The Life in My Years

An anthology of life

The third in a series of occasional posts about tripping along U.S. Highway 395.

Between Knight’s Ferry and Chinese Camp is 21 miles of rolling ranchland. Out here the land is split into parcels, each section defined by the brainchild of an Illinois farmer named Joseph Glidden. Glidden’s invention would forever put its stamp on the American West and at the same time, make Glidden a millionaire.

In 1874, Glidden was issued a patent for his version of a wire fence that was fitted with barbs along its length. Glidden’s version was an improvement on the first such fence invented by Michael Kelly, called the “thorny fence.” You can’t travel a mile through western ranchland without seeing that predominant fixture, the barbed wire fence.

The land out here seems perpetually brown and dry. At least that’s how it’s always presented itself to me. I’ve never traveled this area in the spring when maybe, just maybe, the hills are wearing a fresh coat of green.

Just past the Arthur Michael Vineyard, Highway 120 veers to the southeast. We pass by the Diestel Turkey Ranch to our right and then Sierra Pacific Industries to our left before arriving at the junction with Red Hill Road. It’s a lonely corner occupied by the Chinese Camp Store and Tavern. In front of the store are an old mining cart filled with white rocks and some racks over which are draped some Native American blankets.

I take Red Hill Road for a few blocks until we hit downtown, or what constituted downtown over a century ago. Main Street is a small collection of old, deserted buildings, many bearing the iron doors and shutters that are common in the Gold Country. What was once a business district is now nature’s reclamation project as many of the dilapidated structures are overrun with weeds and vines. Outside of this forlorn and neglected block are a few scattered houses, most of them ramshackle, some of them occupied.

Chinese Camp isn’t a ghost town in the classic sense, but it’s about as close to one as a town can be. The good news is that Chinese Camp still has a post office, because once the Postal Service bugs out, you can pretty much issue the town its last rites. The bad news is that the population has seen a decline of 16% to 146. Maybe for the residents that isn’t bad news. A walk around the small community reveals that there is little or nothing to recommend it. To cherish a life in Chinese Camp is to cherish desolation. In its prime, Chinese Camp was a booming Gold Rush center with a population of 5,000 Chinese. Today there are 13 Asian residents, and they may or may not be of Chinese descent.


During its peak years, Chinese Camp was home to several stores, a wheelwright, a blacksmith, a Wells Fargo office, a brewery, three Joss houses and a Masonic hall. It also housed those businesses that made a gold rush town a bona fide, self respecting gold rush town. That is to say there was a sufficient number of saloons, brothels and gambling houses. Fandango Frank’s, for instance, was a combination brothel, saloon and dance hall. What was once the Morris store was purchased by Well Fargo which turned the building into an office. A Wells employee named George Morris made the mistake of resisting a robber and was shot dead for his troubles.

Chinese Camp, like most of the towns in the area, was birthed by the California Gold Rush of 1849. When news of a motherload in California’s Sierra foothills spread, people from all over the world converged. Many arrived with the idea of striking it rich and returning home to enjoy a life of wealth and luxury. When it became clear to most that their goal of riches was not possible, the new immigrants remained and pursued other opportunities and occupations. For many of the Chinese, that meant working on the railroad or in agriculture. Others moved away to urban Chinatowns such as San Francisco.

First known as Camp Washington, the town that started as a collection of tents, would be known by a variety of names as the Chinese population grew; Chinee, Chinese Diggins, and Chinese Camp,

Many of the new arrivals found their way in their new world through the assistance of the Chinese Six Companies. The Six Companies became advocates for the Chinese community in matters, legal, civic, political, social and business.

By many accounts, there was relatively little friction between the White community and the Chinese community in Chinese Camp. This was counter to the prevailing conditions in other communities in which the Chinese were subjected to prejudice and anti-Asian violence. One hundred miles away in Sacramento, unexplained fires erupted in that city’s Chinatown, while the local newspaper, The Union, published inflammatory and racist stories and opinion pieces.

Accounts tell of one of the earliest of California’s Tong wars being played out in the area when, in 1856, members of the Tan Woo Tong squared off against the Sam Yam Tong. It was, of course, over gold. About one thousand men took part in the battle resulting in four deaths and a small number of wounded.

By the mid to late 1850’s, when the lode was starting to run dry, miners headed for the next strike, or, more likely to urban areas. The Chinese residents left to work on the railroad or in the fields. Some returned to China while others moved to one of the urban Chinatowns. The last two remaining Chinese residents left for San Francisco’s Chinatown in the late 1920’s.

Among the last holdouts was an octogenarian called “Duck” Mary, who, it was said, came to America as an eleven year old enslaved girl. She spent her older years raising fowl, hence the nickname.

Below, scenes of Chinese Camp, California


It’s blazing under a midday sun when we arrive and I’m wiping sweat from my brow and my camera while I take pictures. But for an occasional breeze rustling the leaves of the rampant vines and the distant voice of a woman grousing in one of the nearby residences about some annoyance, the town is stone silent.

