The Middle Fork of the American River

A miner who moved to the Middle Fork of the American River from the early mines at Coloma or Mormon Island in the spring of 1848 after the winter rains ended would find the multiple hues of wildflowers strewn across the rolling hills. Later in the summer he would fight great heat, drought and dust, but by fall the entire landscape would be bathed in a warm haze that varied from a deep purple close at hand to light blues in the distance and all under the tempered rays of a softened sun. If he waited until the winter of 1849 to cross he would likely encounter rain, mud, high water and maybe snow. A reporter who made the journey from Mormon Island in November 1849 said “the country was an endless succession of hills, whose distant slopes with their oak groves reminded one of thrifty apple orchards, while from every rise or summit a prospect was presented apparently all out of proportion to the elevation attained.”

The North and Middle Forks of The American River

Four miles east of Coloma is the famous early mining town of Kelsey, named for Benjamin Kelsey who was the first to mine there in 1848. But it was Georgetown, named for George Phipps, which became the principal town on the ridge between the south and middle forks. In 1849 it was only a collection of log houses in the middle of a pine forest but it grew quickly into a smaller version of Placerville surrounded as it was by many rich diggings in such places as Greenwood, Mamaluke Hill, Georgia Slide, Bottle Hill, Cement Hill, Gravel Hill, and Wolverine Hill.

Miners in the Sierras, photo Ad Meskens

But just down the ridge the Middle Fork of the American River became one of the richest mining regions in California. Some say as many as 10,000 men worked here in the late summer and fall of 1849 and they mined around 10 million dollars worth of gold. When all the banks and bars along the river had been washed clean by rocker, long tom and sluice, places with such colorful names as Murderer’s Bar, Maine Bar, Spanish Bar, Ford’s Bar and Rector’s Bar, the stream itself was dammed and diverted and the bottom of the streambed mined clean of its wealth.

Murderer’s Bar, 1850

Spanish Bar, a few miles upriver from Murderer’s Bar was first mined in 1848 but after all the improvements in long toms and sluices were introduced it yielded over a million dollars by 1851. A miner named Ford took over $700 from one spot on the river every day for three straight weeks but his luck didn’t last. He took ill and had to retire to Sutter’s Fort for help. The stories about the find attracted so many men to the site that in 1849 Ford’s Bar was known as the most populous and wicked place on the river.


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