The Search for Sappho of Green SpringsMarch 21, 2010 at 2:09 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
I’d never read Bret Harte’s “Sappho of Green Springs,” and even though Project Gutenberg makes it available to me, I’ve not finished it. I can tell already that it is not a Gold Rush lesbian love story—not that that surprises me—but I had a sliver of hope. Apparently one of the female characters is a poet. That slight disappointment did not stop me from trying to find Green Springs because of this passage in The Big Oak Flat Road to Yosemite by Irene Padin and Margaret Schlightmann.
Keystone is said to have gained its name from the number of roads focussing there. In this chapter we are giving such data as we have accumulated about these feeder roads with the towns, or crossroad stores, that enlivened their otherwise lonely miles. They were important in their day but are lost to memory now except for just such small mentionings as are given here. If they are not of interest skip the next few pages. If they are, by all means use the map.
First—the combined Willow Springs and Rock River Road (often called Cooperstown Road) arrived at Keystone from the south via what is now the railroad track. From here on to within a mile of Chinese Camp the route that evolved from this old Indian trail had another name, the Mound Springs Road.
Second—the Sonora Road, which deviates from the course of Highway 120 to curve through Keystone on a detour of less than one-half mile, leaves by way of the railroad tracks, joins the highway again and makes its way more or less north, through Mountain Pass, to Jamestown and Sonora. At Keystone it ceased to be called the Cloudman Road and became the Mountain Pass Road but that eccentricity was just to make things interesting for future historians. In its entirety it was still the old Sonora Road.
The forgotten community of Green Springs stood north of the highway (Sonora Road) at .6 mile beyond the turnoff into Keystone and is noted as the locale of Bret Harte’s “Sappho of Green Springs.” There are at least two springs of which one has been cemented and is wreathed thickly in blackberry vines. In the early ’50s Thomas Edwards operated a stopping place here and the Joseph Aldridge home also dated back to mining days. The John Grohl family lived at Green Springs very early and the property still remains in their possession.
One-quarter mile west of the springs, but considered as being at the settlement, is the grave of John T. Brasefield. He is buried under a symmetrical oak tree which is often eaten off by cattle to an even distance from the ground. John Brasefield was born in 1830 and died of a gunshot wound in 1855. Further information about him seems to be non-existent. He may have been a stranger who left a waiting and wondering family somewhere in the east or he may have been well rooted in California. Possibly some reader will be able to add extra details to present knowledge of this grave.
The first orange trees in Tuolumne County were planted on the Jules and Jean Reynaud ranch to the right of the highway.
Presently Highway 120 (approximately the old Sonora Road) crosses Green Springs Creek and, a mile farther, the Milton-Chinese Camp Road leading to O’Byrne’s Ferry bridge and Copperopolis. Just beyond, on the early Beckwith ranch, stands a ruined stone structure. This was originally about ten feet high, had four embrasures facing the road and was intended for defense against Indians. The Captain Grant who commanded the militia at Knight’s Ferry in 1849 had something to do with its construction according to Robert Curtin. Old-timers have referred to it as the fort.
The book is on-line here. It’s is a history of a road, the road between Stockton and the southern mines and Yosemite. Why there are not more histories of roads I do not know because I haven’t read one that wasn’t fascinating.
You can tell from that passage how delightful it is to read this book, published in 1959, and researched some 15 years earlier than that. So when we read “still,” that’s at least fifty years ago. When I read first this section it completely absorbed me. Someday I would trace this tangle of roads, I vowed, but whenever I went through the area I always was with someone else, and with something more important to do than poke around for forgotten springs and fictional poets.
When we last left the story of my travels I had found one old spring between Priest’s and the-town-that-had-been-Jacksonville but is now at the bottom of Don Pedro Reservoir. From there I headed down Hwy 120 toward Chinese Camp. I knew I was going to end up at Keystone, and Green Springs Road.
Before I arrived there, however, I wanted to see Six-Bit Gulch. Here it is described by Irene Paden:
Beyond the springs is abrasive country—full of sharp rocks, stickery weeds and digger pines. It is also full of turkeys who do well in the 1000 to 2000 foot level. Turkey raising seemed at first to be a sublimation of the tendency of the region to propagate grasshoppers. Not since the Indians counted them a dietary luxury had these excitable insects been so popular. Now the industry is so standardized that the pampered birds, raised within fences, never see a hopper. The road, winding north of Mount Pleasant, comes to Six Bit Gulch about where the smaller Picayune Gulch empties into it. Both names were given in derision because of the poor diggings in their neighborhood. On these gulches lived, in peculiar mud huts, a few Chinese of different habits and appearance from those of Chinese Camp. They were generally known by the townspeople as “Tartars” and never mixed with the other Orientals. One hut survived until recently and may still be there.
Six Bit Gulch was a welcome sight in early autumn as a the cattlemen drove the herds back from the high mountains. It was the first convenient watering place west of Jacksonville. …
Beyond the gulch, which now is not even dignified with a bridge, stood the establishment of John Taylor and his wife, Margaret. The house was on the left immediately beyond the ford, between the gulch and the road as it turns and leads north toward Montezuma. Directly across the road was the large barn. The corrals were between and were so arranged that the road passed through them, necessitating the opening and closing of two gates. This was primarily for the convenience of the cattlemen who broke their drive at this point. Taylor’s stage and freighter stop was founded after he had failed in the diggings. He did not maintain a regular dining room but, of course, any hungry man was welcome to come in and eat. Taylor was Justice of the Peace and, although hospitable, he was also practical. This story of early-day court practices came our way: A jury case was slated to be held at Taylor’s Ranch. The court was assembled at the old house in Six Bit Gulch. The attorney for the prosecution, a Sonora lawyer who liked his liquor, discovered upon investigation that there was no great amount of that commodity on hand. He rose and requested the judge for a change of venue to Jamestown. Judge Taylor, deciding that if one of the two must be discommoded it might as well be the lawyer and not he, slapped his hand resoundingly on the table and announced firmly, “I’ve just bought a two dollar roast to feed the jury. Change denied.”
