There was always a strike waiting which was bigger and better, so many gold miners were continually on the move if current diggings weren’t paying out. News of those bigger and better strikes traveled fast and was even exaggerated. Hearing that a strike had been made at Meadow Lake, above Cisco Grove, miners stampeded to the area. The stampeding encouraged more stampede and in no time a vibrant town was being built. This short book is the story of the Excelsior, or Meadow Lake District, beginning in 1864.
Henry Hartley settled in Meadow Lake about 1861. There he lived trapping and traveling to Cisco for occasional company. In 1864 he saw gold
flakes in the black veins that threaded through the granite rock of the area. He and two friends began mining. By 1865 another company came to the area and began mining as well. The news was out.
People began to descend in hordes on the district to try their luck. Unlike other mining towns Meadow Lake was surveyed and the streets were laid out. The town did not grow simply by chance. The Meadow Lake townspeople had big plans and high expectations.
The book is full of details about the growing town. The best details are the quotes from newspapers and letters. For example, “We do not hesitate in saying that this district is destined at no distant day to become the most famous for wealth yet discovered on this coast or anywhere else.” People came and they built. “Summit City [Meadow Lake] had ten stores, five lumber yards, ten hotels, five blacksmith shops, four hurdy-gurdies, and numerous bars – 100, according to one reckoning….” “The price of lots soared to $800.”
Due to isolation and lack of machinery to process the ore the town grew in size but the residents did not grow in wealth to match their expectations. Then when they had roads and machinery the problem was a lack of gold. Residents just spent money rather than gathering gold. The burgeoning local economy was an illusion.
Fatout goes on to describe the town’s history year by year and gives details of life there: the winters and the activities (mock trials, dancing, literary society, skiing). The stampede increased the next year in 1866 and the town was incorporated the same year.
In the beginning of 1866 there was a never ending stream of pack trains headed for Meadow Lake and there were piles of furniture, provisions, and merchandise awaiting pack train transportation. The horde had begun moving while the snow was still on the ground. The population swelled to 4,000 and beyond. Five new houses a day were being built.
Fatout tells a couple of anecdotes, one about the makeup of hash and the other about how the printing press got to town. The hash ingredients by percentage were: “Hair 7, Gum boots 3, Potatoes 60, Flies 2, Yellow jackets 1, Pork, very old beef 10, False teeth 2.” The press was too heavy for normal transportation so was transported by 40 Chinese. When the Chinese got close to town they were so exhausted they sat down to rest. The townspeople picked up the task and carried the machine while singing “Marching Through Georgia.”
There was lots of enthusiasm, lots of people, and lots of activity, “Before another year shall have rolled around, their [Sierra] solitudes shall echo the mingled clang of ponderous machinery, the shrill whistle of steam engines, and the shriek and roar of the flying Iron Horse.” (The transcontinental railroad was being built 10 miles south.) But there was almost no gold.
As 1866 wore on people began to leave. Building stopped, lot prices dropped and so did share prices. So when Mark Twain arrived at the end of 1866, he saw a deserted town, “…they have built a handsome town and painted it neatly and planned long wide streets, and got ready for a rush of business, and then-jumped aboard the stage coaches and deserted it!” The newspaper stopped publishing in 1867.
The gold never appeared, optimism waned, people left, fires destroyed buildings, and the winters were hard. By 1868 only 150 people were left. In 1869 there were seven families and 300 houses.Over the years there were resurrections of enthusiasm as new ore processing techniques were advocated, tried, and then abandoned. Houses
collapsed under the weight of snow and a fire in 1873 destroyed more of the town.
Henry Hartley, the discover and founder, died in 1892 of opium poisoning. His wife suspected foul play but nothing was proved. She went on to infamy but that’s another story.
In all, Meadow Lake generated maybe $200,000 in gold along with the dashed hopes.
Fatout does an agreeable job telling the story. He includes many quotes and a few stories in the 150 pages. But the job is just “agreeable.” It could have been much better. For example, there are almost no illustrations. There is one map, a small woodcut, a picture of Hartley, and a picture of the lake in the 890’s. Just on our 20 Mile Museum sign for Meadow Lake we have more illustrations and pictures. Illustrations help make the story.
Fatout could have also included Meadow Lake business ads from the local newspaper or the History of Nevada County. He could also have written in a less workmanlike style to convey the optimism bordering on hysteria of the gold seekers rushing to cash in at Meadow Lake. Likewise it would have been nice to see pictures of Meadow Lake and environs today and Fatout could have said what happened to the other towns in the area that he mentioned. That would have necessitated a longer book but it would have been a better more engaging book. It’s all in how the story is told and such an interesting story about human nature could have been told in a less academic way. Mark Twain said Meadow Lake was “the wildest exemplar of speculation I have ever stumbled upon. Here you find Washoe recklessness and improvidence repeated.” Twain had a way with words. He knew how to tell a story.
Meadow Lake Gold Town is available as a used book on the internet or in some libraries. My used copy was only $6.