cuts and the cutting of remote old growth “decadent” trees made possible by increased road building followed by plantations and herbicide application.  By 1960 the Multiple Use–Sustained Yield Act and in 1964 the Wilderness Act were the first in a series of environmental laws that sought to recreate a healthy forest ecology.  Sugar pine is no longer logged in the Tahoe National Forest – even the most business-oriented foresters recognize the extent of the damage done.

Meanwhile we are learning that trees and other plants are connected with each other in numerous ways to promote the stability, or equanimity, of the greater community.  Suzanne Simard, professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences, studies communications between plants through mycorrhizal networks from one plant to another, usually from a sufficient plant to a plant in need.  Simard’s research shows that biological science and indigenous knowledge share some common ground.  “The science of plant communication and behavior is only scratching the surface of how nature works, but what we are seeing is nothing short of amazing.  This scientific understanding, suggestive of sentience in forests, resonates with indigenous wisdom, which calls for respect and learning from the hitherto unseen law of the forest, our teacher”.

Cabin at Loney Meadows/South Yuba with a shake roof and walls made of split-cedar log uprights. The cabin finally collapsed in the winter of 2018 -2019.  
• • •

This is a revised and expanded version of an essay I wrote for Tree Rings/Yuba Watershed Institute a few years ago.

Select Bibliography

Bayard Taylor. Eldorado: or Adventures in the Path of Empire (1850).
Ralph L. Beals. The Ethnology of the Nisenan (1933).
John W. Duncan. Maidu Ethnobotany (1961).
Glen Farris. Quality Food: The Quest for Pine Nuts in Northern California (1993).
Kat Anderson. Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources (2005).
David Hunt. The Power of the Acorn: Late Holocene Settlement and Resource Distribution in the Central Sierra (2000).
John B. Leiberg. Forest Conditions in the Northern Sierra Nevada. (1902).
Myron Angel. History of Placer County (1882).
Theodore Judah. Preliminary Report of the Chief Engineer, Central Pacific Railroad (1862).
David Beesley. Crow’s Range: An Environmental History of the Sierra Nevada (2004).
Kevin S. McKelvey & James D. Johnston. Historical Perspectives on Forests of the Sierra Nevada and the Transverse Ranges of Southern California: Forest Conditions at the Turn of the Century (1992).
Swift Berry. Shake Making and Tray Mills in California’s National Forests.(1913).
Turrentine Jackson. History of Tahoe National Forest: 1840-1940: A Cultural Resources Overview History (1982).
Suzanne Simard. Conversations in the Forest: The Roots of Nature’s Equanimity (2015).

Thursday, July 11, 2019


Blue Lake and Zion Hill

It’s pretty prosaic, as trails go, but the Blue Lake Trail is a pleasant hike and a feeder trail to some of my favorite sub-alpine adventures.  For instance, it connects with the Beyers Lake Trail to Baltimore Lake and Meadow Lake to the east.  The Blue Lake Trail ends at the Grouse Ridge Trail which extends north and upslope from Eagle Lakes, near Fordyce Creek, to the Grouse Ridge lookout then continues north to Sawmill Lake on Canyon Creek, a distance of about eight and a half miles altogether.  Virtually all of the trails in the Grouse Ridge Roadless Area connect to this major north-south oriented trail. 

Old Man Mountain 

The Blue Lake Trail is a relatively easy hike to the glaciated terrain above the mixed conifer-black oak forest, so typical of the west slope of the Sierra Nevada.  I usually hike the Blue Lake Trail three of four times a year.  It’s an excellent introduction to the geography of the South Yuba River above 5,000’ in elevation and to the intensive water management system that is so much a part of the history of the Yuba River.  The Spaulding Dam impounds water from the South Yuba, Fordyce Creek, Canyon Creek and the Middle Yuba and is part of the Yuba-Hydroelectric Project encompassing approximately 400 square miles.  Together with the Drum-Spaulding Project the Yuba-Bear Project is considered by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to be “the most physically and operationally complex hydroelectric project in the United States.”

