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Gold Mines, Jumping Frogs And
Big Trees In Angel’s Camp

Angel’s Camp chooses to decorate with the miners’ laundry!
Some towns use banners across their main street as decoration. Angel’s Camp chooses to decorate with the miners’ laundry!

Travels recently took us to California’s Gold Rush country. We spent several days based in Angel’s Camp, in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

One of the things that made this area especially interesting to us was that husband Ron’s great-great-grandmother, a Miss St. Clair, came to Portland from these California gold fields. But he’s told you more about Miss St. Clair in his column in this issue.

Angel’s Camp is located in Calaveras County, home of Mark Twain’s famous jumping frog. Twain (or Samuel Clemens, his real name) had been writing for several newspapers in San Francisco. Apparently, he had some unkind things to say about the police in that city, so decided it was best to leave town for a while. He landed in Angel’s Camp, and tried his hand at gold mining there.

This was where he heard about the man who had a frog, which the man claimed could jump farther than any other frog. Twain sent the story to an editor in New York, to be included in a book there; it arrived too late for the book, so instead was printed in the New York Saturday Press, in 1865. It was reprinted in the Californian a month later, and reprints elsewhere by othersquickly followed. The story had several name variations during these reprints; the final version became “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

The cabin where Mark Twain wrote “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”
The cabin where Mark Twain wrote “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” is at the top of Jackass Hill.

A few miles south of Angel’s Camp, along Highway 49, a twisting road goes up Jackass Hill to the cabin Mark Twain used while he was writing the jumping frog story. It is partly original, partly restored.

Angel's Camp original jumping frog plaque from 1865.
Plaques like this one, which are about 2 feet wide, dot the sidewalks in Angel’s Camp. This one recognizes Dan’l Webster in 1865, the original jumping frog of Calaveras County.

Every year, the small town of Angel’s Camp continues to hold a Jumping Frog contest. Along the sidewalks of the town are plaques set into the sidewalks with the name of each year’s winner. Winners have come from all over the Northwest. We spotted at least three from Oregon. As far as we could tell, the longest jump any frog made was just over 20 feet. My favorite frog’s name was Rosie the Ribeter.

We were told there used to be a lot of antique shops in the 4-block-long downtown area, but most had closed. We did find at least two that were open, however, and made a couple of purchases.

Our big adventure in this area was trying our hand at placer gold mining. It’s a lot of work, as I’ve told you about in my column Talking Shop.

Life-size cutout of Rasmus Nielen the Tattoo Man.
A life-size cutout of Rasmus Nielsen the Tattoo Man is part of the display at the Angel’s Camp Museum. He’d feel right at home in many places today. His legs are equally covered with tattoos.

The Angel’s Camp Museum is also well worth seeing. It consists of several buildings, stair-stepped down a hillside. One is a big carriage house, with original stagecoaches and other kinds of wagons. Another building includes a small print shop area and miscellaneous little sections, with such things as a life-size cutout of Rasmus Nielsen, the tattoo man. There are also descriptions of the hundreds of miles of mine tunnels that are directly underneath your feet as you’re standing there, and a lot of displays and information about gold mining. You can also watch a video of a frog-jumping contest.

About six miles from Angel’s Camp is Murphys – yes, that’s the name of the town. It was founded by two brothers named Murphy in 1848. It’s an old mining town, too, and many of the original buildings are still in use. As in Angel’s Camp, most of the building material was stone, so there was less of the fire destruction that was suffered in many old towns in the West.

Murphys is what I call a boutique town. There are winery tasting rooms, an olive oil tasting room, a spice shop, several art galleries, and many gift shops, all located in the old buildings. There’s a small museum that’s open part of the time. Among other things, it has a wonderful collection of Miwoc baskets, made by the Native American tribe of that area. We had lunch at the old Murphys Hotel, where one can also go upstairs and see the room that Ulysses S. Grant supposedly occupied when he was in Murphys.

The 44-pound crystalline gold nugget at Ironstone Winery in Murphy’s.
See the 44-pound crystalline gold nugget at Ironstone Winery in Murphy’s.

Another popular spot to visit in Murphys is the Ironstone Winery. Even if you don’t like wine, it’s a chance to see the largest crystalline gold nugget on private display in th whole country. The 44-pound crystalline gold nugget is housed in a case in a vault in the museum building on the grounds. There are some interesting newspapers from early mining days there, too. I liked the Moorcroft pottery that was being offered for sale there, as well as some uique Vaughn pottery, made in Sonora, California.

The easiest route into this Gold Rush country is from the west. We came and left from the east side of the Sierra Nevada, however, which takes you over the summit of the mountains. It’s a beautiful drive, but slow and, if you choose to go over Ebbets Pass, downright scary. That was the way we chose to leave, because we wanted to visit the Big Trees State Park along the way.

Trails lead through the trees at Big Trees State Park.
Trails lead through the trees at Big Trees State Park.

This is well worth a visit, even if you’re doing it as a day round-trip from Angel’s Camp. This is the home of the giant sequoia. These are the trees with the largest circumference of any trees in the world. (The coastal redwoods grow higher, but don’t have as large a diameter.) Altogether, in two groves, there are 1100 mature giant sequoia.

There is stump of a tree that was felled in the 1870s as part of a money-making venture. It has a diameter of 25 feet. Some men bought this one tree from the utility company which owned the area, girdled it to a height of 50 feet, and reassembled the bark in San Francisco. They charged an admission price for people to see this evidence of the huge tree. (There had been much skepticism when reports of these Sequoia had been made; no one believed trees could be that big.) Girdling the tree killed it. They tried to use augurs to cut it down; that didn’t work, but eventually a big wind toppled it. Since then, the slab has been used for everything from a one-room schoolhouse to a dance floor. The day before our visit, a wedding had been held on it.

The road over Ebbets Pass takes you into the Carson Valley of Nevada. The summit is 8700 feet, and it’s a one-lane road with no shoulder for many miles of twisting road. It took us about two hours to travel the 40 miles over the top. This is definitely an alternate route. Highway 88 over the summit is definitely preferable if you want to head east from this area.

This old gold-mining area of northern California is well worth a visit – and it doesn’t require days of driving or a plane ride to get there.

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