Up The Road: Gold Country V: Riding The Rails, Rafting The Rivers

Apr 5, 2017

This week we take one last big-picture look at California’s gold country, where the original gold rush of 1849 got the state off to a rip-roaring start. There are other areas in the state where gold was discovered and mined, later, so the story goes on and on. There’s so much story, in fact, that even in 1849’s Sierra Nevada gold country we’ll have to come back to some of these places again and again. So, consider this the end of the introduction.

One of the things we don’t much think about these days is how hard it was for the original miners to just get from place to place. There were no roads, not even dirt ones, so at first they followed deer trails up and down canyons. Deer always knew how to get down to the water, where the gold was.

But with more and more miners arriving daily, there was need for better, faster transportation, just to deliver supplies to the first hard-scrabble towns. Dirt roads that did the job also allowed Wells Fargo to cart out the gold. Which is why bandits like Black Bart loved to rob the stagecoaches. There were robbers all over, of course, but Bart’s claim to fame was his poetry, which he proudly left behind with his theft victims. One fine example, which fortunately survived the test of time:

“I’ve labored hard and long for bread, for honor and for riches. But on my corns too long you’ve tred, you fine haired sons of bitches. Let come what will, I’ll try it on, my condition can’t be worse. And if there’s money in that box, ‘tis munney in my purse.” Before he was captured in 1883 Black Bart was something of an all-American Robin Hood, since he stole nothing from the passengers—just money from Wells Fargo and the big-money boys who owned the mines. 

But I digress. The point of all this was to demonstrate what huge transportation challenges miners and early settlers faced. Beyond scratching out a few roads, they solved some shipping problems—such as how to get timber down to the towns that needed it—by taking advantage of local rivers and gravity, eventually building flumes to float logs as well as deliver water to mining sites. And as soon as humanly possibly they built railroads.

Come on, folks. Doesn’t this look like fun
Credit detroitstylz

These days, much of the rushing water that so generously served the miners and the mines has been redirected toward agriculture, thanks to dams and large storage reservoirs. There’s still impressive whitewater above all those dams, available for rafters, with April and May usually being peak rafting and kayaking time. (But with all the snowmelt yet to come this year, who knows the schedule?) If you’ve always wanted to raft California whitewater, this is the year. Each river has at least one or two licensed local afting companies that know every rapid under all conditions—ask around—but you can also sign on for one- or two-day trips with a top-rated outfit such as O.A.R.S., or Outdoor Adventure River Specialists, whose staff will help you figure out which river at what level of challenge is best for you and yours. If you want to do it this year, make your reservations now. This year is a rare high-water mark.

As for remnants of those old gold-rush-era railroads: For the big-history view you can still take the original train route over the Sierra Nevada via Truckee on Amtrak’s California Zephyr, all the way to Chicago if you’d like—one of the most gorgeous train trips anywhere. For train rides and history on a more local scale, there are two worthy gold country museums to track down. At the wonderful, volunteer-built Western Pacific Railroad Museum in Portola, in Plumas County, you can climb all over just about everything, which youngsters of all ages will appreciate. For a price—which helps keep the rolling stock here rolling—you and the family can even drive one of the diesel locomotives. In Jamestown, train lovers will want to stay a day at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, film locale for countless scenes from Westerns and even Petticoat Junction, a TV show some of you fellow geezers will vaguely recall. You can take a ride here too—steam locomotives, totally old-school—and even “crew for a day,” but they won’t let you drive.