Cherokee, California: Gold Rush Town
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What remains of Cherokee could be gone now if it weren't for lanky Jim Lenhoff, curator, museum director, and founder of the Cherokee Heritage and Museum Association, who has lived in the area more than 50 years. A history teacher and author of numerous articles on California's past, he has been involved in saving a number of California's historical landmarks. His interest in little Cherokee accelerated in 1961 when he learned that the trust company that owned the old assay office planned to tear it down.
Others might have seen the property as a pile of stones and done little more than yawn. Jim heard history holler for help. Spurred to action, he bought the old assay office to save it, and the Cherokee Heritage Council was born.
History of Cherokee
Cherokee's past is fertile -- rich in ethnic diversity, back-breaking work ethic, engineering accomplishments, and massive wealth from its gold and diamond mines. Back at the dawn of civilization's genesis in North America, Maidu Indians placidly ground acorns and tracked small game in this area -- 180 miles northeast of San Francisco. How long they stayed is unknown, as are the annals of sojourners in ensuing centuries who may have traversed the beautiful hills.
Around 1818, Spanish explorers discovered gold under Table Mountain, on Cherokee's south side. In 1849, a migrant band of enterprising Cherokee Indians arrived from Oklahoma and panned for the precious metal in nearby creeks as the first cry of GOLD! seduced throngs of homesteaders to stream west, hoping to make their fortunes in the California Gold Rush.
Welsh miners, migrating from England in 1853, built stores, perfected mining techniques, and named the town for the industrious Native Americans who had preceded them. The Cherokee diggins were rich -- very rich. Electrified mines (Thomas Edison was one of the owners) allowed 24-hour operation year round, and miners' wages were high for those times -- $3 per day. Along with the quarry operations, the town grew: three churches, eight hotels, three schools, and seventeen saloons. The county's first running water was in homes here.
In 1880, a jewel of national proportion was set in the crown of Cherokee society when then-President Rutherford B. Hayes, his wife Lucy, Civil War General William T. Sherman, General John Bidwell and others came to visit what was then the largest and most famous hydraulic gold mine in the world. Its sophisticated water system, built to deliver the millions of gallons required daily for the hydraulic monitors, was an engineering marvel of the day.
Alas, Cherokee's pinnacle came to a standstill in the 1890s, when hydraulic mining became too expensive to operate, and the sprawling reservoirs, canals and flumes were sold off to various power and irrigating concerns.
Once a boomtown with a population of over a thousand -- its mines busily kept 300 men working three shifts -- today's ghost town comes alive only on weekends and for special celebrations such as July 4th and President Hayes Day (observed with special exhibits on a weekend near September 24, commemorating the day he visited Cherokee). On an average weekend, the current permanent dozen denizens are swelled by a hundred or so visitors.
A former stage stop and boarding house, the present-day Cherokee Museum proudly offers callers displays of a miner's cabin, photos and art work, petrified mammoth bones and other mineral specimens from the spectacular hydraulic diggins, local Indian relics, and a curious "coffin rock" with undecipherable ancient inscriptions.
Ringing the main room at ceiling level is a romanticized diorama of the town in 1880 when it was at its peak -- hand-carved from pine and assembled by local artist Tom Tuhey -- a mill, general stores, saloons, assay office, church, blacksmith shop, and stables. The museum is open on weekends, weather permitting, or by appointment.
Contemporary Cherokee pays its respect to its most distinguished visitor with Hayes Hall -- a one-room wooden ramshackle building, once a carriage house, now crammed with memories of his visit, local artifacts, and a sleeping miner. Before you snicker "Hayes? Who cares about Hayes?," how many Presidents have slept in your house?
A visit to Cherokee is short. There are no roadside motels, no charming Bed & Breakfast inns. You won't find any fast food or a quiet cafe. The most you can hope for is a cup of coffee or a cold bottle of sarsaparilla. What you will discover are old buildings that have found tradition-honoring patrons, and a welcome respite from a land connected by golden arches, gas stations, and motel chains.
You'll also find the beauty of Sugarloaf. Stately Sugarloaf, a massive and majestic peak on the edge of Table Mountain looks down on Cherokee and the mining operations. It's now home to deer, foxes, doves, a peacock or two, and some hiking trails. The wildflower display on Table Mountain is a springtime spectacular.
When we left Cherokee I had no idea how strongly it would stay in my mind. After all, California's Gold Country offers numerous mining towns, some more expansive. But I couldn't forget quiet little Cherokee; there was something special about this place. I could picture Jim Lenhoff jumping into battle to save a mound of rocks in a region that most people have never heard of -- even those living just a hundred miles away. I remember and admire the museum's charming models of old Cherokee which provide a viable link from the ghost town of today to the boomtown of the past.
Learn more about the town of Cherokee at RockinCherokee
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Kay Grant is a travel journalist who lived in California and now resides in New Mexico. She enjoys exploring the world as well as her back yard and has written for Sunset, American Legion, Porthole Cruise Magazine, Highways, Copley News Syndicate, and Destinations, among many others. She is now pursuing her passion for community theater. - This article was previously published in the San Francisco Examiner
Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author