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From the Depths: History resurfaces as lake level falls

Mormon Island was one of several communities flooded by Folsom Lake
By: Don Chaddock, The Telegraph
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Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series on the history of the Mormon Island area, which is resurfacing due to the drought. Every decade or so, when a drought causes the levels of Folsom Lake to drop, the area’s rich mining and agriculture heritage begin to resurface in the form of foundations and partial rock walls, and the phone rings at the home of an elderly Folsom woman. Artie May Davies, 94, is no stranger to news reporters seeking information when the remnants of what was once the Red Bank community resurface. Often mistaken for the more well-known Mormon Island, Red Bank was a mine, winery and eventually a dairy. A few other orchards and ranches were also located nearby. Mormon Island was located about a mile downriver and is where she was raised, she said. The bits of rock, brick and foundations emerging from the lake were once home to Davies and her late husband, Bud. The area was flooded in the early 1950s when Folsom Dam was completed. Artie moved to Mormon Island in 1920, at the age of 6. Sitting in her Natoma Street home, she recalls how she ended up in the settlement along the south fork of the American River. “My father was headed to Oregon and we camped at that grove of eucalyptus trees (near Folsom),” she said. “He decided he needed a haircut and went into Folsom to the barbershop. There he talked to a man about where we were heading and the man said, ‘Oh, don’t go to Oregon. I just came from there and there’s no work there.’ He told my father about the river so we ended up in Mormon Island. We camped a few weeks until he found a place to live.” Her modest Folsom home is a piece of history as well. “This house is from there,” said her son, Jim, thumping the kitchen table with his finger. Artie told the story to the Telegraph during a drought 20 years ago. During that interview, she was able to visit the Red Bank site with the reporter and photographer. “Bud moved the house we now live in from the Ranch into Folsom,” Artie told the Folsom Telegraph in the 1988 article. “In fact, it is the house that we bought when we moved to Green Valley Road.” Artie and Bud first lived in a house on Green Valley Road, near what is now The Purple Place. When they moved to Red Bank, her husband brought the house with them. When asked about her home, she smiles and recounts the story again, aided briefly by her son. “You could never tell Bud that he couldn’t do something because then he would just do it to prove that he could,” she said. “This house has been moved three times. He also moved the house next to us here.” The smaller house located next door was once occupied by her parents, she said. Bud passed away on June 20, 1983. They had been married since 1932. The construction, and flooding of the area, didn’t just claim Mormon Island, but many other communities and historic mining sites, according to a Sept. 29, 1950 newspaper clipping provided by the Folsom Historical Society. “The sites of 20 pioneer communities will be flooded by the waters impounded by the Folsom dam and (there is a movement) to (place) a monument in the public area at the dam,” the article states. George Townsend, a native of Mormon Island, is quoted in the news report. “We shouldn’t just let the waters cover them up and let the people of the future forget about them,” he said at the time. According to the 1950 article, there were three communities in Sacramento County facing destruction caused by the dam -- Mormon Island, Red Bank and Maple Ridge. Placer County lost Bean, Poker Bar, Cartonville, Doton’s Bar and Horseshoe Bar. They certainly aren’t forgotten, if the 1988 Telegraph story is any indication. Published on Nov. 16 of that year, the report claims the settlement had resurfaced once before. “This is the second time that the community of Mormon Island has greeted the sun,” the article states. “Visitors last walked the ruins during the 1977-1978 drought.” And now, 20 years after Artie visited the site with the Telegraph, she sits at a small table, surrounded by photographs, newspaper clippings and drawings of the former town, once again recounting her life there. Her former homestead was once owned by Henry Mette who planted grapes and ran a winery out of the area after his mine petered out. He built a wine cellar in 1872, according to a March 31, 1966 Folsom Telegraph article. At its peak, the Red Bank Winery manufactured 40,000 gallons of wine and 7,000 gallons of brandy annually. The winery ruins are still underwater, according to Artie’s son, Jim, who recently visited the site. The stone and concrete foundation of a large barn, a house and other structures are clearly visible at the site near Browns Ravine. The barn holds a special place in Artie’s heart. “That was the most wonderful place for Bud and me,” she said. “It’s a big barn and everything. It had a big hayloft that covered the top of the barn that had hardwood floors. Every Saturday night, we had a dance at our barn. We had a piano player and a man who played guitar.” When some of those dances became too rowdy, she said they stopped having them. “People would come from all over. First they’d visit the saloon,” she said. As far as the actual town of Mormon Island resurfacing, Jim said that’s not likely. “It will never happen. It’s under a couple hundred feet of water,” he said. Remnants such as old nails, horseshoes, shovels, axes and the like can be found along the shoreline, but it is a crime to remove them, which Artie doesn’t understand. “I don’t know why not,” she said. “Some of them may never come back out again.” She said her daughter couldn’t take any souvenirs from the site. “My daughter went out (last year) and you could see the barn and where all the houses were,” she said. Artie, who is now almost blind, said the last time she saw the place was when she accompanied a Sacramento Bee reporter out to the site. “It was several years ago,” she said. “It’s a long way to walk, but I certainly have lots of good memories.” IF YOU GO Take Natoma Street in Folsom to Green Valley Road. Turn left at Sophia Parkway into the parking area (there is a nominal fee) near Mormon Island Auxiliary Dam. Walk over the dam and head between and over the two hills on the right. Ruins are about a half mile away. Some recommend taking the Brown's Ravine entrance, but you must cross a creek and walk longer to reach the site. If you choose this route, enter the Brown's Ravine Recreation Area and head directly to the last parking area all the way to the back. Walk down and cross the creek. Across from this is remnants of the old Natoma Ditch (read part two of the series)and follow it to the Red Bank ruins. You will also pass ruins of another structure before you reach Red Bank. --- Links to the rest of the series: Part 2 - From the Depths: Pioneer Spirit Part 3 - From the Depths: A bridge across time 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