We’re set to leave when I notice an old church building on a rise just a short distance away, past where Main Street dog legs over Highway 120. I can’t resist. We drive the short distance and I find parking in a rare patch of not very cool shade.

St. Francis Xavier Church


St Francis Xavier Church graveyard, Chinese Camp

St. Francis Xavier was established in 1854. The old Catholic Church fell into disrepair and was renovated in 1949, but went unused and has since returned to a state of decay. The little white, wooden, tin roofed church looks out over the remains of the town and the surrounding countryside. Surrounding the little parish are young oak trees, sitting like supplicants waiting for wisdom to issue from the little white building. There is no emanating wisdom here. The church’s door, it’s mouth, has been boarded over. Does wisdom issue from the mouth of any church? Standing near one of the trees I look up and note a rotting bell cupola. It still holds a bell, rusting and worn by time and weather. Nearby is a small, dusty, rock strewn graveyard.

I wander around the grounds with my camera. I walk around the church, looking for another entrance and a possibility of exploring the inside. What could be in there? Maybe a few rotting pews and the remnants of what was once an altar. This little chapel certainly doesn’t, nor did it ever, contain the gilded ostentation characteristic of the old Spanish missions. These little country churches, even the Catholic ones, tended to simplicity and humility. Seems to me that’s the way Jesus might have preferred it.


Back on Highway 108 we stop in Jamestown where gold was first discovered in Tuolumne County. With buildings that date back to the 1870’s, Jamestown has been repurposed from a Gold Rush town into a tourist stop. The old Jamestown Hotel is now an inn where you can spend too much money to rent a small cell of a room and then, in the morning, once you’ve worked the kinks out of your back from sleeping (or not) on an antique bed, you can venture downstairs to overspend for breakfast in the restaurant.

I used to jump at the chance to stay in these refurbished antiquities but some of the novelty has worn away. The dimly lit parlors and creaky stairs are quaint, but once in your room you find yourself in a cell that’s not big enough to swing a dead cat in. You find yourself a bit afraid to touch the heirlooms that decorate the place (though you might find that the objet d’art that you’re keeping at arm’s length for fear of breaking it, isn’t a hand crafted treasure from some long ago Chinese dynasty, but was actually made in a factory in The Philippines sometime during the Obama Administration). And the beds? Small, lumpy and noisy. Noisy to the point of possible mortification. When my girlfriend Linda and I stayed in a similar old hotel in nearby Murphys, the bed sounded like a passing freight train. I’m sure it was much to the amusement of the folks swilling gin in the saloon immediately below, though they may have suffered the inconvenience of picking fallen flakes of plaster from their stemmed drinking glasses.

Cora and I walk through town and poke around the antique stores. Well, Cora pokes around while I spend most of the time waiting outside. The musty smell in those antique shops gives me a headache. We stop in the city park for a picnic lunch of salami, cheese and crackers. Before leaving town I can’t resist the beckoning from the 19th century spirits in the old cemetery.

Jamestown cemetery


Jamestown Cemetery

Just east of Jamestown is Sonora where we stop for gas. As I pump in gas and pump away hard earned money at $32.00 for about five gallons, I curse the oil company shareholders and the idiots who think this is all the President’s doing. Too much Fox News where myth and legend become “facts.” You wanna bitch at somebody then scream at the oil companies who have oil leases that they don’t want to develop because it’s much more profitable to buy back stock shares and inflate the price. Ah capitalism.

Forty miles to Sonora Pass. We go through the town of Twain Harte, named for author Mark Twain and journalist and author Brett Harte. Both men had spent time in the Gold Rush country and both wrote extensively about the area and the times.

The road makes a steady climb towards the summit, past towns with quirky names that must have made sense when the burgs were first christened; Confidence, Sugar Pine, Long Barn, Cold Springs, Strawberry and Bumble Bee. Just past Donnell Lake is where the highway closes for the duration of winter. Dardanelle, population 35.

Outside of Dardanelle, the trees are blackened toothpicks sticking out of a landscape that looks like a scene from World War One Europe. It’s what remains after the Donnell Fire torched 36,000 acres in 2018. Scarred trees line the Stanislaus River here and one looks up the mountain to see miles of destruction. These trees are the ranks of the dead, the dying, the wounded and the few survivors, all victims of man’s climate war of attrition on its own planet. The fire, started from an illegal campfire, burned down the Dardanelle Resort and a historic bridge and injured nine.



There’s a foreboding beauty in the steel gray cliffs that soar above. Like stone gods they look down on cars made puny by their fearsome might. The highest peaks are bare of even a hint of snow and tell the cautionary tale of years of California drought.

At a certain point, the signs discourage the foolhardy from hauling a trailer longer than 38 feet. What goes up must come down and when we reach the summit at 9624 feet, the road begins to plunge at a winding 25% grade. This was once a wagon road and it’s difficult to imagine the hardships faced by the wagon train known as the Clark-Skidmore Company when it made the first recorded crossing in 1852.

