I met John Downs when I spoke to the Placer County Historical Society about my book Hidden History Beneath Folsom Lake. He had me hooked when he said he grew up Goose Flat, near the Gwynn lime kiln. He either knew history really well or he really did spend his childhood roaming around the dilapidated remains of a gold mining community. The fact that John is a little bit of a character, he bills himself as the Time Traveler, intrigued me. More importantly though, my BS detector stayed silent as he talked about walking across the old Rattlesnake Bar Bridge on his way to school before it was summarily destroyed by an overloaded truck in the 1950s. By the end of the evening we had settled that we would make a trip down to his old stomping grounds as soon as the winter rains cleared out.
Wild John Downs At Goose Flat
For years I had read about mining activity at Wild Goose Flat, the lime plant, Alabaster Cave and assortment of other historical trivia connected with the El Dorado County side of the North Fork of the American River across from Rattlesnake Bar. I even forded the river during the very low flows of 2015 and hiked around Wild Goose Flats down to the Zantgraf Mine. And while I was willing to slip, fall, and drown in the American River, I’m not daring enough to knowingly cross onto private property. Since the Folsom State Park boundary is, for the most part, just 300 feet above the high water line, I never followed the trails up to Gwynn’s lime kiln or cave.
Because the old Gwynn lime kiln, Alabaster Cave, and John’s boyhood home was behind a locked gate on a private road, I was eager to visit that road with someone who had access. The road down to John’s old house use to be called the Rattlesnake Bar Road as it took you down to the old Rattlesnake Bar Bridge. Today it is a private road called Goose Flat Road. On a particularly nice late winter Sunday morning, John, Robin Enos, Robin’s son Christopher, and I met up in Auburn and drove over to the historic dirt road John grew up alongside.
Old Miner’s Shack Turned Family Home
John told me he had recently connected with a couple who had acquired the property where his old family home was located. In reality, we learned that the old shack of a house was on property that had been owned by the family for fifty years. Looking for an adventure, the retired couple decided to move on to the eleven acres the family owned. John thought for certain the couple’s first decision would be to knock down his old family home. Much to his surprise, they were looking to rehabilitate it and welcomed John’s carpentry experience to make it plumb and usable again.
By the time John’s little family moved into the house back in the middle of the 19th century, the once thriving gold mining communities of the 18th century had long faded away. The Rattlesnake Bar Bridge was still operational and was widely used to get from the Auburn area over to Cool, Georgetown and beyond. John still remembers the Rattlesnake Bar Bridge being taken down and the loss of his passage to school across the river. But its days were numbered as Folsom Dam was approved in the 1940s and the ensuing lake would eventually swallow up much of Wild Goose Flat and Rattlesnake Bar. But the impending progress of the 20th century was of little concern to a young boy who was living in house with no electricity or running water.
What the house lacked in modern amenities, according to John, was more than made up for in the wild El Dorado County countryside that surrounded it. Fostered by the books John’s father read to him, his imagination blossomed and streams, fields, and hillsides were his land of adventure. There were whales to harpoon, witches to avoid, and Indian wars to recreate. By virtue of being an only child, John was forced out into the sunshine and fresh air to create his own daily entertainment.
As we walked around the old building being rehabilitated by two industrious senior citizens with more energy than people half their age, John reminisced about shooting at butterflies with his BB gun. He took me across the road to the remains of a larder or root cellar where limestone had been built into the corner to represent a cross. With the little seasonal creek splashing down Coopers Ravine, I could easily see why a man would want to settle in the area. Of course, all of us were just as curious as some of the early visitors to the region.
Thousands of people would flock to the Crystal or Alabaster Cave just up the road from John’s little home.
A Jaunt to the Crystal Cave
Daily Alta California, San Francisco, Sunday, May 13, 1860
After crossing the river the road winds gently and beautifully around the bank for a mile, to the mouth of a picturesque ravine, up which we turn, and after a mile more is accomplished the Cave is reached. At the entrance of the canon a most magnificent view is obtained of the various bars, and mining settlements along the river. And what classical and euphonious names they still bear! At your feet lays Whisky Bar, and just above it Rattlesnake, Dead Mans, and Mule Bars. Below, is Horse Shoe, (which, however, is most appropriately christened,) and farther down the stream, Condemned Bar, which has proven one of the richest on the river.
THE CAVE. An old and deserted frame tenement in the shade of a towering oak, stands a few hundred yards below the Cave. We tied our nags, and walked up to its mouth. All along our path, flowers innumerable bloomed, and fringed the margin of the Georgetown ditch, which flows through the center of the ravine. On arriving at the Cave a number of men were observed building a lime kiln immediately in front of the bill on the right, and on accosting them we learned that they were digging rock from the immediate vicinity of the Cave, when perchance one of their number pushed his pick through the outer crust into the cavern. This happened on the 18th of last month, and since then the news of the discovery has spread far mad wide.
