Jeff Jardine

What lay beneath is still off limits at New Melones, other dwindling lakes

For decades, bits and pieces of local history and the ghosts that guard them remained deep beneath the murky waters of New Melones Reservoir, Lake Don Pedro, Folsom Lake and other man-made drowners of artifacts.

And now that the water levels are way down – courtesy of, among other things, the drought and trout – there’s an opportunity to go relic hunting, right? Get out the metal detector and see what lies beneath the layers of silt? Trowel an old metal button out of the mud and jump around in a over-the-top, well-rehearsed glee like the guys in the up-the-dial cable TV show, “Diggers”?

Wrong – at least not on publicly owned lands, and the reservoirs are all publicly owned. In fact, it is strictly prohibited. People can stroll through places like the old town of Melones, part of which already is exposed with more and more each day as the surface of the lake drains its way down to the old Highway 49 bridge. It should surface later this month or early in October.

North of Columbia State Park, they can walk down to the old Parrotts Ferry Bridge, which has been out of the water for more than two months and draws dozens of visitors daily. And you might find archaeological artifacts while you’re there, including remnants from the days when ferries crossed the Stanislaus River at Parrotts and Melones, the latter also known as Robinson’s Ferry.

But digging them up and taking them with you is strictly prohibited, said Laurie Perry, regional program lead for the Bureau of Reclamation in Sacramento, which controls the land at New Melones, wet or dry. This week, the department issued a warning in the form of a press release telling people to leave the relics and archaeological finds behind when they visit. And metal detectors are not allowed and many of these places. Getting caught can be expensive: fines up to $25,000 and officials could seize your detector or digging tools.

The good news, she said, is that this hasn’t been much of a problem yet at New Melones – certainly not to the extent of what officials experienced when the remains of an old Mormon settlement surfaced last year at Folsom Lake. Visitors swarmed the old foundations and some took home whatever relics they could find. Hence, the warning is to make sure it doesn’t happen at New Melones as well.

Why can’t collectors or visitors take home trinkets and treasures that normally would be under 300 feet of water, you wonder? Because the ruins at Melones and Parrotts Ferry are considered historic sites remnant of the Gold Rush Era. And before that, many of these places also were home to Native Americans, she said. These sites are equivalent of outdoor museums.

Some of the sites where structures were 50 years or older were recorded as historic preservation sites when the new dam filled in the late 1970s into the early 1980s. The Parrotts Ferry Bridge, built in 1939, was not among them at the time and therefore didn’t show up on the list. It qualifies now, though. Thus, disturbing, taking or damaging the artifacts is banned there as well.

And there’s a safety issue, Perry said. The slopes can be unstable because they’ve been under water for so long.

“There’s been lots of sedimentation,” she said. “Things have moved as the reservoir level has risen and fallen. (The soil) is beaten up by the wave action.”

That can bury some prehistoric artifacts and expose others. Either way, leave them alone, she said.

At Lake Don Pedro reservoir, the old stamp mill foundation from the Eagle-Shawmut Mine near Chinese Camp has been out of the water for more than a year and traipsed over by many. But the rules are the same as on federal land, Modesto Irrigation District’s Melissa Williams said.

“Don Pedro Recreation Agency’s regulations and ordinances (Section 5.3.4) note that no person shall disturb the soils, archaeological, historical or geological resources within the Recreation Area,” she said. And the places within the area that have the most relics – old townsites of Jacksonville and the community site near the old dam downstream – are expected to remain under water.

All that stated, you own a nifty metal detector and enjoy a day out looking for treasures. Where can you use it? Chris Davis of Modesto has one and makes good use, going to historic towns including Knights Ferry and Chinese Camp, where he asks permission to hunt on private property owners.

“I’ll go up and knock on their doors and explain, ‘this is what I want do do.’ I’ll offer ’em a fifty-fifty split or offer to give ’em first crack on whatever.”

Most allow him to use his detector and few have asked for a cut of the take, he said.

“I typically search for an old location where lots of people would have hung out or traveled through,” he said. “For me, it's not about finding something that is worth a lot of money but finding something that was from that time era.”

As long as it’s on private ground and not from land that usually is under water and always government owned.