We’re approaching mid-January, the time of year when the Following Deer Creek (FDC) Project first came into being (2017). Like the Earth circling around the Sun and the planetary water cycle, we’ve completed a journey.
I set out to tell the story of the Deer Creek watershed from its tectonic and cultural origins to the people and animals who live in it today. Working backward, I posted blog articles as I researched in preparation to compile the film.
In early January of 2021, the film was complete. Like the FDC blog posts, it’s a birds-eye view of the watershed that hints at depths.
I smile when I think back to the initial idea seed. Of course, there is no one story, there are more than can ever be told.
FDC and the Aerial Views film is a decent outline, but it also illustrates how much more remains for investigation and study.
Before we ever see water in Deer Creek, most of it has rained, snowed, and been stored in NID’s Mountain Division and PG&E Lakes. It’s moved from lake to lake, going through multiple powerhouses, generating electricity. It enters Scotts Flat Lake where swimmers, motor boaters, and fisherman enjoy it. Flowing into Lower Scotts Flat Reservoir, human or wind-powered boaters recreate on it.
Another portion of water entering Deer Creek comes from the watershed. A watershed is an area of land that channels water to a low point, such as a stream, river, lake, or ocean.
History of Water Management in Nevada County: 1850 Water Business is Born
Placer miners needed water for rockers; hydraulic miners needed it to move mountains.
The first miner’s ditch, to which PG&E traces its tap root, was built in 1850 by The Rock Creek Water Company. Historians locate this ditch is near Coyote Hill. Constructed by Charles Marsh, William Crawford, John & Thomas Dunn, and C. Carol at a cost of $10K, the ditch was nine miles long.
After only two weeks of operation, The Rock Creek Water Company investment paid off.
Successful, and profitable, water transportation soon spread to neighboring counties— Placer, Eldorado, Amador, Calaveras, Stanislaus, and Tuolumne County.
Before water management, Deer Creek was seasonal.
An 1854 drought caused local economic hardship. Mines stopped working, miners couldn’t pay debts, and real estate values crashed.
After assessing the lakes in the Yuba Watershed, water companies understood that gravity and elevation would work in their favor. They built systems to move water to the mines using flumes, tunnels, high-pressure pipes, siphons, and trestle bridges.
The water transportation system was an engineering marvel of its time.
Early engineers and savvy businessmen realized the potential of a year-round water supply for ranching, mills, and establishing towns.
When the Sawyer Decision washed-up hydraulic mining in the mid 1880s, the South Yuba Water Company, and its subsidiary, the Central California Electric Company, was poised to capitalize on a new industry—hydroelectrisity.
Following Deer Creek’s Water Path
Deer Creek water begins in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, north of I-80, fifty-five miles northwest of Lake Tahoe.
French Lake–elevation 6,676 ft.
Faucherie Lake–elevation 6,135 ft.
Sawmill Lake–elevation 5,869 ft.
Bowman Lake–elevation 5,600 ft.
Fuller Lake–elevation 5,344 ft.
Canyon Creek Drainage
Bowman Spaulding Canal
Spaulding Hydro Power Plant
Spaulding Lake–elevation 5,014 ft.
Hwy 20 & Bear Valley–South Yuba Canal Big Tunnel
Deer Creek Forebay–elevation 4,477 ft.
Deer Creek Hydro Power Plant
North and South Fork Deer Creek Confluence
Scotts Flat Lake–elevation 3,069 ft.
Lower Scotts Flat Reservoir–elevation 2,094 ft.
“There’s very little natural water in Deer Creek,” says Les Nicholson, retired Nevada Irrigation District Hydroelectric Manager.
Burlington Ridge, the apex of the North and South Fork of Deer Creek isn’t high enough to maintain a snowpack (4,160 ft elevation).
“Most Deer Creek water is imported,” Nicholson says. “Imported water means it comes from another drainage.”
In Deer Creek’s case, that drainage is the Yuba Watershed.
Nicholson generously shared his time to explain the complicated route water takes before we see it in our ditches, creeks, and rivers.
*After leaving Lower Scotts Flat Reservoir, the video tour back-tracks to Burlington Ridge, the physical headwaters of the North and South Forks of Deer Creek.
Run-off and gravity always show the direction water is flowing.
Since 1921 the Nevada Irrigation District has supplied domestic, irrigation, and domestic water for Nevada and Placer Counties. It is an independent California special district governed by an elected board.
At age 43, after being sick with consumption, Alonzo Delano left his home and loved ones to join the mass of gold-seeking emigrants making the overland journey to California (1849). In Illinois, he sold bank stocks and commodities and lived with his wife and two children; Fred an invalid son of 16 and Harriet, a six-year-old daughter.
