Placer's earliest settlements lie beneath Folsom Lake

Placer's earliest settlements lie beneath Folsom Lake
Date Published: June 2, 2006
When the Folsom Lake reservoir was formed by trapping the waters of the American River, it washed away the remains of Placer County's earliest mining camps. - Photo by Janis Dice
The remnants of an old building foundation is nearly hidden by wildflowers and spring grasses at a site within the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area. - Photo by Janis Dice

At one time, thousands of people lived in tent cities on the sandy bars of the North and Middle forks of the American River. Now, traces of those early settlements are buried beneath the waters of Folsom Lake.
Before James Marshall spotted flakes of gold snagged in the gear of a saw mill his crew was constructing on the South Fork of the American at Coloma in 1848, only trappers, traders, military scouts and Native Americans roamed this territory. Once word spread that gold was discovered in the river, men around the world left jobs, farms and families behind to head to the western frontier.
Some crossed the plains in wagons, clambering across the Rockies and through the Sierra Nevada on the Overland Emigrant Trail. Others booked ocean passage, sailing around the Isthmus of Panama to San Francisco, then steamed up the delta to Sacramento.
Many stocked up on supplies and mining equipment in Sacramento, often buying pack horses or mules to carry their provisions into the foothills. Some followed the trail north to the Feather and Yuba rivers; but most veered east, toward the blossoming city of Folsom.
Leaving the outpost at Folsom, they followed the forks of the American up the canyons toward Coloma, stopping along the way to search for shimmering flakes and chunky nuggets of gold in the clear water. The prospectors - and the women, merchants and opportunists who followed them - camped along the river's edge, uniting against outlaws and angry indigenous people.
Fearing that others would move in on their claims if left unattended, the miners erected log lean-tos and shacks of canvas and bark within feet of the river. As miners swarmed into the canyons, the riverside camps buzzed with activity.
Although life on the river was rough, the canvas cities attracted troupes of performers that brought fresh news and lively performances to the riverfront camps
Until traveling merchants arrived to display their wares on the banks of the river, miners had to fetch supplies from the old trading posts in Folsom, Georgetown and what is today known as Foresthill. But it wasn't long before stores, service businesses, casinos and saloons were turning the mining camps into communities with names that often honored the first to stake their claims there, or commemorated ones who weren't so lucky.
Dry Bones Bar, Beal's Bar, Massachusetts Bar, Condemned Bar and Carlton's Bar were the first settlements encountered on the trail from Folsom to Coloma. Then came Dotan's Bar, which spanned the river and bridged the newly formed Placer and El Dorado counties.
The mining camps' monikers also represented hometowns, ancestry and natural elements: Quartz Ravine, Willow, Patrick's, Mormon, Lacy's, Manhattan, Vigilant, New York, Oregon, Poverty, Mammoth and Murderer's are all names of bars on the river that sheltered gold mining settlements.
While mining flourished along the river, ranching and farming enterprises were burgeoning in the surrounding hills. The agricultural villages eventually became the roots of modern cities like Loomis and Granite Bay.
One of the richest and largest encampments on the river was Horseshoe Bar. It was the first place in California where bedrock tunneling was attempted, and was one of the first river cities to boast a dancing school.
At Whiskey Bar, there was a sawmill that supplied lumber for flumes, shelters and mining. At Rattlesnake Bar, there was daily stagecoach service to and from Auburn, as well as a theater.
Fires repeatedly roared through the camps, destroying the stick-frame shacks and canvas-clad stores. And, each time, crude structures were rebuilt.
But gold fever eventually subsided and as the industry waned, so did the burghs built on the river bars. As miners moved on or turned to more agrarian pursuits, the mining camps faded as the agricultural hamlets became more colorful communities.
In the 1950's the Folsom Dam was erected by the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers to control flooding in the Sacramento valley, creating the Folsom Lake and Lake Natoma reservoirs. The 18,000-acre Folsom Lake State Recreation Area's marinas, campgrounds and entry points bear names that reflect the people and places that came before.
Now sail boats, fishing vessels, wave runners and water skiers skim the lake, cruising hundreds of feet above sites where men made and lost fortunes, performers danced in the lime light, and women bore and buried their children.
Gold Rush history is forever buried under the dammed waters of the American River.