Mining Days, in the Sierra Nevada

by Kayak Peter Wait

concerning: Jefferson, Calif., a Mythic Town of the Mother Lode
Working on the Water Ditch; The Jefferson Hotel Bar & Restaurant

Mining Days

In the 70's and 80's I spent time placer mining in the Sierra Nevada and the Trinity Alps of California.

Introducing Jefferson, Calif* note and links

Jefferson, Calif. is a small mining town hidden away and all but forgotten in the Mother Lode country of the Sierra Nevada. It is situated at the end of all paved roads on the banks of the Middle Fork far from the frantic crowds of tourists intent on discovering a bit of the romance of gold.

Jefferson is home to a few hardy souls happy in retirement or content with a simpler life. If one is not content there is no reason to stay. The gold is all but gone, there is little work and that poorly paid. The nearest town with jobs is up and over a couple a ridges that make commuting an ordeal only for the truly committed.

But the hills, once denuded in the interests of the mines, are again clothed in lush stands of pine and fir. The rivers, once choked with mud or re-channeled onto the side hill to get at the gold, run clear. The air, once filled with soot and dust from the mills, is clean, a tonic to the lungs. Birds, bear, deer and trout abound.

Who needs the cacophony of traffic, there is sweet bird song. Who needs the cineplex, there is a favorite log or rock from which we contemplate the setting sun and gathering dusk. Who needs the stress of modern life, we have the challenge of finding our way through the black forest after over staying the departing sun.

TV? No, we light an oil lamp and settle in with a book. McDonalds? No, we make a mess of sourdough biscuits, beans from the pot simmering on the back burner and a salad of herbs ripped from the earth. Life is good.


Working on the Water Ditch

The summer of '75 found me on a canyon side-hill outside of Jefferson. It was a beautiful day with the smell of pine and manzanita on the hot clean air. I was swinging a pick, trying to eak out enough soil from between rocks and roots to cover the town's water supply main.

The eighteen inch diameter pipe lay in an old ditch and flume system dating from the 1880's. Then it had supplied water to the diggings for sluices, hydraulic monitors, power etc. Now it merely served the area's domestic and agrarian needs. In the old days the water flowed in an open ditch and wooden flume. Now, sanitation concerns and the Federal Government dictated a closed pipe and bitterly contested chlorination.  My job was to protect this fragile pipe from sun and falling rocks.

So there I was, swinging my pick. I was hot. Sweat pored off my aching back. Dust filled my eyes and nose. Far below the Middle Fork flowed. In the center of that sparkling stream a crew worked a gold dredge. They looked so cool and happy.

How romantic. Live the life of the forty-niners, but with modern tools and amenities. I was decided. I would leave this back breaking labor on this baking side-hill and join the Argonauts down there in that cool water. I would become a gold miner myself. Join the eternal pursuit of that precious metal.  Perchance I would strike it rich.

And so I did follow the life of the miner. Though I didn't completely give up my job with the Town Water Board. I continued to work on the water ditch when I wasn't mining. Mainly in the winter and spring when the water was too high to work in the rivers.


I remember one night during a major winter storm. Little Joe pounding on my attic room door. "Wake up! The water's out! We've got to fix that d___ pipe again."

We head on out toward the Canyon Creek dam, where the first step was to turn off the water at the source. It wasn't hard to see where the break was. The entire town water supply was washing across the road near the Tanner place.

After turning off the water we followed the rushing water up hill to the break where a couple of 18 in. pipe clamps, a short section of pipe and several hours of very cold wet work made the pipe whole. Then another trip to the dam to turn the water back on and another inspection trip to the break site completed our labors. There was water for the morning coffee. And that completed the night, it was morning!

Such were my labors for the Town Water District:

  • Propping up rickety old flumes;
  • Repairing the dam with my stiff leg kicking out in front, as I lurch downhill, sack of cement on my shoulder;
  • The Tanner dogs visiting me in the woods as I work at covering the pipe;
  • Edna bringing cold goat's milk and duck eggs for my refreshment;
  • Pouring rain, sticky red mud, heat and dust.
It was a great life. Didn't pay much, but I got to work in the forest, mainly by myself.

Then there was the Gold. Actually gold Mining was much like working for the Water District. Hard physical work with no bosses amid the harmony of the natural world. Which, I delight in pointing out to anyone willing to listen, is the Real World.

I worked on the Middle Fork, Deadman Creek, Canyon Creek and Poorman Creek. I worked on three man dredge crews, hard rock drifts and placer drifts, drilling, shooting and mucking. I went sniping the banks and sluicing the bars. - Bar, did somebody say Bar? - an old joke based on the various meanings of bar: a lever for moving rocks; a gravel bar, hopefully containing gold; and a drinking establishment.

We were a hard working, hard drinking bunch.




Jefferson Hotel Bar

The center of community life was the Jefferson Hotel Bar. It was an old wood frame hotel over-looking the Middle Fork. Built in the early days of mining and rebuilt every time it burnt down. A poster proudly proclaimed "Wyatt Earp slept here". Though in disrepair and in danger of slipping down hill some rainy night, it was slowly being refurbished with the aid of those whose bar tabs were in arrears.

It was of a type commonly found all over the west. Three stories, long and narrow, porches wrapped around the first and second floors. Benches and stumps were arrayed along the street porch; chairs and sofas up on the second floor. From sun-up to well after night fall in the summer a steady shifting group of patrons, bartenders, tourists, town-folk, bikers, miners, loggers, drifters, hangers-on, the inspired and the crazed graced this rustic forum.

