Gold was generally found in the foothills, rather than in the mountains. Even so, there were some important gold mines near the towns of Twain Harte and Confidence and near mounts Elizabeth, Lewis, and Provo. Some of these gold mines had colorful names such as You Bet, Gem, Dead Horse, and Butter Cup; several had hopeful names like Confidence, Eureka, and Golden Era; and some had common names like Buchanan, Belle View, and Senorita.
The main travel route to get up and down the mountain was named the Sonora-Mono Road. Today’s Highway 108 is much the same route as the Sonora-Mono Toll Road. Completed in 1864, it was constructed to increase the flow of supplies from Tuolumne and its neighboring counties to the new, gold camps on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. In the late 1850s and early 1860s, ranchers, farmers, business owners, and teamsters were eager to revitalize Tuolumne County’s sagging economy by establishing trade between the county and growing eastside commercial regions. East of Sonora, the road climbed to 9,624 feet, crossing the crest at Sonora Pass and then threading its way down the east side to mining towns like Bodie and Aurora. Remnants of the old Sonora-Mono road can be seen from today’s Highway 108, particularly at the higher elevations.
Native American people both east and west of the Sierra Nevada crest—the Me-Wuk, Mono, Washoe—had long crossed at and near Sonora Pass. It was an important route for trading goods such as obsidian, salt, soapstone, and shell beads. Many places can be found along Highway 108 west of Sonora Pass strewn along with obsidian flakes that came from the Mono Craters area east of the pass.
In 1841, the Bartleson-Bidwell Party became the first emigrant party to cross the Sierra, east to west. Most historians agree that they crossed somewhere in the vicinity north of Sonora Pass and eventually followed the Stanislaus canyons, into the foothills to the area where Sonora is located today.
The mountains provided storage of water, and early ventures in developing water as a business were to serve the gold miners. Several companies built water systems in the 1850s and 1860s in the mountains to capture, deliver, and sell water to miners in foothill towns. You can still see remnants of these developments—in fact, Pinecrest Lake, once called Strawberry Lake, is still being used. Strawberry Lake was created by a dam built by the Tuolumne County Water Company in 1856. The TCWC also built two other dams east of Strawberry Lake: Middle Dam and Big Dam. The original Strawberry Dam was partially torn down when a new, rock and concrete dam was built in 1916. Today the new dam stores water for generating electricity and supplies water to homes and fields. Completed in 1858, the over 70-mile long Columbia & Stanislaus River Water Company ditch and flume system stretched from above Donnell Flat (now a reservoir) to Columbia.
For more information, order CHISPA, Vol. 38, No. 2, October-December, 1998 “Rusticating in the Mountains,” and Vol. 40, No. 4, April-June, 2001, “Summer Homes in the National Forests.”
Pinecrest Dam: When the water is low in the fall and winter, you can see remains of the old rock-filled Strawberry or Pinecrest Dam. Pinecrest Lake is located 30 miles east of Sonora on Highway 108. Elevation at the Lake and throughout the Basin is 5600 feet. The Basin is forested with a mixture of pine, fir, and cedar trees with some willow trees and scattered brush. Sail boating and swimming are popular activities in this mountain setting.
Shadow of the Me-Wuk Trail: Across from Summit Ranger Station in Pinecrest. Me-Wuk used wood for many purposes, such as for their houses, or umucha. You will see reconstructed umucha, grinding rocks, a sweat house, and acorn storage structures called tca’kka.
Donnell Vista: Highway 108. You can still see some of the iron brackets that supported the eight-foot square, wooden flume that hung on the north wall of the Stanislaus River Canyon. This flume was part of the Columbia & Stanislaus River Water Company’s ditch and flume system.
You can walk or bicycle many old railroad grades including:
Between Fraser Flat & Strawberry: the old Strawberry Branch of the Sugar Pine Railway, which runs along the south bank of the South Fork Stanislaus River.
Between Hull Creek & Clavey River: Part of the old West Side Lumber Company’s railroad logging system.