Monday, July 27, 2009

San Francisco's Most Beautiful Spot

When most people think about San Francisco, they envision a cosmopolitan, urban place with majestic, tall buildings, culturally diverse neighborhoods and manmade landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge and Coit Tower.

And they would certainly find all of that during a visit.

But the City by the Bay has another—more natural—side. Out on the northwestern edge of the city is the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which includes a starkly beautiful place known as Lands End.

Located near the Cliff House (at the end of Geary Street), Lands End is best experienced with a hike along the main Coastal Trail, which begins from a parking lot adjacent to the ruins of Sutro Baths. The mile-and-a half trail retraces the cliff top route of the long-gone Ferries and Cliff House Railroad.

The railroad, which once carried San Franciscans from the downtown to Sutro Baths and the wilds of Lands End, operated from 1888 to 1904, when it was largely replaced by the city’s electric trolley system.

The old rail-bed trail skirts Point Lobos and looks out over the entrance to the San Francisco Bay and, in the distance, the Golden Gate Bridge. It offers some of the city’s most spectacular views of the Marin Headlands (to the north), the bridge and the bay.

Bordering the trail are dozens of cypress and pine trees, many of which have been flattened and molded by the nearly constant ocean winds. Growing as high at 80-feet, the cypress and pine trees were transplanted from Monterey into the area in the late 19th century by city landscapers yet have become signature trees for the region.

Lands End is also home to a handful of birds and other wildlife that manage to survive in such an unusual environment. According to the National Park Service, as many as 140 species of birds, 41 mammals and 14 amphibians and reptiles can be found in the area.

Additionally, the area serves as a refueling stop for migrating warblers, grosbeaks and nuthatches, which, according to Ariel Rubissow, author of “Cliff House & Lands End: San Francisco’s Seaside Retreat,” use its forests to replenish their energy reserves before trying to cross the Golden Gate channel to reach the Marin headlands.

The park service also notes that Lands End is home to several endangered species including the California redlegged frog and the bumblebee scarab beetle.

From the trail and several overlooks you can see the crumbling, steep and unstable cliffs below as well as the treacherous rocks poking out of the bay waters that once seemed to reach out and snag the bows of passing ships.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the San Francisco headlands claimed dozens of ships. The remains of a handful can still be seen near Ocean Beach. Rubissow has written that before the invention of the fog horn, sea captains listened for the loud barks of the sea lions on nearby Seal Rock to guide them away from the rocks.

On higher ground above the Coastal Trail is a parallel track that can serve as a loop trail for those heading back to the parking lot at Sutro Baths. This second trail winds through West Fort Miley, the remnants of a military reservation that once served as part of the country’s seacoast defense system.

While little remains of the fortifications, hikers can still find old gun emplacements as well as a monument commemorating the USS San Francisco, which fought at Guadalcanal in 1942. Additionally, the area boasts picnic tables, grills and restrooms.

For more information about the Golden Gate National Recreation Area go to

Friday, July 24, 2009

Northern California's Kentucky Mine Museum is Worth a Visit

Diffused sunlight streams in through a dusty window, providing just enough light to see. Huge support timbers—big enough to seem incapable of rotting—crisscross the ceiling. Large, oil-covered metal wheels, rods and pistons seem poised and ready to operate.

One of the most amazing things about the Kentucky Mill is that it almost looks like it could operate today. Restored in the mid-1970s, the mill is a remarkably intact example of an early 20th century stamp mill.

The Kentucky Mill is part of the Kentucky Mine/Sierra County Historical Park and Museum, located just north of the historic mining town of Sierra City. To reach it, go west of Reno on I-80 to Truckee. Turn north on Highway 89 and continue to Sattley. Turn west on Highway 49 to Sierra City.

Gold was first discovered in the vicinity of Sierra City in the early 1850s by miners following in the footsteps of explorers Jim Beckwourth and Major William Downie.

In 1853, the Kentucky Consolidated Mining Company was formed to develop the gold resources found north of Sierra City. In the 1860s, a five-stamp mill was built at the Kentucky, a hardrock mine, which was increased in size to ten stamps in 1888.

As with most mines, activity at the Kentucky Mine waxed and waned through the years. In 1920, after several decades of abandonment, Emil Loeffler of Sierra City made another attempt to work the Kentucky. Operating it as a kind of hobby, Loeffler and his son found sufficient ore to continue working the site for the next few years.

In 1928, the Loefflers decided to construct a new mill, using materials and equipment salvaged from other mines. The mine and mill, which took five years to build, operated until 1944, when, tragically, Adolph "Dutch" Loeffler, Emil's son, was killed in the mine. Despite the loss, the family sporadically operated the facility until 1953.

In the late 1960s, the Sierra County Historical Society embarked on an aggressive program to identify valuable historic resources in the region, with the idea of preserving the best.

Because of its good condition—the Loefflers had continued to maintain it over the years—the Kentucky Mine and Mill was selected as the first site for preservation.
In 1974, following the passage of a statewide bond for historic preservation projects, the county purchased the Kentucky from the Loeffler family, and began restoring the site, including the mill, mine tunnel, blacksmith shop and trestle.

Today, visitors will find one of the best preserved early 20th century mining mills in California. A picturesque high trestle, which still seems capable of carrying filled ore carts, connects the three-story mill to the mine on an adjacent hillside.