How to get there:
The Lake Bowman Road is 24 miles east of Nevada City, CA on State Highway 20, on the east side of Bear Valley.  Drive Lake Bowman Road north for 5 miles to Forest Service Road 18.06.  This is also the turnoff for Camp Liahona.  Slowly drive this rugged road for 1.2 miles to a large flat that once was a log landing and park here.  There are two roads visible from here: the one on the right goes to the campground near the Blue Lake dam and the short trail to Zion Hill, while the Blue Lake trail starts up a rough and rocky road that trends to the northeast. Don’t try to drive it – you’ll reach a locked gate where it’s difficult to turn around.

A Ditch with Rock Retaining Walls and Trail

The Trail:
The road slowly climbs for about a mile and ends at a saddle turned into a landing situated to the northeast of Blue Lake.  In the saddle there’s a pretty good view of Blue Lake, which is indeed blue.

The peak across the lake is erroneously mapped as Zion Hill.  On 19th century maps Zion Hill is the smaller peak one air mile to the southwest below Fuller Lake and the site of the Zion Hill Tunnel, a water conduit.  I only had access to a few Colfax Quad Maps (USGS) and on them I found that the 1898 and the 1902 maps show Zion Hill in its historic location but on the 1938 map it has moved to its current location near Blue Lake.  For over 80 years now all subsequent maps have consistently shown Zion Hill at its new location – does this make it so?  It makes me wonder how many other cartographic blunders are on modern maps, probably something only a map nerd would care about.

Pick up the trail along the former ditch that brought water to Blue Lake from a small but perennial stream.  It heads northeast from the flat that was carved into the saddle.  Blue Lake, along with nearby Rucker and Fuller Lakes, were originally dammed in the 1860’s to provide reservoirs for the hydraulic mines of Alpha and Omega, located southeast of the town of Washington on the South Yuba.  The three reservoirs were known collectively as the “Omega Lakes” and they’ve been considerably upgraded in the 20thcentury.

Along the trail you’ll come to a small perennial stream where the ditch segment ends.  Remnants of a former rock dam create a small waterfall where the trail crosses the creek. From here the trail climbs a bit and has some ups and downs but nothing serious.  In about a half mile you’ll reach another small live stream.  After about two miles of hiking in a forest of ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, incense cedar, black oak and canyon live oak you’ll be suddenly treated to a huge view of a body of water in a glacial bowl at the confluence of the South Yuba and Fordyce Creek.  To the east are spectacular views of Old Man Mountain, Red Mountain, Brady Mountain, Emigrant Gap and many other mountains and ridges.  Recent studies of glacial striations on Old Man Mountain by geographer Allan James reveal that a glacier occupied Fordyce canyon about 14,000 years ago.  At that time the tops of Red Mountain and Old Man Mountain were islands that poked through the glacier.

An Erratic, a Boulder Transported by a Glacier

At various places along the trail there is evidence of the indigenous people.  Today there is a set of trails that extends from Bear Valley (4,500’) to Meadow Lake (7,300’) and one of those linked trails is the Blue Lake Trail.  The fact that all along this trail system are archaeological sites reflecting food processing, tool manufacture and retouching, and petroglyph sites suggest that this trial was used thousands of years ago.

A rewarding ramble overland is to head north on the ridge on the west side of Granite Creek in the direction of Loney Lake.  There are gigantic boulders and smooth expanses of bedrock.  When I’m hiking in this landscape I feel like I’m in a huge art gallery/park with sculpture beyond human imagination accented with pockets of variously textured vegetation. Be forewarned that there is very little shade and the rocks reflect a lot of heat.  The best hiking here is off season and before the rains when the deciduous plants near streams and wet spots turn color.

The Drainage Basin of Upper Granite Creek

The hike out and back is less than six miles (continuing to Granite Creek makes it closer to eight) and fairly easy with an elevation gain of only 600’– but there is always the option to make it a longer day.  Pack a hat, a windbreaker, sun protection, enough water and wear sturdy shoes or boots.