Part way down the eastern slope I start to smell the acrid odor of toasting brakes so we pull over at a turnout to let em cool and to enjoy the vista.

When the peaks are finally behind us, we come to rolling ranchland, a mixture of yellow green grasses and dry sagebrush. It’s a stark contrast to the forests, burnt as they are.

Highway 108 ends at Sonora Junction. Near the junction is an old house, a plain affair, white, with a plain white door. Part of the tin roof has been peeled away like an aluminum wrapper, revealing what must have been the original shingled roof. There’s an outbuilding just off to the right. The house sits at the base of a hill to the rear, in a field of cheat grass bordered by a barbed wire fence. I figure that it’s deserted but after what I saw in West Virginia and just a few hours ago in Chinese Camp, I wouldn’t be stunned to know that a family is residing in that forlorn old house.

At the junction is our goal, Highway 395.

From here 395 snakes 960 miles north to the Canadian Border and 314 miles south to Hesperia, California. For today though, we have a more modest fifteen or so minute drive to Bridgeport.

11 thoughts on “The U.S. 395 Chronicles: Chinese Camp and Over the Summit

  1. mistermuse says:

    Love this post. Brings back memories of decades-ago trips through California gold country (mostly further north, around Yosemite). BTW, I see that you stopped for gas in Sonora, which is listed as a ghost town in a book I own titled WESTERN GHOST TOWNS. Perhaps the town has enjoyed a bit of a rebirth since the book was published in 1961.

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Mr. M,
      Thank you for the compliments. Much appreciated.
      Regarding Sonora, I don’t know that it was ever a ghost town in the sense of the word. Some of these places get categorized as ghost towns simply because they have a history beyond 100 years. Sonora’s population has never dipped below 1000. It’s one of those towns that has a “historic district” that attracts tourists. You know the ones; a historic hotel, a western themed tavern, an ice cream shop and a candy store where you can still find Necco wafers and Beeman’s gum. It has suffered from sprawl but it’s still a nice little town.
      Thanks again for reading and commenting.

      1. mistermuse says:

        Thanks for the Sonora info. This prompted me to look up its history, which I’m passing on if you’re interested:

        P.S. I clicked “Like” on this and your next post, but neither ‘took’ (just so you know).

  2. wingsthree says:

    You bring alive the history of that era of California’s gold rush. We own land in the Sierra Mountains, and as a kid we would explore and occasionally find interesting, hidden historical secrets. I always wonder how challenging life had to be have been, especially for those Chinese immigrants. Another beautifully written post and photos!

    1. Paul says:

      Ah, thank you so much Paul.
      There were hardships aplenty but I’m particularly struck when I go over one of the summits, like Sonora or Donner and think back to the early settlers. I still find it amazing that they were able to bring wagons over those mountains.
      Thank you again for reading and commenting.

  3. I love the photos of the abandoned old buildings in Chinese Camp and the B&W pics of the gravestones. If I get the opportunity to drive U.S. 395, it will be a steep haul over the Sierra Nevada range. Stewart

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Stewart,
      I have some good news for you. The only reason I had to go up and over the Sierras is because I had to get there from the Bay Area. The highway skirts past the eastern slopes. Your challenge is to go over any mountains between Vermont and 395. Hwy 395 in California is high desert.
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      1. Got that, but then I would miss Chinese Camp and the days of the gold rush. ~SK

        1. Paul says:


  4. The Dogfish says:

    I love Gold Country! I’ve had a lot of good times up there in Calaveras County, I’ve often used Murphys as a jumping off point for exploration and spelunking in the local caves.

    Speaking of Murphys, you mentioned staying at the historic hotel there. Did you have any ghost encounters? Once I was in the Mark Twain room when the chandelier started swinging around by itself. Another time I was in the Thomas Lipton room and got an EVP. It said “You’re not gonna get out of here!” Pretty creepy. I’m an amateur ghost hunter so I like to go to haunted places to see if I can capture things like this.

    I really love the saloon there as well. That bar looks like the original one, you can imagine how many glasses of whiskey and bags of gold dust & nuggets have been plomped down on it.

    1. Paul says:

      The Gold Country is one of my favorite areas and I’ve been to Murphy’s many times. It’s been a tradition. My dad and I often went camping at Big Trees and fished the Stanislaus. Either on the way out or on the way back we’d stop at Murphy’s. We would save one day for a trip to Columbia.

      I have stayed at the Murphy’s Hotel in the room right above the saloon. No ghost experiences but a creaky bed.

      My wife and I kept the tradition alive. Stop at Murphy’s on the way to Big Trees and spend a day in Columbia with our kids. Brought the grandchildren a couple of times. I was a Civil War reenactor for a few years and we did an event near Murphy’s. Went to the saloon in our uniforms. Great way to get drinks on the house. Murphy’s has changed over the years and I don’t think it’s for the best. It’s more of a wine tasters destination now and sadly the rock shop that was there has closed down. Nelson’s Candy shop is still there I think.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

Would love to hear from you

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