Oh, let us not forget the dogs. Dogs were everywhere. Tucked under the benches out of the way of careless boots; sniffing and urinating on the stumps or the occasional comatose patron; chasing sticks and balls; sprawled out in the middle of the road only grudgingly giving way to an occasional vehicle.

The facade of our social club is broken by two sets of double doors. The doors on the right open onto the bar. Cool and dark in summer. Fans stir the dusty, nicotine stained dollars on the ceiling fifteen feet overhead. Unpainted, gray pine boards, eroded and textured by a century of miners boots, make up the flooring. Their nail heads, each left elevated on a dimple of wood like a mesa capped by hard lava, shine in the sunlight as we enter.

We skirt the pool table to our right, trip over a dog, as we make our way to the bar. The back bar is not one of those ornate constructs of exotic wood imported round the horn like we find in that fancy hotel in the county seat. No, this bar is of humble, local origin of pine and oak. The usual brass rail adjusts our stance as we rest our elbow on the scarred surface of the plank looking around for a bartender.

Chances are that the bartender is not behind the bar. Maybe he's playing pool, outside bullshitting or if he is the owner, Al, he could be anywhere and might show up in time to close up. Maybe another customer will help you.

Choices are one draft, a few different bottled beers and a minimum of whisky and spirits. Mixed drinks are served in pint Mason jars; quarts available to-go if you are heading for the swimming hole just outside of town.

The juke box and video poker provided the entertainment, or maybe Bushy, urged on by his many fans, would tune up his saw and joined by a Little Joe's harmonica and some washboard or spoons provide an accompaniment to our raucous singing.

Little Joe is the live-in swamper/bartender and lives on the second floor in his own suite of rooms with private bath and kitchen. He arrives downstairs shortly after dawn, makes coffee, unlocks the door, sweeps out the bar and hoses off the porch. The bar opens when the day's bartender shows up. It closes when the last customer gives up or when the bartender has had enough for the night.

A large, river rock fireplace on the other side of the pool table is the lodestone of winter. Ol' Chick has made an art of laying the fire so that as one log burns to coals the next chunk of wood gently falls into place with a shower of sparks and a burst of flame. Woe to anyone who needlessly pokes at this magical fire, disrupting its planned succession.

Bar flies vie for places along the rail of the pool table in the glow and warmth of this Mecca. They sit there, drinks in hand, in deep communion with the elemental flames. The pool players must continually shoo them off in order to play their game. But as soon as there is a break in the game, back these railbirds come, settling back down as if they had never been disturbed.

And so it went until the winter of '75 snuck up on us. We had been lulled by a couple of mild years. But this year ended with some cold, violent, seemingly unending storms for which we were unprepared. There was no wood! No one had made wood and now the forest is sodden, the roads one continuous mire of sticky red mud and all wood cutters are reluctant to venture forth. How are we to feed our comforting fire with no wood.

Well almost no wood. Across the street at the Wells Fargo Cafe there are seasoned Oak rounds used as table and chairs now stored under cover for the winter. Owner Gary is conveniently in Sacramento for the winter. We roll a couple of those beauties over. Scrounge some dry kindling from the hotel's underpinning. You see the hotel is built a the steep slope with the rear supported by tresses now in sad shape. While much under there is rotted there is much that is still sound. It is those we want. Being careful not to take anything that is still supporting anything, we pry off enough wood to get our fire going.


The Hotel Restaurant

The left set of doors opens on the restaurant. Straight ahead is the stairs to the second floor, to the left is the connecting door to the bar. About midway on the wall, past the stairs is a large propane furnace, the only heat in the hotel besides the bar fireplace.

The restaurant is a no frills establishment necessary for the liquor license and normally presided over by Mother Mary. Only in summer with the arrival of the tourists could any money be made. One winter I was persuaded to keep it going when Mother Mary decided to spend the winter in Grant City.

I served up bacon, beans, surplus government cheese, sour dough biscuits and pancakes. For variety I had road-kill venison. Food stamps were an accepted medium of exchange. The bar room became the dining room when the propane stove went cold for lack of fuel. I slept in the attic.

The attic was for the non-paying guests and hotel workers. In the old days there were cribs here. It is cold in the winter with no heat. At least the second floor rooms had the heated bar and restaurant below them.

Paying guests stayed in the rooms on the second floor, the prime ones being over the restaurant where the sounds of the juke box from the bar were somewhat muffled. Wyatt Earp stayed in room #4 at the head of the stairs. I was also known to have stayed there, it was the easiest to get to after a long night.


note 1   When I first wrote this it seem to me important to hide the true identity of this town in keeping with its retiring character. But now with the new owners of the hotel ...
Jefferson is actually Washington, CA in the 1970s and 80s near Nevada City. There was briefly a nearby gold camp named Jefferson in the early days of the gold rush. And in 1851 there was the first attempt to form a new state of Jefferson from the northern counties of California. This attempt continued sporadicly until maybe even today and includes at times part of southern Oregon.

Some Links

Coming soon
REFUSING TO GHOST by Sara Ross-Samko,
a documentary film featuring Washington, CA as it is today.
Washington Hotel, as it is today
Washington, Nevada Co., some history from the Blog..., with much info on the area
_pjw 2016

        That's all for now, Kayak Peter

peter j wait, 2004

edited by Peter J Wait,