In the summer of 1849 my great-great-grandfather Moses Ring crossed the Great Plains in a wagon train to try his luck in the California Gold Rush. Moses was headed to Hangtown (now Placerville) to begin his quest for gold.
Last month Pat and I followed Moses' path across the Sierra Nevadas from Lake Tahoe to Placerville - driving on California Highway 88 along the old Carson Trail - through the 8,573-foot elevation Carson Pass that Moses struggled over 162 years ago.
Our gold-country travel guide was the memoir written by Moses' son Eugene Ring, who arrived in the California gold fields in the spring of 1850 to meet Moses in Placerville.
Eugene took the long way around by ship from New York City through the Strait of Magellan on the southern tip of South America, with layovers in Panama, San Francisco and Sacramento.
I have written before about my great-grandfather Eugene Ring's trip to the California Gold Rush. Articles in the Foothills Star on Feb. 24 and March 24 describe Eugene's return trip in the winter of 1850 and how earlier this year Pat and I retraced his perilous trek across southern Mexico's Isthmus of Tehuantepec, after he was abandoned by his Panama-bound ship while foraging ashore.
Eugene Ring spent the summer of 1850 in what is now El Dorado County, Calif., a few miles northeast of Sacramento. Pat and I were on an adventure to try to visit the places Eugene wrote about.
Before we started on this expedition, I read a lot of mining histories, studied old mining maps and detailed road atlases and spent a lot of time staring at satellite and topographic maps.
I was able to locate all of Eugene's old mining sites and found quite a bit of information about them on the Internet.
While appreciating the tremendous problems the "gold rushers" suffered in traveling across the country by wagon and literally lifting themselves over high mountains - or rounding the tip of South America by boat in bad weather - we experienced a couple of problems that my gold mining relatives didn't. On occasion our GPS navigation system didn't like our choice of route and repeatedly told us to make a U-turn, not giving up for hours it seemed.
Our other transportation problems were frequent delays caused by road construction. There can't be a road left in the United States that is not under construction.
So Pat and I rolled into Placerville, starting our gold-country visit at two museums and the local library. I donated a copy of my great-grandfather's memoir to each museum and library we visited. Placerville has managed to maintain its Gold Rush "personality" while evolving into a comfortable modern town.
Armed with maps and a fresh look at Gold Rush photos, we headed north to Coloma, where gold was first discovered in 1848 at Sutter's Mill. We saw a realistic replica of the mill, and we also saw someone scoop up a bag of dirt to take home to his friends.
We continued a few miles northeast to Georgetown, which was a base camp for miners in the early years of the Gold Rush.
Founded in 1849, Georgetown has burned down five different times and moved a few hundred yards from the original site. Today Georgetown is a very nice small town that takes its history seriously.
Since Eugene Ring was in and out of Georgetown a lot over the summer of 1850, we planned to stay the night there. But our first stop was the library.
Eugene's mining sites
Just northwest of Georgetown, we found Illinois and Oregon Canyons, where Eugene dug for gold and complained about a noisy grizzly bear keeping him awake at night. Easy enough to find, the canyons today are overgrown with dense forest. Any old mining sites are now obscured, buried in the trees, with only an occasional dirt road traversing the canyons.
With Georgetown as our base, we next tried to reach the Middle Fork of the American River, some 10 miles to the northwest. We started out on a two-lane paved road, which soon became a narrower paved road, then a relatively smooth dirt road that led us into a wilderness park, then a bumpy dirt road, and finally as we came down a steep hill to the river, a very rough winding rocky road.
Pat and I had adopted a brilliant exploration strategy - we thought. Since I had done the pre-trip map and site studies, it made sense for me to ride shotgun and direct Pat where to go. On our approach to the river, Pat was yelling, "I'm not going any further!" My helpful response was, "But, we're almost there!"
Well, we (she) made it. We found ourselves at Spanish Bar, where Eugene and Moses had mined together for several weeks. We're talking about a gravel bar usually found on the inside of river bends, not a pub. No evidence of old mining remained, but it was eerie to stand on the spot where 162 years ago my ancestors had worked so hard.
I did the driving back to Georgetown. By then Pat's car was covered in thick brown dust.
The next morning we reached Murderer's Bar, the last of Eugene's 1850 mining sites, also on the Middle Fork of the American River, about five miles downriver from Spanish Bar.
Access to the river this time was from the north, along a narrow paved road. The only reason the road existed was because it led to a riverside motorcycle recreation area (of all things), which just happened to be close to Murderer's Bar. Again, there was no evidence of previous mining.
From 1848 to 1858, thousands of gold miners worked along the Middle Fork of the American River. Since that time there have been at least two enormous floods that swept away all the old mining equipment that hadn't already been carted off. Today, it's just beautiful mountain-river country; the chief activity on the river is whitewater rafting.
So Pat and I have finished our exploration of Eugene Ring's 1850 gold mining experience. With a visit to Mexico behind us, the only part of Eugene's travels we haven't yet retraced is South America … oh boy!
Sources: Theodore H. Hittell, The History of California, 1897; Sheryl Rambeau, Georgetown, Images of America, 2010; Bob Ring, et al, Detour to the California Gold Rush: Eugene Ring's Travels in South America, California and Mexico, 1848-1850, 2008; Paolo Sioli, El Dorado County History, 1883; El Dorado County Street and Road Atlas; mapquest.com; topoquest.com