After surviving the laborious trek and multiple attempts at gold mining, Alonzo settled in Grass Valley where he invested in a quartz mine and returned to banking and selling merchandise.
Drought & Fire 1854 & 1855
In 1855 two events occurred that caused great upset for the people of Grass Valley, allowing Delano to demonstrate compassionate leadership and his ability to focus a dispirited community on a hopeful future.
A drought in 1854 limited water availability. Mines struggled to keep working and miners couldn’t pay their debts. Real estate prices crashed. The nation’s leading bank (not Wells Fargo) made an investment in a railroad that failed.
Alonzo was the Wells Fargo agent in Grass Valley. When communication from San Francisco reached him about a bank run, he opened the Wells Fargo doors on time. Climbing on top of the service counter, he declared to all, “Come on. I will pay out to the last dollar, and if that’s not enough, my own property will go.”
A month later Delano was elected the first Treasurer of Grass Valley.
Seven months went by before the second disaster struck. A terrible fire leveled at least 300 buildings, leaving thousands homeless.
“Give my love to all my friends. Tell them I was not afraid to die, and that I left the earth without ill feeling toward anybody,” Alonzo made this deathbed appeal to his wife.
“Old Block was a courageous pioneer. He loved and inspired his fellow men,” said Ezra Dane – Gold Rush writer & San Francisco Lawyer (1904-1941)
Delano’s 1849 Journal Entries Published in a Book
Traveling somewhere between 15 – 20 miles per day, the overland journey took five months. At dinnertime, Alonzo journaled about the events of his day. Sickness, starvation, thirst, and death became common experiences. Delano’s keen observations provide a window in time that shows travel conditions, food, finding water, wild animals, Indians, and the open expanse of the Sacramento Valley.
Below are selected excerpts from Life on the Plains and Among the Diggings [1849 – 1854] as well as additional Delano writings that give the reader a 318° view of Gold Rush life and early California and Nevada County.
Sickness and Bad Food
April 5th, 1849
…since the invasion of Rome by the Goths, such a deluge of mortals had not been witnessed, as now pouring from the States to the various points of departure for the golden shores of California.
On the second day [aboard steamer Revolution at St. Joseph, Missouri], amid the gaieties of our motley crowd, a voice was heard, which at once checked the sound of mirth, and struck with alarm the stoutest heart — “the cholera is on board!”
We discovered that we had been imposed upon in St. Louis in the purchase of our bacon, for it began to exhibit more signs of life than we had bargained for. It became necessary to scrape and smoke it, in order to get rid of its tendency to walk in insect form.
I did not wonder that the aborigines were attached to their delightful country, and had it been mine, I should have defended my possessions against the encroachment of any lawless intruder.
I learned that three miles beyond there was a spring. It was nearly sunset when I again entered the deep wood, but my anxiety to get in sight of the abodes of civilized man impelled me forward, choosing to risk a night alone in the woods, among the wild beasts which swarmed in that region, rather than not gain the distance.
First Sight of Sacramento Valley
Ascending to the top of an inclined plane, the long-wished-for and welcome valley of the Sacramento, lay before me, five or six miles distant. How my heart bounded at the view! How every nerve thrilled at the sight! It looked like a grateful haven to the tempest-tossed mariner, and with long strides, regardless of the weariness of my limbs, I plodded on, anxious to set foot upon level ground beyond the barren, mountain desert.
In addition to other calamities, many suffered from scurvy and fevers – the consequence of using so much salt or impure provisions, and while many others died, others were made cripples for life.
By the earliest arrivals, in June and July, of those emigrants who reached the valley, the sufferings and destitution of those behind were made known, and the government and individuals once more extended the hand of relief. San Francisco, Sacramento City, and Marysville made large contributions, and trains loaded with provisions were dispatched to meet them.
In addition to this, traders pushed their way over the snows to Carson’s Creek, and Truckee River and even to the Sink of the Humbolt, with supplies; and although much good was done, and many lives saved, yet aid could not be rendered to all.
It was found, too, that talent for business, literary and scientific acquirements, availed little or nothing in a country where strength of muscle was required to raise heavy rocks and dig deep pits.
California proved to be a leveler of pride, and everything like aristocracy of employment; indeed, the tables seemed to be turned, for those who labored hard in a business that compared with digging wells and canals at home, and fared worse than the Irish laborer, were those who made the most money in mining.
And here I found myself more than two thousand miles from home, in a city which had risen as if by enchantment since I had crossed the Missouri.
Camping Near Bear River
…spreading our blankets, [we] were soon asleep, despite that howling of the cayotes all around us.
