Up The Road: To Honor Water And The God Of The Dark North

Apr 26, 2017

This week we head Up the Road to appreciate the power of water. Even here in the north, where most of California’s water comes to ground, we tend to take it for granted. Turn on the kitchen or garden faucet, out it comes—and there better be enough to meet our needs, at a comfortable price. We also expect it to stay where we put it, inside the lines that represent flowing water, on maps, and behind the dams we’ve built to stop that flow, to store water and to play in it. When it doesn’t stay put creeks and rivers flood, houses here and there get their feet wet, and we may need to figure new routes to get around, because some roads are closed, partly under water.

But there was a time when water had its own way, and people were regularly shocked and awed by that display. And never more so than the Great Flood of 1862, unleashed by a perfect storm of endless early-winter rain, heavy snow, and then unseasonably warm rains that suddenly melted that snow. It was a regional disaster, from the Pacific Northwest and California to Utah and New Mexico. The entire Central Valley was an inland sea, with floodwaters 30 feet deep in places. Intrepid John Carr traveled up the Sacramento River at a high flood stage.

Credit Bok Kai Temple

“... I was a passenger on the old steamer Gem, from Sacramento to Red Bluff,” he wrote. “The only way the pilot could tell where the channel of the river was, was by the cottonwood trees on each side of the river. The boat had to stop several times and take men out of the tops of trees and off the roofs of houses. In our trip up the river we met property of every description floating down—dead horses and cattle, sheep, hogs, houses, haystacks, household furniture, and everything imaginable was on its way for the ocean. Arriving at Red Bluff, there was water everywhere as far as the eye could reach, and what few bridges there had been in the country were all swept away.”

As Carr’s eyewitness report suggests, the economic loss was staggering. In California some 100,000 sheep and 500,000 lambs drowned, and 200,000 cattle—livestock losses that hurried the end of early California ranchero culture. One-fourth to one-third of all property was lost, with one home in eight washed away or ruined along with mining equipment that had brought the state wealth and fame, from sluices and flumes to stamp mills.

Yet some places, including Marysville—like Sacramento, dangerously situated at the confluence of two rivers—were only partially submerged by the Great Flood of 1862. Something to think about while poking around in Old Town Marysville, home to the Bok Kai Temple, which honors multiple dieties but especially Bok Eye, God of Water (especially rain, floods, and irrigation), also known as the God of the Dark North, an ancient Chinese engineer who achieved deity status after saving China from great floods.

Credit Bok Kai Temple

The Bok Kai Temple was prominent on the Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2001 list of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places. The 1880 temple, which replaced the original one, lost to fire, needed at least $1 million worth of repairs. This Taoist temple is the only one of its kind outside Asia that honors Bok Eye. Since it was built in 1854, to serve Chinese miners, nearby areas have occasionally been inundated by rampaging rivers, but Marysville has been spared, proof positive in these parts that Bok Eye is still on the job. Congenial celestial circumstance may have been helped along by the fact that Marysville’s earthly community relationships were also good. Marysville is one of the rare California gold-rush towns that never sacked and burned its Chinatown or otherwise terrorized Chinese residents.

Bok Kai remains an active place of worship as well as a site of pilgrimage for art historians and preservationists. Among the treasures are 19th-century artwork and antiques, including a gilt sedan chair and rod puppets. The temple’s murals are quite rare, difficult to find even in China due to the Cultural Revolution.

With restoration underway, Bok Kai tours are available by appointment only. There’s no street address but you’ll find it down from the Silver Dollar Saloon at First and D Streets. Also come in spring for the Bok Kai Parade, the only event of its kind in the northern hemisphere and California’s oldest parade. Event sponsors always appreciated.