The mine site is interesting because the blacksmith shop was built at the mine's entrance. Ore carts ran on a track that passed through the middle of the shop. Next door to the mine/blacksmith shop is a restored miner's shack, filled with furnishings and other accoutrements typically used by an old sourdough.

Inside the mill, which you can see during an informative guided tour, you will find a Pelton wheel, an innovative air compressor system for dynamite drilling, and an impressive milling operation that included ominous ore crushers (the gears boast huge spiked teeth) and stamps.

Below the mill, you can tour a nice small museum, located inside of a replica of a 19th century hotel (the Bigelow House, which once stood in nearby Sierra City). The museum contains plenty of Sierra County artifacts, including a fine collection of historic photographs, mining certificates, a school desk, ancient quilts, a safe, piano, phonograph and other objects.

Additionally, in the summer the museum offers a concert series in an amphitheater built a few years ago. Concerts have included jazz, bluegrass, country, folk and classical artists from around the world.

Nearby Sierra City is also worthy of note. While avalanches flattened the town in 1852, 1888, and 1889, enough remains to hint at the town's rich mining history.

Several brick buildings have survived, including the 1871 Busch Building, once a Wells Fargo office, and reportedly the birthplace of The Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus. This historic society/social club, founded by gold miners in 1857, was originally created as a parody of several brotherhood organizations, such as the Masons and Odd Fellows.

The Clampers faded toward the end of the century, but were restarted in 1931 by a San Francisco historian. The group continues to thrive and, in addition to being a rowdy drinking society, has erected hundreds of informative historic markers throughout the West.

Sierra City is also nestled below the magnificent Sierra Buttes, among the most beautiful mountains in Northern California.

For more information contact the Sierra County Park and Museum, P.O. Box 260, Sierra City, CA 96125, 530-862-1310,

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Tales of Unionville

The mining town of Unionville is rich—but with stories, not silver or gold. In fact, it was famed writer Mark Twain who first dredged up a few tales about this once-promising 19th century mining camp.

Twain arrived in Unionville in the winter of1861 and promptly set out to make his fortune as a miner. In his classic book, “Roughing It,” he described early Unionville as consisting “of eleven cabins and a liberty pole. Six of the cabins were strung along one side of a deep canyon, and the other five faced them.”

He went on to write: “The rest of the landscape was made up of bleak mountain walls that rose so high into the sky from both sides of the canyon that the village was left, as it were, far down in the bottom of a crevice. It was always daylight on the mountain tops a long time before darkness lifted and revealed Unionville.”

After a short time in the mining town, Twain wrote that he discovered a shiny piece of rock that he knew had to be gold. His glee, which he called “a delirious revel,” turned to embarrassment when a more experienced prospector revealed his “find” was only granite and glittery mica.

“So vanished my dream. So melted my wealth away. So toppled my airy castle to the earth and left me stricken and forlorn,” he noted. “Moralizing, I observed, then, that ‘all that glitters is not gold.’”

Later, however, Twain made a more important discovery.

“We had learned the real secret of success in silver mining—which was not to mine the silver ourselves by the sweat of our brows and the labor of our hands, but to sell the ledges to the dull slaves of toil and let them do the mining!”

Of course, Twain’s stories aren’t the only ones told about Unionville. For instance, it began life in the spring of 1861 as a mining camp that was named Dixie by a group of miners who identified with the Confederacy—remember this was during the Civil War.

Soon, however, more people flocked to the boomtown. Most of the later residents were Union sympathizers and, after a brief political skirmish, the town’s name was finally changed to Unionville.

Another tale about Unionville is that even though it was the first seat of Humboldt County, it wasn’t really built to last.

Stanley Paher, author of several Nevada history books, has written that lumber shipped to the town was so bad that one newspaper reported that when it rained the county clerk stacked his papers into one corner of his office “where the rain didn’t come any thicker than it did outside.”

Despite the travails, Unionville managed to grow during 1862-63. During that time, it had nearly 1,000 residents and numerous businesses including ten stores, six hotels, nine saloons, a brewery and a newspaper.

The town experienced brief spurts of mining activity during the next decade before losing the county seat to Winnemucca in 1873. By 1880, the good years were behind Unionville, which slowly slipped into obscurity.

Fortunately, Unionville never completely disappeared. After mining ceased, the local economy shifted to ranching and agriculture and, in recent years, tourism.

In fact, the main thing happening in the town today is the Old Pioneer Garden Bed and Breakfast. The two-story bed and breakfast is located in a former wagon maker’s home (only the stone walls remain of the original building) and offers 11 rooms, six with private baths (775-538-7585 for reservations).

Additionally, there are other ruins of old Unionville sprinkled throughout beautiful Buena Vista Canyon, which is the site of the town. Stone walls and foundations, a few intact wooden houses, tall cottonwoods, old barns and a picturesque one-room school house (not open to the public) are among the historic survivors.

A small creek, which runs down the canyon and through the town, enhances the general sense of peacefulness found here.

And, of course, there are plenty of good stories.

Unionville is located about half-way between Lovelock and Winnemucca. To reach it, travel east of Lovelock on Interstate 80 to the Mill City exit. Head south on State Route 400 for about 15 miles, then drive west for three miles on a good dirt road.