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From the Depths: Bridge across time

Salmon Falls, long submerged under Folsom Lake, was once home to 3,000
By: Don Chaddock, The Telegraph
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Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a three-part series on the history of the Mormon Island area, which is resurfacing due to the drought. The sounds of horse hooves hitting dusty earth once again echo across the small valley that was once a bustling economic center and the main route between Sacramento and Georgetown. The thriving township of Salmon Falls, founded along the South Fork of the American River at Sweetwater Creek after gold was discovered nearby in 1849, featured hotels, saloons, a bridge, ranches, miners and a dam. Since 1956, the entire area has been under the waters of Folsom Lake except during times of extreme drought, such as the one currently gripping the state. Because the lake has dropped to a dangerously low level, the remains of the old town are showing themselves and allowing hikers, equestrians and cyclists a chance to walk the old bridge and view the foundations once again. Peggy Christensen, a resident of the area for 40 years, said she enjoys going out on horseback, dogs in tow, to explore. “This is a piece of history,” she said. “What amazes us is there was a whole community that has disappeared.” More than 50 years ago, a similar sentiment was expressed by John Wilson, author of “These Lonely Hills.” In his book, he lamented the loss of the area’s rich heritage because of one substance – water. Published shortly before the construction of the Folsom Dam in the early 1950s, he wrote, “Within a few years, the land that comprised the original town site of Salmon Falls … will be completely covered by the lake that will back up behind the great Folsom Dam. … Thus will come to an end the location of one of the busiest mining centers during California’s early years. And Salmon Falls will take its place – along with Mormon Island and other historic spots in that area – as a part of the lost land that once played an important role in California’s golden beginning.” Ironically, it was water that played such a major role in shaping the region, and it originated from the very towns it was about to sink – Mormon Island and Salmon Falls. The Natoma Company, which went by many names during its lifespan, was formed in Mormon Island in 1851 to provide water to the miners and agricultural interests in the area using a complex series of canals, ditches and flumes. That water came from a small reservoir created by a dam the company built in 1852 on the South Fork of the American River at Salmon Falls. “What the Natoma Ditch did was manipulate nature,” said Melinda Peak, president of Peak and Associates, an El Dorado Hills-based archaeological and historical research company. “Water is the key in California.” In 1993, her company was contracted to perform a cultural resources study for a development that was taking place near the Natoma Ditch, sometimes referred to as the Natomas Ditch due to the ever-changing name of the company that owned the system. “The Natomas Ditch system also provided water for a number of farms, orchards and vineyards … allowing for permanent settlement of these areas,” she concluded in her study at the time. She said without the ditch system and water supplied by Salmon Falls, the area is only livable during part of the year. “Everything is dependent on water and distributing it through a big system, you enable mining and agriculture,” she said. “Where you had the ditch, you could water your ranch to grow grapes or (other crops). People could have never done anything with that land without the ditch coming through.” Peak explained that cattle ranchers were forced to drive their cattle to Lake Tahoe for greener pastures when the rains stopped in the valley. At the first sign of snow in Tahoe, they would drive their cattle back to the Mormon Island and Salmon Falls areas. “Even raising cattle, you had to have two ranges,” she said. “While in Tahoe, they sold milk and (other products).” When the ditch system came through, it allowed the ranchers to stay put, which also created jobs, she said. Peggy Christensen said she’s amazed that not only has the town been lost, but major development in the area has also pushed out the cattle ranchers. “It’s also amazing that the cattlemen have disappeared,” she said. “I used to work for Frank Turner, and we used to drive cattle east up Malcolm Dixon up to Dixon corral that sat by the school house and load them up in the trucks up there. That’s all gone now.” Peak said the population of Salmon Falls was the highest in 1860, published accounts putting it at 3,000, but steadily declined after that. “There’s a whole range of things that happened (at Salmon Falls), until it eventually was down to one lady who had to give up her ranch when the lake came in,” she said. The old Salmon Falls Bridge is fully exposed and Christensen said she’s ridden horses over the structure before when the water has been so low. Her husband, Ken, has snapped quite few photos of the ruins, including those at Red Bank in the Mormon Island area (see FolsomTelegraph.com to read the first part of the series). “There are a bunch of foundations coming out now,” he said. “You see the big wheel coming out now and the concrete they used for the ditch. It’s just downstream from the new (Salmon Falls) bridge.” Peggy said the bridge is neat to look at in the sunlight, but isn’t much fun if the lake is just starting to drop and you hit it with a boat. --- If you go Take the Salmon Falls Road to Falcon Crest Lane to Old Salmon Falls Road. There is a $3 per vehicle paid parking area. Hike toward the river from the parking area. The historic town site isn’t far. What you’ll see The old Salmon Falls Bridge, concrete stairs, a partial basement and remains of a dam and bridge at Sweetwater Creek. Remnants of Natoma Ditch are also evident. In the know 1860 area population estimate: 3,000 First bridge constructed 1853 Washed out in 1855 Second bridge constructed 1855 Washed out 1862 Third bridge, usually underwater, built after 1883 The California Stage Company ran two stagecoach lines out of Salmon Falls, one to Auburn, the other to Georgetown and Sacramento by way of Pilot Hill. --- Links to the rest of the series: Part 1 - From the Depths: History resurfaces as lake level falls Part 2 - From the Depths: Pioneer Spirit Mormon Island remnants Photo Gallery Natoma Ditch near Mormon Island Photo Gallery More Mormon Island artifacts Photo Gallery Salmon Falls Photo Gallery Salmon Falls Revisited Photo Gallery Red Bank and Mormon Island video Salmon Falls video Uncovering Mormon Island and Salmon Falls, an editor's journey