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Postcards: Gold Rush From the Air

Panning the mother lode

The frenzied gold-rush era of the 1840s hastened the redistribution of the world population, accelerated California's statehood, and helped settle San Francisco. Left in its wake is a fascinating flying experience out West.

James W. Marshall's discovery of gold on January 24, 1848, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas of northern California also spawned the modern era of mining, perhaps much to the modern environmentalists' dismay. Hydraulic sluicing, quartz mining, and dredging left naked rocks at the towns of Columbia and Volcano; great exposed cliffs at Gold Run and North Bloomfield; mountains of tailings at Mariposa, Sutter's Creek, Grass Valley, and Downieville; and mounds of gravel left by dredging at Plymouth and Placerville.

Furthermore, the cradle of what is now California inspired stories by Mark Twain and Bret Harte and saw the formative years of automaker J. M. Studebaker and aviation pioneer Lyman Gilmore.

By flying along State Highway 49 or landing at one of the eight airports that are part of the so-called "Mother Lode Skyway," you'll be able to see the dramatic man-made topography from the gold rush and capture the flavor of the old West. The Golden Chain Council of the Mother Lode, an umbrella organization linking the nine counties traversed by State Highway 49, recently celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary.

Flight time for the 215-mile trip is a couple of hours in a single-engine airplane. Terrain elevation runs up to 6,200 feet; Mount Bullion, Coarse Gold, Dry Digging, and El Dorado are some of the names you'll see on the San Francisco sectional. Towns named French Camp, Mexican Camp, and Chinese Camp speak of the scope of history's first international gold rush.

The airports along the Mother Lode Skyway have fuel, ground transportation (rental car, taxi, bus, or courtesy car), and eating establishments either on the field or within walking distance or a short ride. Overnight lodging is generally nearby. Some airports have on-site camping. Field elevations range from 1,319 to 3,150 feet msl. Only two airports, Columbia and Grass Valley, have instrument approaches.

Heading from south to north, the flight begins at Mariposa and concludes at Downieville, not far from the Donner Pass and Emigrant Gap, through which the early settlers passed on their westward trek. At takeoff from Mariposa-Yosemite Airport (O68), serving the first of the major settlements of the gold-rush era and just 36 miles from Yosemite National Park, you'll see the spectacular geologic formations surrounding Yosemite Valley, 28 miles to the east, and the Merced River, which flows through the valley into Lake McClure.

With a northwesterly heading, you'll pass over Coulterville, the upstream arm of Don Pedro Reservoir, and at mile 30 you'll come to Chinese Camp, named after its early settlers and known for its surface gold. It also was the site of a territorial battle at Table Mountain between the legions of Sam Yap and Yan Woo Tongs. Only four were wounded and four were killed in the pitched battle, which involved several thousand. Tuolumne Table Mountain, running 50 miles east-west from Knights Ferry to Columbia, is a fossil river of lava that may have erupted about 60 million years ago.

Next is Jamestown, a terminal on the Sierra Railroad, which still transports lumber, agricultural products, livestock, and limestone products to market. The roundhouse is home for a number of period steam locomotives that were used in the western films High Noon and Wells Fargo. Scenic train rides are offered between April and October.

After Jamestown, you'll fly three miles to Sonora, established by Mexican settlers and named after the town in their country. Five miles northeast is Columbia and its airport (O22). One of the most important mining areas of the gold rush, the town was settled very quickly, with housing evolving from tents and brush sheds to wood structures and, after several fires, to the more permanent brick buildings. Called the Gem of the Southern Mines, Columbia is now a National Historic Landmark Park and preserves its heritage by restricting downtown to horse and carriage. The airport has 200 campsites with showers and toilets, and the region offers hiking, fishing, hunting, and skiing.

Mark Twain lived for a time on the Stanislaus River north of town. A bit farther north, Angels Camp and Frogtown are the setting for Twain's "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," commemorated by the annual International Jumping Frog Jubilee in May. The largest gold nugget ever found in California—195 troy pounds and worth about $500,000 in today's dollars—was found in nearby Carson Hill. From the air, you'll be able to see the deep pits of the Morgan Mines from which the nugget was taken.

On a heading to Drytown (so named because of the absence of water, for which 26 saloons compensate), you'll see San Andreas on the right and Calaveras County-Maury Rasmussen Field (0O3) to the southwest. There is camping on the field, and Moaning Cave is 15 miles away by car. San Andreas is where notorious outlaw Joaquin Murietta began his career.