At Taylor’s the traffic for Big Oak Flat and Yosemite Valley left the Mound Springs Road which continued northward with Six Bit Gulch. ..
And so, having used the Mound Springs Road from Keystone to Six Bit Gulch, the wagons bound for the Big Oak Flat Road and Yosemite said goodbye to it at Taylor’s and turned uphill to the northeast.
The one-mile-long stretch connecting Taylor’s with the next town goes through scrub-grown, broken country, beautiful only in spring. It surmounts the hill at an open level filled with yellow tar weed across which is a vista of but medium allure—the outskirts of Chinese Camp.
You can see the attraction of Six-Bit Gulch: “scrub-grown, broken country, beautiful only in spring.” When I get this attraction feeling, it is best to follow it. I easily found Red Hills road at the back side of Chinese Camp. I didn’t need to stop there. Once you’ve seen Chinese Camp—and I have—you’ve seen it. But Red Hills road: this is a road worth taking more than once. It is one of those wonderful paths that people have long traveled through but never stayed long, so road is narrow and the country side is open, unbuilt, soft.
After fording Six-Bit Creek (pictured above), I was surprised to see a parking lot and bulletin boards. Obviously, someone found this scrub and digger-pine land more interesting than Irene had.
I pulled in and learned that this “abrasive country” is now the Red Hills ACEC owned by all Americans and managed by the BLM. What makes it special is serpentine, California’s state rock–the same geologic rarity that is found near New Idria and Mercey Hot Springs ( the location of some adventures last spring). Serpentine supports different plants than other soils, which means different animals, which means pockets of rare ecosystems. ACEC means “Area of Critical Environmental Concern” which is about as green a statement as you can expect from the BLM. According to everything I have since read, this ACEC is beautiful only in spring because of the abundant and rare wildflowers that bloom there. Right about now is the best time to visit.
I was there too early for flowers, but the parking lot is a trailhead for several hikes, and I started down “Old Coach Road,” a common name for “neat hike with an easy grade.”
On another day, Old Coach Trail may have lead to even more adventure, but I didn’t note how many miles the loop was, and I didn’t have enough water to do even half of it. So I decided to stop and sit a while before going back. While I sat writing and thinking and being present, I designed the labyrinth I hope to build in the garden this spring.
Onward toward Green Springs. The Red Hills Road dropped into a valley at the site of Crimea House, which was still standing when Irene wrote her book. Now there’s just a E Clampus Vitus monument and this a beautiful stone corral.
(That’s Taylor Mountain in the background, named after the same Taylor in the stories above.)
I had enough daylight to put off Green Springs for a few hours, and I decided to drive over to Byrne’s Ferry, because my map said that near there was Negro Peak. This is what Irene has to say about that:
A post office officially termed Cloudman was opened in ’82 in John Curtin’s front room. Daniel C. Cloudman, growing older and deafer, was appointed postmaster. In ’95 the first telephone toll station in Tuolumne County was installed in the same room.
John Curtin, Jr., took over the management in 1908, adding by purchase several adjoining ranches. One especially was of interest because of the owner’s name. Jack Wade, better known as “Nigger Jack” came to the state as a slave, bought his freedom and settled down as a recluse. His 460 acres were located at the base of Table Mountain, southwest of O’Byrne’s Ferry bridge. He was respected for his honesty but was illiterate and suspicious. He lived alone to a great age in a tiny hut squarely in the middle of his property and surrounded by his cattle, hogs and chickens. On present-day maps a mountain of the vicinity bears the caption, “Nigger Jack Peak.”
I remember as a child being fascinated that there was a place called Nigger Jack Peak. A terrible word, but how cool that a mountain had been named for a black man. I can remember my Dad mentioning it, in the mists of a disconnected memory of a drive we took through Jacksonville that last summer before it was flooded by the reservoir. I think that this is Negro Jake Peak, taken from O’Byrne’s Ferry.
On the road at O’Byrne’s, I saw a billboard for “Copperopolis” which promised shopping and restaurants. I’d never been to Copperopolis, and “shopping and restaurants” are uncommon in Gold Country.
Copperopolis. Doesn’t that word feel good in the mouth? There are two Copperopolises. One is real, a town that clusters its ruined prosperity for two blocks on both sides of the highway. It had more of a twentieth-century life than many of the towns in the area, so is therefore worse-for-wear. The other Copperopolis is the one mentioned on the billboard. Four miles from historic Copperopolis is ersatz Copperopolis, something like Santana Row, something like Disney’s Main Street, mostly For Lease. I set up my camera to take my photo, and was joined by Bear, a friendly dog.
I was hungry, but the only open restaurant specializes in panini, which I do not care for.
So what Green Springs? Not a trace of them, the grave, the “fort,” nor an old ranch where an immigrant child wrote poems that impressed a newspaper man. Just open oak cattle country and a few prefab ranch houses. I didn’t take pictures because it looks just like everything else around there. After so many years wondering about that tangle of roads, and poring over old maps; once there, I just passed on through, not disappointed nor inspired, content and happy with another day of wandering. I headed west towards home, and decided to put off dinner until I got all the way to Santa Nella, and their all-you-can-eat bowls of pea soup. As the waiter refilled mine, I thought, “Huh. A bowl of pea soup, refilled as I drink from it, like a green spring.”