Coyotes & Dogs Frolic
These animals are of the dog species, and appear to be connecting link between the fox and wolf. They frequently go in packs, but rarely attack a man, unless pressed by hunger, which is not often, for the number of horses and carcasses of wild cattle in the valley furnish them food, and they are not looked upon as dangerous. I have seen them stop and play with dogs, which had been set upon them, returning their caresses, and showing no disposition to fight.
I was soon looked upon as a friend, and for aught, I know recognized as of the tribe of Oleepa. … among themselves, and with those whom they confide, a more jolly, laughter-loving, carless and good-natured people, do not exist. The air resounded with their merry shouts as we sat around their fires at night when some practical joke was perpetrated, or a funny allusion made. And they were always ready to dance or sing at the slightest intimations, and nothing seemed to give them more pleasure than to have me join in their reactions. To each other, they were uniformly kind, and during the whole of my residence with them, I never saw a quarrel or serious disagreement.
Dwindling Indian Population
…They are already dwindling, for the fire-water and rifle of the white man are doing their work of death, and five years will not pass ere they will become humbled and powerless – a wretched remnant of a large population.
Grizzly Bear in the Sutter Buttes – a Daughter Saves Her Father
About twelve miles nearly west of us, a solitary butte rises from the plain, from fifteen hundred to two thousand feet high, and whose broken, craggy and pointed ridges seem to kiss the clouds. It stands nearly in the center of the plain, equi-distant from the coast range and the Sierra Nevada.
…setting his rife against the rock, he [Peter] climbed over the ledge, when, to his horror he found himself facing a huge grizzly bear. The monster sprang upon him at once…tearing his scalp from his head, and biting him in a fearful manner… they both fell off the rock, and rolled down the hill. Peter, in the meantime, making the best use of his knife possible, inflicting several severe wounds upon his adversary.
…with the impulse of one inspired, [Peter’s second daughter] sprang towards her father…and with unerring aim, discharged it at the bear. The bullet took effect in the monster’s head, and he fell, stunned if not dead. Instantly she ran and seized her sister’s rifle, and returning placed it against the bear’s ear, and what little life remained soon passed away.
Engineering Water Movement
Where water is not found in isolated places, canals are dug, sometimes forty or fifty miles long, by which water is carried from some permanent stream along stupendous hill-sides, over ravines and gulches, and around rocks by sluices and flumes, often at vast expense of labor and money – thus arresting the skill, energy, and enterprise of the people who are delving among the mountains; hoping to acquire a competence to smooth the down-hill of life, and render old age comfortable.
Lumber; the New Riches
In the mountains, water-power is abundant for all mechanical purposes, and the noble pines, made into lumber, will form a source of wealth equaled only by its mineral treasures.
Hard Work & Failure; the Fickleness of Finding Gold
Were the personal adventures of a moiety of the emigration of 1850 to be written, they would furnish a volume of absorbing interest, forming a sad commentary on the California gold-seeking mania, which produced more wide-spread misery than any similar occurrence in the annals of mankind.
I do not hesitate to declare that no one should emigrate, unless with the intention of making it [California] his home for life.
Gold Rush Climax
The country is large enough and productive enough to support a dense population, and individual suffering would be less if it was filled up by degrees; but one great difficulty is too many are rushing in at once before the way is sufficiently prepared for them. Now a limited number can cross the plains safely and with comfort if properly provided, but this year there are too many going at once. In addition to the stick actually required to draw the wagons on the road, a large number of cattle are being driven for market. The will generally reach the Rocky Mountains in safety – that is, there will be grass enough to sustain the cattle. But immediately on going through the South Pass the desert country commences, grass will be difficult to obtain and, I believe, impossible for so great a number. The consequences will be that the cattle of emigrant trains will die, and families will have a terra firma shipwreck, hundreds of miles from human aid. If they have money to duplicate their teams from droves, they may be partially relieved; but very many will not be able to pay the California prices which will be asked, and they will be left to get along the best way they can, which will be on foot, or die. – True Delta – June 23, 1852
Delano – a Prolific, Eloquent Gold Rush Writer
“We have pleasure in publishing … one of the ablest correspondents it was our good fortune to secure in California in the early days of the gold discoveries. His letters to this paper were graphic, truthful, eloquent and patriotic, overflowing with generous sentiment and the spirit of manly independence so characteristic of the sons of the glorious West.” True Delta, August 12, 1852
While living in California, Delano was a correspondent for the San Francisco Daily Courier, the Pacific News, The Union, the California Farmer, the Golden Era, the Telegraph, the Hesperian, and Hutchins’ California Magazine. His work also appeared Edwin F. Beans’s History and Directory of Nevada County and the New York Times.