Jackson, served by Westover-Amador County Airport (O70), was first named Bottilleas (bottles) because of the nature of the litter left at the campsites. It now commemorates Colonel Alden M. Jackson, a lawyer who was known for settling disputes out of court. The Argonaut and Kennedy mines there are among the deepest in the world, with one shaft going 5,912 feet. At Jackson Gate, you'll see from the air the famous Kennedy wheels for carrying out the mine tailings into a settling basin. Jackson's Serbian Orthodox Church of St. Sava is the first of its faith in America. The Oak Tree coffee shop is just a three-block walk from Westover Airport, which also has facilities for camping.

To the west of Jackson is the town in search of a name. Ione first tried in sequence Red Bug, Dead Dog, and Freeze Out before settling on the name of the heroine in Bulwar Litton's The Last Days of Pompeii.

Mile 38 on the 304-degree heading from Jackson has Sutter Creek and the Central Eureka Mine, operational until 1939.

At 26-saloon Drytown, you'll turn to a heading of about 345 degrees to Placerville, passing over Fiddletown, site of An Episode at Fiddletown by Bret Harte. Fiddletown—"where all they do is fiddle"—was supplier to the gold camps of American Hill, Loafer Field, French Flat, and Sucker Town. The north-south orientation of the valley there, compared to the general east-west grain, is the result of a geologic fault.

Placerville (literally meaning "surface mining" in Spanish), served by Placerville Airport (PVF), was one of the roughest towns in the mother lode area. Nicknamed "Hangtown" (the VOR/DME retains the name) after citizens lynched the outlaws who were terrorizing the area, it served as a stopping place for the Pony Express and was where J. M. Studebaker got his start, as a wheelwright supplying wheelbarrows for the miners, then wagons, and on to the Studebaker automobile. Nearby Georgetown Airport (Q61) has picnicking and camping on the field and is host to a taildragger convention every September.

Turning to a course of 302 degrees, 18 miles to Auburn, you'll pass over Coloma, identified by the S-turns in the South Fork American River. The state park's museum tells the story of the gold rush, and the central square features a statue of James Marshall pointing to the spot where he found the gold that began it all.

Auburn, the divide be-tween the so-called southern and northern mines of the mother lode, was one of the oldest and most productive of the gold towns, with miners averaging $1,000 to $1,500 per day during its peak. It's also where the first transcontinen-tal railroad passed through, as did the Emigrant Trail that brought thousands in search of fortune.

At Auburn Municipal Airport (AUN), which has the Barnstormer and Wings Grill restaurants on site, take a heading of 347 degrees to the North Fork Yuba River. You'll fly over the Combie Reservoir on the Bear River and at 20 miles come to Grass Valley, served by Nevada County Airport (O17), which has a nice picnic area; camping; and a restaurant, The Warehouse Deli, just a five-minute walk away. Nearby was the base of operations for aviation pioneer Lyman Gilmore, who successfully flew a steam-engine-powered glider a year before the Wright brothers flew at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. He also drew up plans for retractable landing gear, designed a cabin monoplane for eight, and invented a radial diesel engine and a dope of pine resin and glue. His various projects were financed by gold mining, which he did from time to time, following in his father's footsteps.

Grass Valley's Empire Mines, 367 miles of underground tunnels as deep as 3,800 feet, produced $136 million in gold by the time it closed in 1957. It's now part of the state park system. The nearby water-powered Pelton Wheel, which provided compressed air for the North Star Mining operation, remains an attraction today.

Flying north to North San Juan and the San Juan Ridge, you can see the mining scars left by the hydraulic operations, as well as 4,325-foot Mt. Lassen.

Coming upon Camptonville, home of Lester Pelton, inventor of the water wheel that powered mining machinery, you'll see sawmills (the principal local economy) and remnants of the hydraulic mining operations.

Then, on a northeasterly heading, comes Goodyear's Bar, now a favorite vacation spot but formerly the site of an extensive surface mining operation, as were nearby Hoodoo Bar, Cut Throat Bar, and Ranse-Doodler.

The Mother Lode Skyway concludes at Downieville, in the canyon and the forks of the North Yuba River, the area where a 60-square-foot surface mining operation yielded four men $12,900 in gold in only 11 days and saw some 5,000 miners scrape the surface at Coyote Flats, Tin Cup Diggings, Slug Canyon, and Steamboat Bar. From Downieville, head back southwesterly to Nevada County Airport for rest and fuel and a visit to the historic Nevada City Opera House, the National Hotel, and the Ott Assay Office, where the silver of the Comstock Lode was first confirmed — but that's another Western tale.

More information about the Mother Lode Skyway and the region may be obtained by contacting the Golden Chain Council of the Mother Lode, Post Office Box 5142, Marysville, California 95901; telephone 916/755-4949.

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