Passing some sixty feet further, we saw another, and what is now the main entrance to the cavern. Our trusty guide (the same who discovered the Cave,) led the way, and after crouching through a passage of some fifty feet in length and some four in height, we stood at the threshold of the great subterranean chamber. Brilliantly lighted, the scene presented was dazzling in the extreme. The awe-stricken beholder gazes with rapture on the numberless stalactites which, like icicles, pendent hang from the roof of the cavern. On the right, the attention is attracted to a pile of asbestos cones, which look as symmetrically carved as if fashioned by the hand of the most ingenious sculptor. The pendent cones, produced, of course, by the percolation of water through the rock above, assume the most fantastical shapes. The roof of the cavern varies from six to fifteen feet in height. There is little of grandeur or sublimity to impress the beholder, but he is struck rather with the varied beauties of the Cave. At intervals stalagmitic pedestals confront the visitor, and on these, with great good taste, the proprietors have placed candles, which shed a superb light on the thousand alabastic gems throughout the chamber.
Walking The Old Rattlesnake Bar Road
We took a short walk down the hill to the wide open meadows above Wild Goose Flat. This area was once a holding pond for the Georgetown ditch which fed hydraulic mining above the river. While the remnants of the ditch and berms for the pond were still visible, on our visit only green grass, towering oaks, and a few cows occupied the landscape. However, to the north of the old pond was a steep precipice the result of hydraulic monitors washing the hill side in search of gold. I’m not entirely certain of the origin of the name Wild Goose Flat. John seems to think the adjective Wild was applied because of the behavior of some of the miners. He may be correct!
1853 Sacramento Daily Union, July 14, 1853
Rattlesnake Bar, North Fork. —The citizens of this flourishing mining precinct are milking every preparation for an active winter’s business. The branch ditch of the Bear River and Auburn Canal Company, which commences at a point near “Harmon’s,” four miles distant, is already completed, and the water will be let in, and across the flat without delay. The South Fork Canal route is now being surveyed. There was a grand jollification on the Fourth, in which many of the diggers of the neighboring placers participated. The Declaration was read, an eloquent oration pronounced, and a handsome dinner served up. Our correspondent, “Longobardus,” informs us that the Chinamen expended gold dust very freely in buying crackers and vied with the Americans in this portion of the celebration, but when the liquor began to have its effect, they vamoosed and were not seen again for the remainder of the day. Special policemen were appointed by the miners who preserved order throughout the day. A couple of the sons of the Emerald Isle were so disgusted with this arrangement, that they procured a boat, crossed the river into El Dorado county [Goose Flat], and there pummeled each other to their heart’s content. At sundown they returned to camp locked in the most loving embrace imaginable, and each eternally grateful to the other for permitting him to indulge in the favorite amusement of “darling old Ireland.”
Blowing Up The Hill For Gold
John’s dad also had the gold bug. He said his father could easily find an abandon sluice box down by the river and do some “dry digging” gold prospecting. In one attempt to loosen the hard red soil near the old hydraulic site, John’s father went industrial. John told the story of how his father used a charge of black powder to excavate the hillside. As it was explained to him, he was to remain very quiet next to his mother above the blast site so he could hear faint muffled explosion his father was about to detonate. Much to the surprise of John, his mother, and possibly his father, the explosion was far larger than anticipated. The blast could be heard throughout the country side and summoned more than a few curiosity seekers concerning the mining active of old man Downs.
John’s father was successful at mining gold. Not a lot of gold, but he was able to wash those dry diggings in a sluice box, capture the placer gold and black sand in a burlap sack, and then burn the sack leaving just the gold and black sand to be further separated. John also remembers his father’s desire to be a writer. He said he was able to publish a few pieces in magazines, but neither gold mining nor writing paid the household bills. But John attributes his own little foray into writing for the Auburn Journal to his father’s dream of being a writer.
John reminds me a lot of my dad and the tales he used to tell growing up on the farm in Twin Falls, Idaho. But there is a difference between remembering the past and living in the past. My father was afflicted with the latter. John is easily given to waxing fondly of life as a child in a remote canyon above the North Fork of the American River. However, John recognizes that time and progress march forward. If you are not willing to adapt to the present, your life and sanity will have a stunted future. He has also been bestowed with the gift of hindsight perspective, as I call it. While John’s father may not have been a successful gold miner or writer, he tried. Half the battle to achieving any success in life is trying.
John is active in his foothill community of Newcastle. I get the feeling that if he has not offended at least one person once a week, he is not living up to his full potential. When it comes to politics, if you aren’t making enemies, you aren’t trying hard enough. But John, with one foot root in the past and another in modern day small town economics, brings a perspective of government and politics that is easily dismissed by people comfortable with suburban development and Environment Impart Reports. Without the experience and local history people like John bring to the table, the heart and soul of a community can be lost to tidy developments and white stucco sound walls.
With his trademark buttoned bibbed shirt, leather suspenders, and wide brimmed black derby hat, John Downs is a time traveler. He visits local elementary schools and talks about the lifestyle of the days of yore. He certainly looks like he just could have ridden up on a horse from the placer mines along the river. Along with Robin Enos, John helps pen a column for the Auburn Journal and they have been heard on local radio as well. I enjoyed my little trip back in time with John. Even in middle age, walking down the old Rattlesnake Bar Road gave me a sense of what it must have been like to live in a spot that overlooked the American River in both the 1950s and the 1850s. God willing, I’ll be able to walk that road again with John and his partners in crime in the future.