On July 20, 2019 we’re planning to walk this trail. We’re based in Nevada City, CA. If you’d like to join us, please contact

Zion Hill
• • •

Friday, June 28, 2019


A Rendering of Josefa's Hanging From Downie's "Hunting For Gold" (1893)
Courtesy of the Huntington Library

The first hanging of a woman in California took place on the North Yuba River in the town of Downieville.  It was a lively gold rush town in the early 1850s and it still retains some of the architecture and integrity of setting. Part of the town’s notoriety is based on the story of the hanging of Josefa Segovia or Josefa Loaiza, sometime called Juanita, a tale with many variations and accents that varies wildly based on who’s telling it.  Today Downieville is trying to create an economy based on outdoors tourism.  Most of the surrounding land consists of conifer forest with steep canyon streams and is part of the Tahoe National Forest. 

Downieville was originally known as “The Forks” and renamed for Major William Downie, in the spring of 1850.  With the exception of the indigenous Nisenan, who were here for centuries, everyone was here to profit from gold mining, either directly or indirectly.  They had absolutely no intention of settling in the area – in their pursuit of gold they were at best hopeful and cooperative and at their worst greedy and aggressive.  In May of 1851 there were 15 hotels and gambling houses, 4 bakeries, 4 butcher shops and a scattered population of 3,000.

Downieville is a much smaller and peaceful place today but 168 years ago on July 5, 1851 a woman was hanged either from a bridge over the North Fork of the North Yuba River or the North Yuba.  Her name was Josepha and she was a Mexican woman in her early twenties.  She was convicted of a murder by 12 men, some of whom were friends of the deceased, after a two hour “trial”.  Jiffy justice at best.  Before we get to the event that precipitated her hanging some background might be useful.

“Nowhere else, save perhaps as conqueror in Mexico itself, did the American show so blindly and brutally as he often showed in early California his innate intolerance for whatever is stubbornly foreign.” – Josiah Royce in California: A Study of American Character (1886)

Spaniards arrived in what would later become California in 1769. Their intent was to colonialize, establish encomiendas and convert the indigenous population to Catholicism. Alta California, as they called it, was seen as a distant outpost and therefore difficult to govern.  By 1820 Mexico declared its independence from Spain but California remained remote and ungovernable to the federal government based in Mexico City.  When the missions proved unmanageable and ultimately disbanded, Mexico awarded large land grants to retiring military officers and others who were owed political favors.  The resulting ranchos engaged, to varying degrees in meat, hide and tallow production.  With business as a secondary concern, a distinctive vaquero-based culture with hospitality, horsemanship and fiestas as core functions developed.  Despite the attempt by the grantees to maintain a veneer of Spanish decorum California became a mestizo-based population and those born in California became known as Californios.

When Mexico lost the war with the United States they signed the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. One of its provisions gave Spanish speaking residents of former Mexican land one year to choose whether they wanted American or Mexican citizenship – over 90% chose American citizenship.  So then, most of the Californios were American citizens who were already here when gold was discovered on Sutter’s 48,000 acre land grant.

Spanish speakers were called “Spanish”, regardless of country of origin.  The residents of Valparaiso, Chile; Lima, Peru and the Mexican state of Sonora were among the first to hear about the gold discovery as they were already on the west coast.  They were among the first to arrive in California to search for gold and many of them, particularly Sonorans who were also the most numerous, had prior experience or familiarly with gold mining techniques.  Among the tools they introduced were the batea, the arrastra and the Chile mill.  Most of the Spanish speaking miners congregated in the Southern Mines, in the foothills east of the San Joaquin Valley.

Americans resented the mining skills of Spanish speaking miners, somehow seeing their experience as an unfair advantage.  The Yankees made no distinction between the Californios, some of whose ancestors had arrived in California in 1769, and newly-arrived Mexicans, Chilenos, and Peruvians. They lumped them all together as “greasers.”

One of the first laws passed by the California legislature was the “Foreign Miners Act of 1850” and its purpose was to eliminate most of the Spanish-speaking miners and other undesirables like Kanakas, Blacks and the French, among others.  When they refused to pay the impossibly high tax of $20 per month, white Americans had an excuse to drive them out of rich mining areas.  In the California mining town of Sonora, Mexicans, Chilenos, and Peruvians joined with French and German miners to protest the tax, only to be subdued by a hastily formed militia of white Americans.  Although the fee was later reduced, and the act repealed in 1851, the damage was done; it drove an estimated 10,000 Latinos from the mines.  The bill’s sponsor was a malicious Texas-born racist and state senator named Thomas Jefferson Green, who had been run off of Rose Bar on the Yuba River because he was using black slaves to mine.  
[*In 1852 more than 20,000 Chinese arrived in San Francisco intending to mine for gold.  The California legislature then passed a second Foreign Miners Tax at the rate of $3 a month this time targeting Chinese competitors.  This law was enacted until 1870 when it was declared unconstitutional.]

