A Bandit Digs Into the Mother Lode

Text: Derrel Whitemyer • Photography: Derrel Whitemyer

Eureka! "Thar's gold in them thar hills" and everyone - even outlaws with in-laws in tow - is coming to strike it rich. The 'poor' ghosts of James Marshall and John Sutter would find it easier to put the sins of the world back into Pandora's box than to stem the tide of discovery they wrought.

The first nuggets were found while they built a sawmill near the American River town of Coloma. A short time later, the word leaked out. People from all over the globe headed for the Sierra Nevada foothills. Even droves of sailors caught the bug, abandoning the very clipper ships that ferried their gold-seeking passengers to California.

In sight of the Palace of the Legion of Honor, my exploration begins on another hill overlooking the waterfront known in the late 1800s as San Francisco's Barbary Coast, where an immigrant tailor, Levi Strauss, created a flourishing industry from the rather simple task of sewing salvaged sailcloth into miners' clothes.

My plans included riding a loop through the "Mother Lode" country, visiting Angels Camp and Murphys on the way up, and Columbia and Jamestown on the way back. In selecting those four, I knew I'd be leaving out dozens of others: Fiddletown, You Bet, Git-Up-And-Git, and Dutch Flat. Some, like Columbia, are state historical parks where the re-enactment of settlers' lives in the 1850s appeals to tourists. Other once-vibrant sites are marked by little more than a few vandalized gravestones or a commemorative plaque by the side of the road.

Working my way eastward on Geary Boulevard and crossing the Bay Bridge (I-80) into Oakland qualified as surreal, especially when a little leftover ocean fog and a lot of morning traffic are thrown in the mix. Once fortunes lured many hopeful dreamers across the bay beneath me, and not one of them had to worry whether the lady jabbering on a cell phone knows my blue Bandit is just to the right of her Volvo.

Reaching Oakland safely, I follow the San Pablo Bay north on Hwy 80 until turning east onto Hwy 4. The Sierra foothills beckon, but first I pass through San Joaquin Delta towns that are as fascinating as the mining camps I plan to photograph. Someday I'd like to tour these handsome Victorian homes.

From the coast to the Sierras, the foothills are colored with wildflowers. Blue and yellow blossoms blanket their flanks like psychedelic lava. East of Stockton the land changes subtly at first, but turns thereafter into a different world. Miles of alfalfa, cotton and corn open out from corridors of roller-coaster curves that invite me to lean my little 1200 through them. Outcroppings of rock surrounded by grassland and grazing cattle inhabit the surface the more I climb in elevation. The air is clear enough to see snow on the mountains.

Copperopolis appears at the end of a series of descending switchbacks. The area provided much of the copper ore later refined into brass-mining machinery. There's not much left of the old town, and except for the Copper Hotel nothing's really visible from the road. Of more interest to motorcyclists is the fact it marks the beginning of some very serious twisties leading into Angels Camp.

Hwy 4's thirteen miles of scenic road from Copperopolis to Angels Camp is a delight to ride. It's been kept in good repair and the landscape's archetypically 'Mother Lode' land. You'll begin by winding your way up and out of Copperopolis in a northeasterly direction until you're threading your way through ridges covered in stands of gnarly oak and pine.

Five miles out of town I'm recycled into reality by a group of riders from the Gilroy, CA, Honda shop. Led by owner Steve Schaub, they pass at the end of some corkscrews like I was motorcycle statuary. I'd just started to gloat over passing a new V-Rod and needed to be reminded, "What goes around, comes..."
Due to the pace of Angels Camp new growth more foothill history is disappearing. But don't despair; some of it's preserved at the Angels Camp Museum, found at the entrance to town. When considering what those people went through to keep their old mining machinery running, it occurred to me I should never complain again about maintaining the bike.

George Angel built a trading post here in 1848. Mark Twain and Bret Harte scribbled about it and their stories ensured Angels Camp fame long after its gold ran out. Today the town has expanded from its original site into an interesting collection of narrow shop-lined streets. Located in Calaveras County, it's the home of the annual "Celebrated Jumping Frog Contest" and the happy destination for hundreds of Harley riders during May's "Frog Week."