Life on the Plains and in the Diggings Book Review
In a time when we have plentiful water at the turn of a tap, instant worldwide communication, refrigeration, food safety, health care and emergency services, shelter from weather, planes, trains, and highway systems, it’s good to be reminded of the luxury they represent. It’s valuable to imagine the hardships endured by the brave (or foolish!) folks who adventured to a remote and distant land in covered wagons and on foot.
The level of detail in Delano’s writing is thrilling and mesmerizing, almost like walking the trail beside him.
Though Timbuctoo and Smartsville are in Yuba County, we are including them in our creek history because water from the Yuba River and Deer Creek watersheds flowed through them causing one of the first land use limit laws to be written in the country.
In the 1850s, Timbuctoo and Smartsville were centers of activity. The population was between 1,000 to 4,000, many of them were Irish immigrants. With the invention of hydraulic mining, it became one of the wealthiest regions in California. Estimates say that millions of dollars of gold dust were moved through local business and the Wells Fargo headquarters in Smartsville.
Gold attracted more than miners. Famous robbers such as ‘the Timbuctoo Terror,’ Jim Webster and Black Bart prowled the roads.
Profits from hydraulic mining encouraged boomtown growth, enriched mining corporations, and filled state coffers.
Between 1850 and 1878, the Excelsior Company sent approximately eight million cubic yards of debris and plant matter into the Yuba River at Smartsville.
Silt and debris washed out of the steep mountains and settled, changing the course of waterways and making channels shallow.
Riverboat traffic conducting trade between Sacramento and San Francisco was threatened.
Alarmed by the danger of downstream flooding, farmers and townspeople created costly levee systems.
A lawsuit against the North Bloomfield Gravel and Mining Company and others was filed. In 1884, the United States District Court in San Francisco ruled in favor of the farmers, putting an end to hydraulic mining.
Commentary from Yuba Trails and Tales blog by Hank Meals
“In the late 1870’s, the annual value of the dry-farmed wheat crop alone had reached $40,000,000, more than double that of the dwindling gold output. According to geographer David Larsen, “The trend was clear and irreversible the pivot of prosperity had shifted permanently toward the fields.”
“Obviously, by outlawing the dumping of tailings there was improved water quality and fish habitat and there would be less toxins inadvertently released but this particular environmental remediation was incidental to the intent of the law. Except in a very general way there were no environmental considerations addressed in the 24 volumes of testimony that were collected for Woodruff vs. North Bloomfield Mining and Gravel Company. This law was not created out of respect for Gaia, or any consideration whatsoever for stream ecology. Simply put, the issue was business interests in the Sacramento Valley (agriculture) were losing income to the wasteful procedures of a powerful upslope industry (hydraulic mining). Specifically agricultural lands were being covered with choking mud, towns were periodically flooded and steamboat operations were hampered by the decreased navigability of the rivers. I can’t see how the Sawyer Decision exhibits environmental activism but it does represent the beginning of regulations in the public interest. The Sawyer Decision effectively limits the ideology of laissez-faire, which legitimized the single-minded pursuit of wealth at all costs. This alone is a very big step in the direction of conservation and sustainability.” – Hydraulic Mining in the Yuba and Bear River Basins – Yuba Trails and Tales, Hank Meals
Pioneer Day – Yearly – Last Saturday in April
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If you live in Lake Wildwood, Rough & Ready, Smartsville, Penn Valley, on Beale Air Force Base or off McCourtney or Lime Kiln Roads, you’re on ground zero for the Nisenan People of Nevada County, the land of broken promises.
Long before houses and roads were built, this land was designated in a treaty between the local tribes and the United States Government.
Tribal Headmen gave careful consideration to where the boundary lines would be drawn. Their decisions were based on changing elevations and food sources. The traditional Native way of life depended on moving with the seasons according to when plants were ready for harvest or when game was available.
Village sites with significant populations along Deer Creek in Nevada City were released in good faith for the promised lands.
The Nisenan way of life changed drastically during the Gold Rush era.
In his book, The Conflict between the California Indian and White Civilization (1976), Sherburne F. Cook, states, “He was driven from his home by the thousands, starved, beaten, raped, and murdered with impunity. He was not only given no assistance in the struggle against foreign diseases, but was prevented from adopting even the most elementary measures to secure his food, clothing, and shelter.”
“The utter devastation caused by the white man was literally incredible, and not until the population figures are examined does the extent of the havoc become evident.”
Due process. The Native People trusted it. Yet the treaties they worked so diligently to form remained in a drawer, unratified by the other party. It was a colossal ‘gotcha’ that remains an unresolved wound on the face of the Nation.