In the early 1850s, when North Yuba towns like Downieville and Goodyears Bar were only accessible by pack trails, Mexican and Californio men ran pack trains that brought food, tools, stoves and everything needed into the mountainous regions.  Known as arrieros, they were to be found in every town because they were an integral part of the booming freighting business. [See my previous post about Arrieros, 12/6/18].  Mexican women typically worked as inn-keepers, store-keepers, waitresses, cooks and laundresses.  They were also artists, entertainers, card dealers and prostitutes.

Downieville in 1851

This is one of the most popular gold rush stories – a story that is continually retold and spun. There are many versions of the event and they all have their biases running from political and unconsciously personal interpretations to blatant racism and sexism.

California became a state in 1850 and the Fourth of July celebration for 1851 would have been its first – the miners were anticipating a hearty party.  On the night of the Fourth of July, a woman identified as Josefa, who was alone in her home, was awakened by a rude disturbance.  A drunken man named John (AKA: Frederick or Jack) Cannon had torn the door of her cabin from its hinges (either accidently or deliberately), then trespassed in her home and picked up her scarf from the floor (possibly with the intention of subduing her with it).  The episode apparently enraged Josefa (some speculate that it was not the first time Cannon had accosted her).  Cannon returned the next morning to apologize and settle the damages to her home, but instead he and José, Josefa's partner or husband, argued in Spanish. Everything accelerated when Cannon reputedly called Josefa a whore (according to Josefa and Jose).  She responded by grabbing a sharp bowie knife and fatally stabbing Cannon in the heart.  After the stabbing, José and Josefa fled to Craycroft's Saloon where they were apprehended, and Josefa was taken to the town plaza to be tried.  The assembled mob wanted them both lynched on the spot.

Another View of Downieville in 1851. Illustrator Unknown
From James Sinnott's Classic, "Downieville: Gold Town on the Yuba" (1972)

Cannon was well-liked and nativist sentiments were running high in light of the celebrations the previous day.  Two men tried to defend Josefa.  One was Dr. Aiken, a physician and a friend of Josefa’s, who claimed she was pregnant; the other was a man named Thayer.  He was ordered by the crowd to look out for his own safety and, like Aiken, was brushed aside as Josefa was sentenced to die.  José was run out of town and told never to return.  Josefa was then escorted to the Jersey Bridge or the Durgan Bridge, where she slipped the noose over her head and walked out on a plank that was then cut out from under her.  There are many accounts of what happened to Cannon, why Josefa stabbed him, and why she was lynched.  Historians more or less agree on the wobbly facts related above.  

Newspaper and eyewitness accounts consistently expressed a general sense of discomfort over this violent episode.  John B. Weller, who would later become California’s Governor (1858-1860), was part of the unruly crowd.  He was running for state senator and gave a patriotic speech the day before.  Weller watched the entire event and was later accused of pandering to the mob to secure votes because he participated in the lynching as a spectator.

The Craycroft Building

Here is the text of the first newspaper article describing the event as it appeared  in the Daily Alta on July 9, 1851:  A Woman Hung at Downieville“We are informed by Deputy Sheriff Gray, that on Saturday afternoon a Spanish woman was hung, for stabbing to the heart a man by the name of Cannan (ibid), killing him instantly. Mr. Gray informs us that the deceased, in company with some others, had the night previously entered the house of the woman and created a riot and disturbance, which so outraged her, that when he presented himself the next morning to apologize for his behavior, he was met at the door by the female, who had in her hand a large bowie knife, which she instantly drove into his heart. She was immediately arrested, tried, sentenced, and hung at 1 o'clock in the afternoon, of the same day. She did not exhibit the least fear, walking up a small ladder to the scaffold, and placing the rope round her neck with her own hands, first gracefully removing two plaits of raven black hair from her shoulders to make room for the fatal cord. Some five or six hundred witnessed the execution. On being asked if she had anything to say, she replied, "Nothing; but I would do the same again if I was so provoked.”

