The search for winter gold at Meadow Lake
While Truckee was not part of the California Gold Rush, a nearby high mountain valley was. The mining community of Summit City was located at Meadow Lake, about 20 miles northwest of Truckee. Being at a 7,000-foot elevation, Meadow Lake snowstorms are about as severe as the Sierra can deliver.The gold miners of the 1850s scoured just about every gulch and knob in their search for nature’s treasure. One of the areas they missed was located in the upper reaches of the South Fork of the Yuba River. In late 1863, one miner finally came across the hard rock quartz veins in tough Sierra granite that contained a fortune.Henry Hartley, who would become the “hermit of Meadow Lake,” staked the first claims in 1864. By the summer of 1865 Summit City, first known as Excelsior, became a boomtown in the Gold Rush tradition. Several thousand excited miners and merchants traveled up rough rocky trails to stake their claim. The first adventurers had to climb over 10 to 20 foot snowdrifts to get to the secluded valley.Throughout the summer of 1865, furious exploration activity caught the attention of miners around the region, but very little gold was actually mined, processed and shipped out. The abundant gold in the quartz veins at Meadow Lake was, and still is, chemically bonded to other rock and is difficult to separate. In the end the Meadow Lake mining district produced no fortune for anybody.Reign of the Snow King As the winter of 1865-66 began to set in, most of the fair weather gold seekers packed up their possessions and left for lower elevations. About 200 men, women, and children hunkered down and stocked up for winter. Since almost no mining could be done, the town became dull and the residents turned to winter sports to spend their time and energy.
Only two businesses, the Lake House and the Excelsior, kept their hotel-saloons open to provide the locals with a gathering place. The roads could barely be traveled, except on 10-foot long “Norwegian Snowshoes,” which were pine boards with crude leather bindings.The remote town was not completely isolated. Several times a week, if weather permitted, Granville “Zach” Zachariah brought in mail and limited supplies. Zach was a superb ski artist and his Snowshoe Express was the only outside communication. He came in from Polley’s Station on the Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road, located near present day Cisco Grove.Winter recreation Zach was instrumental in teaching snowbound Meadow Lakers the art of swooping and skimming over the snow. All ages and genders participated, with Zach as the inspiration, speeding down the hills like a comet. Henry Hartley, already an experienced skier, encouraged the sport.On clear days, they packed a trail up the nearby hill, then raced down, whooping and hollering. Without the benefit of a lift or grooming, on 10-foot skis that you couldn’t turn, they managed to have their own contests that allowed them to keep their sanity.They made the skis themselves, brewed up their own “dope,” usually made of axle grease, and created early recipe for waxes. They worked on improving the crude bindings. Poles were not used, but long poles were handled with ease to balance the mountain skiers.Many of the ladies of Summit City became experts in the sport. They competed favorably in races with men, dashing down the mountain with the speed of a falcon. They were very fashionable as well, making their own outfits, though probably still skiing in dresses.Racing was a daily occurrence, though only a 500-yard hill was available. Prizes, including belt buckles and saloon drinks, were awarded to both men and women. It was not exactly the modern Olympics.
A grand timeA popular version was double skiing, with the woman standing on the back of the skis behind the man. This made for spectacular crashes, with skis, limbs and snow flying in all directions. Ski touring to other remote places – Webber Lake House, Jackson’s Ranch, both north of Meadow Lake on the Henness Pass Road, and occasionally to Polley’s Station – was a popular pursuit. The atmosphere between storms was certainly not that of a modern ski resort, though it was best they could create in the isolated location.The winter of 1865-66 was not an epic one, as the next one would be, so the residents had more than ample time to ski the winter away. The first storms had come in early November and the snow pack lasted into June. They measured the snow in feet, using the town’s flagpole as a measuring stick. Hurricane-force winds, blizzards that buried the flagpole, kept them indoors for a week at a time.During those times they kept warm around the wood stoves, kept snow shoveled off of the roofs, packed trails between buildings, and worked on their skis. They spent a lot of time socializing and drinking “Ho Joe” whiskey in the two saloons that were open. A dancing school was a favorite of the women, and a school was conducted for the children. There was no church and no law enforcement, yet crime was not an issue.Longing for spring
Even with all of these diversions the coming of spring was the greatest anticipation of the town. They were there, after all, to find a fortune in gold. As late spring progressed, the town swelled to 4,000 people, though still no mining work could be done. As summer came on strong, the snow melted, and the thoughts of winter faded.The exuberance of the gold mines was extreme, and so was the depression that followed. By the fall of 1866, experienced miners declared Meadow Lake a “humbug” and deserted the town. Some headed over the Sierra crest to a new railroad and lumber boomtown then being called Coburn’s Station, later Truckee.The winter of 1866-67 was an epic one with more than 40 separate storms that pummeled the Sierra. Many of those who had spent the winter before frolicking in the hills could not afford, mentally or financially, to stay another winter.In mid-winter a visitor skied in, stood in the plaza and asked a lone man on skis, “where is Meadow Lake?” The answer came quickly, ” You’re right in the Plaza.” Even Zach’s Snowshoe Express abandoned the scene. Far less than the 200 than stayed the year before, made Meadow Lake their home.Within a few winters, the population dwindled to one, Henry Hartley. He would remain until the his death in 1893, and have the slopes to himself, no doubt keeping memory of the winter of gold in his memory.Gordon Richards is the president and research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments and history information are always welcome. Visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Past articles by Gordon Richards are available at http://www.sierrasun.com in the archives.
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