Jeff Jardine: Falling lake levels expose rising relics at Don Pedro

02/01/2014 6:16 PM

02/02/2014 8:53 AM

Funny how the meanings of common words and terms can change over the years.

Today, if someone’s house is “underwater,” you instantly assume they owe more on it than the place is worth. Compare that with the early 1970s, when water rose behind the new Don Pedro and Melones dams and people really did see their properties – their former properties – go underwater.

Unless we get ridiculous amounts of snow in the high country over the next two months, some of those historic towns that are now fish habitat could resurface. Already, the foundation of the old Eagle Shawmut Mine’s stamp mill is completely out of the water, as are several other concrete bases normally submerged by Don Pedro Reservoir near Chinese Camp.

Jacksonville, a town founded in 1849 after its first resident found gold in his vegetable garden, became visible again during a similar drought in 1977. Will we see it again this time?

Miles away on the Stanislaus, the old Highway 49 bridge could surface within the next several months, preceded by the old mining town of Melones, also founded in 1849. Once known as Robinsons Ferry, it was last seen in the early 1990s.

Tourists who pass by these giant reservoirs linked by Highway 49 have no idea what lies beneath, or used to. Nor, in fact, do most who moved to the foothills over the past 35 years. Folks who ride their horses at Peoria Flat, near the Sierra Conservation Center prison, probably don’t know that long, flat stretch of trail once was a Sierra railroad spur built to carry materials during the construction of the old Melones dam completed in 1926. In fact, that old railroad bed disappears into the New Melones Dam halfway up.

The thought of seeing some of these places again stirs the memory. Growing up in the foothills, we went to the rivers: to the old town of Jacksonville on the Tuolumne, and to the old Mountain River Lodge just downstream. We once had a family Easter picnic in the old town of Don Pedro, not far from the old concrete dam replaced in the early 1970s and now underwater.

We went boating on the old Melones Reservoir, the water so high that the craft’s windshield nearly hit the underside of the bridge. It was one of those rare times in my life when I was glad I wasn’t taller.

Those who lived in the tiny towns of Jacksonville, Melones and Don Pedro went down to the water until the new dams were finished and it chased them away.

One blistering day in the late 1960s, my cousin talked me into hiking down the Stanislaus River canyon to go fishing. His family lived near the top of the canyon. We slid most of the way down on our rumps and it was amazing we never encountered anything with fangs. We fished all the way down to the town of Melones, whipped by the heat and skunked by the fish. The old store still was open, and I had a couple of dollars – enough for a couple of sodas and candy bars.

Cousin Bill called his mom and asked her to come get us.

Sorry, she told him. Because we hadn’t told her where we were going, it was lesson time. She uttered the four-letter word no kids want to hear from the bottom of a canyon on a miserably hot day.

“Walk.”

So we took that long hike up Highway 49, through Tuttletown, around Coffer’s corner to Fraguero Road, and finally made it back to Cousin Bill’s place, our sneaker soles nearly turning to jelly from the hot blacktop.

Later on, as construction on the new dams progressed, I remember being in a school bus heading across the river for a football scrimmage. As we crossed the old bridge, we craned to look up at the new Stevenot Bridge under construction. It’s 450 feet high and 550 feet across. My neck hasn’t stopped hurting since.

Likewise, my lasting memories of Jacksonville came from the windows of a bus going to play elementary school sports against Tenaya in Groveland. We drove the old Highway 120/49 along the east side of the canyon and then crossed over to the west side on an old metal-trussed Jacksonville Bridge before heading up Old Priest Grade. During these periodic trips, we saw workers giving the canyon walls a buzz cut in anticipation of the water that soon would flood the canyons.

The place was doomed, and each time we drove through, more of it was gone. The Mountain River Lodge, on the other side of the Tuolumne near Jacksonville, was relocated to a place a mile or so away along the realigned Jacksonville Road. It became the Mountain River Motel, a rusting sign says, but it’s been closed for years and time has been unkind.

And now, with the lake levels dropping, the foundations of old mining operations, stores and houses could offer a glimpse into the past. They’ve been underwater a long, long time – really underwater – with history and heritage being included in the mortgage.

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