Sources like eye-witnessed events can become questionable when retold years later. Is the hurried, and sometime inaccurate, information gathered by the press better than digested but muddied, if not befuddled, information available in reminiscences?  It depends?  There are still disagreements about whether Josefa was hanged from the Jersey Bridge, over the North Fork of the North Yuba River or the Durgan Bridge over the North Yuba River.

Then there is the seemingly irresistible practice of retelling stories in the florid style of quip-ridden frontier correspondents like “Old Block” (Alonzo Delano), “Squibob” (George Derby) and “Norio” (Mark Twain’s brother, Orion, editor of the Meadow Lake Sun).  Humor, guns, whisky, gambling, notorious women and free-wheeling interpretations of events are characteristic elements of this style which continues into the present with shabby samples available on the internet.

The Durgan Bridge Across the North Yuba, Mid 1880s
The Original Was Swept Away by a Flood in 1862
Photographer Unknown

The confusion about Josefa’s name is fascinating. Some sources refer to her as “the Spanish woman” and others, with a bit more accuracy, as “the Mexican woman.”  Although original newspaper accounts calls her Josefa somehow her name changes to Juanita, a blanket stereotypical name like “John Chinaman”, or simply “John”, in other words not a person but a demeaning category.  A white woman of the same era was always addressed as Miss or Mrs. and never on a first name basis.

Josefa Segovia and Josefa Loaiza are the most credible candidates for her full name. Jose Maria Loaiza, Josefa’s companion, in the 1877 “Schedule of Mexican Claims against the United States”, filed a suit against the U. S. requesting damages for “the lynching of his wife and the banishment of himself by a mob.”  Jose Loaiza's claim for damages was denied but it substantiates the claim that they were married.

Josefa was employed as a waitress at the Craycroft Saloon where Jose worked as a monte dealer.  There were few women and thousands of men in this part of the North Yuba canyon – the county history by Farris and Smith (1882) published the reminiscences of George Barton, where he says, “There was an absence of women in 1850 and well on into 1851. There were not a half a dozen women in town, white or Spanish.”  In 1851 the Downieville precinct counted 1,132 votes (all American men, of course). This may be apocryphal, but if you’ve been in a male environment like a sports team, in the military, or worked on a physically brutal job (like mining) the level of discourse and behavior can sink to a common denominator which is often crude or brutal and it’s likely that this was the case in Downieville.  Do you doubt for a moment that Josefa was frequently propositioned?

Some sources suggest that she was a prostitute and others say so directly, with the implication that she got what she deserved.  R. H. Dana, author of Two Years Before the Mast (1840) and a young Protestant man from New England who was in California before the gold rush had this to say about the Californios: “The men are thriftless, proud, extravagant, and very much given to gaming; and the women have but little education, and a good deal of beauty, and their morality, of course is none the best.”  There is no reason to believe that the gold miners of 1851 had evolved beyond this stereotype in their thinking.

There is no evidence that Josefa was a prostitute.  But even if she was, she still deserved a fair trial.  There are those who defend frontier justice (primarily lashing and lynching) and maintain that it puts just limits on human excesses.  I’m not a fan of this kind of thinking because when it reaches the level of mob rule there is no thinking going on at all – it’s all emotion and revenge driven.  We can do better than that.

The North Fork of the North Yuba, Now the Downie River

You may ask yourself if Josefa was justified in killing a man because he (only) insulted her, assuming you believe that version of events.  In the wilds of California in 1851 a woman who was called a prostitute may have had a legitimate defense, or at least given some leniency, but none of this applied if you were a Mexican or Indian woman.

Internationally, the hanging was controversial with condemnation from the London Times and other papers.  Even Fredrick Douglass commented, saying that if she had been white she would have been lauded for her behavior instead of hanged for it.  She simply had no standing.  Josefa expressed no regrets and retained her dignity but lost her life.

Posted on the Craycroft Building
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