On weekends, a must-see gunfight between an 1880s marshal and some ornery galoots is hosted and staged on Main Street. The gunplay is fun to watch and occurs in front of a standing-room crowd of spectators. In fact, it was while talking to one the spectators, I learned that Indian Motorcycle's vice-president, actor Branscombe Richmond, (the "Renegade" co-star) has been instrumental in directing a portion of the company's profits to local Native American charities. Targeted in particular for help were those tribes displaced by the Gold Rush.

Follow Hwy 4 northeast out of Angels Camp to Murphys or take Murphys Grade Road. I chose the 'Grade' because it's more alpine in nature and leads through another series of attention-grabbing twisties. Murphys is 2200 feet in elevation and set up for a great walking tour. Named in 1848 for the brothers John and Daniel Murphy, the small camp uncovered more than $ 15 million in gold in less than 10 years and grew to encompass over 500 frame buildings. A spate of devastating fires, however, convinced residents to rebuild with stone. Murphys Hotel is probably the most imposing of these, with a register that includes luminary guests: Mark Twain, Ulysses S. Grant, and the infamous bandit, Black Bart. My Bandit parked outside its doors, I walk all around town only to find an incredible snack bar, The Peppermint Stick, right across the street. They serve "real" ice cream and an oatmeal cookie the size of a small Frisbee...bon apetit, mon ami!

My next stop, Columbia, is sometimes referred to as the "Gem of the Southern Mines." It's about a twelve-mile southerly trek down Parrotts Ferry Road past Douglas Flat and Vallecito, crossing over the bridge at the tip of New Melones Lake. Douglas Flat and Vallecito were also gold camps and, in their own right, appealing places to visit. New Melones Lake is a haven for water sports and has a perfectly paved road from its bridge all the way into the town of Columbia. Sherry Warren, the owner of Warren Harley-Davidson in Salinas, says its big sweeping curves make it a favorite ride for the cruiser crowd.

The State of California designated Columbia a historical park in 1945, restoring many of its old buildings. Today you can walk past the Fallon Theater all the way down Main Street to an 1860s Chinese apothecary shop without seeing one car or motorcycle; they're required to park outside town. Touristy but also lots of fun, Columbia is one of the few places around that entreats one to go back in time, pan for gleaming specks, see a working blacksmith shop, and experience the full-fledged "Mother Lode" mystique.

Traffic's heavy on the way to Jamestown, approximately six miles down Hwy 108, but not to the point I can't enjoy the view. On Main Street the old Jamestown Hotel stands out in particular. It looks across to another old-timer, an emporium with a gingerbread façade that touts an inventory dating back 150 years. Founded in 1848 by Colonel George James, the town flourished, with miners sometimes taking $ 300 a day - a very tidy sum back then - from nearby Woods Creek. Later James would be run out of town and the citizens would attempt changing Jamestown's name to American Camp, to no avail. But whatever it's called, the whole town's incredibly photogenic, so bring lots of film.

Dropping in altitude ever since Murphys, heading to Jamestown, and then towards Knights Ferry, I leave most of the Sierra foothills behind. In fact, after a ride of about 20 miles, it's an elevation sign displaying 200 feet that signals the Knights Ferry turnoff is just ahead.

Iron jailhouse, Masonic Hall, and gristmill ruins are the correct answers if you're ever asked to name three things Knights Ferry still has in common with the 1800s. No less than Ulysses S. Grant liked the area well enough to become a resident. Started as the first ferry operation across the Stanislaus River, it once took in tickets that tallied to the tune of $ 500 a day. Floods in 1862 washed away the original bridge, with the covered wooden bridge you can see today constructed a couple of years after. Certainly not least, but finally, the area proudly claims a couple of fantastic Bed & Breakfasts, and draws many enthusiasts for great whitewater kayaking and lovely roams along its hiking trails.

Although my weekend odyssey ends in Knights Ferry, I know I barely skimmed the surface in these four, old, gold rush towns. Hopefully, you and I will soon return to explore the "Mother Lode" country in more detail.