Douglas Flat

The history of Douglas Flat is typical of many other towns in the California foothills, with its booms and busts, colorful characters, and reliance first on mining and then on agriculture (Figure GLO). The prosperity of the community was first based on the rich placer gold found in Coyote Creek and its tributaries Wild Goose Gulch, Missouri Gulch, and Pennsylvania Gulch.. First the “easy” gold was found in the streambeds and mined with pans, rockers, and long toms. The miners soon traced the gold’s source to the ancient Tertiary Central Hill Channel beneath the Table Mountains. Shafts were sunk (Figure mining), drifts and tunnels were run under the tables and, when water became plentiful, the hillsides were scoured with hydraulic monitors.

The town, however, developed slowly. The mines were deep, rich, and extensive, with most of the diggings on the south side of Coyote Creek. In 1857, although the camp was described as having “a permanence”—primarily because of its agricultural facilities and conveniences for irrigation—it was also characterized as dull, with few people in town, and having no post office or express office. Most of the families were Welsh or Italian, with 28 children in school (San Andreas Independent). The post office was at Murphys, which also served many of the other nearby placer-mining communities (Heckendorn & Wilson 1856:105).

In the later nineteenth century, several mining companies continued to work their claims on Coyote Creek, including some companies of Chinese. The most extensive mining in Douglas Flat, however, shifted to the Ohio and Buckminster hydraulic claims below Table Mountain northwest of the town. Hydraulicking ceased about 1900 when the tailings pond south of the highway was filled, although a long, north-trending tunnel was prospected intermittently from the 1930s to the early 1950s (Clark and Lydon 1962:201). In the 1950s, a dredge on pontoons worked up Coyote Creek from Vallecito through Douglas Flat (John Davies 2007), erasing many of the features of the early-day placer mines along the creek.

Almost as soon as the first miner settled in Douglas Flat, farmers also began to take up land. The first recorded land claim in the area was that of Thomas Porter, who filed for 160 acres for agricultural purposes in 1853. The land was located on the east side of modern Highway 4, on present Coyote Creek Drive. Although Porter and several other early 1850s farmers were originally from the eastern states, most of the long-term settlers in the community came from Wales and Italy. The Welsh included the Roberts, Evans, Williams, Prothero, Thomas, and other families, with the Italians being represented by the Malatestas, Arratas, Malespinos, Copellos, Sanguinettis, Valentes, Lavagninos, Gagliardos, Grenittas, Bertattas, and others. Most of the men mined and farmed, especially the Italians.

The Milk Ranch, below town, was taken up by a company of Italians in the early 1850s, and, as was typical with serial migration, many of their Genovese relatives and neighbors soon joined them. They worked first on the truck farm and in the Milk Ranch Placer Mine and others, shortly thereafter taking up acreage and establishing their own truck farms, orchards, vineyards, and livestock operations. Among them were the Canepas, Gagliardos, Peiranos, and others whose descendants still reside in the county.

It was not long, however, before Douglas Camp was transformed into a community. By 1854 the miners had built a small building to serve as a church and town hall, and it soon served as a school as well, as more and more families settled in the area. The following year three merchants, a hotel keeper, a printer, a ranchero, and seven miners were listed as residing in Douglas Flat, although there were undoubtedly many more who did not pay to have their names included in the publication (Heckendorn & Wilson 1856:98).

As noted earlier, in 1857 a correspondent noted:

The camp looks dull, but few people “in town,” and no post office or express office in the place. Douglass’ is about halfway between Murphys and Vallecito, and will always be eclipsed by the more active and enterprising neighbors. The greater part of the families residing here are Welch and Italians – twenty eight children large enough to attend school (San Andreas Independent, November 14, 1857).

The same writer described the activity on Coyote Creek:

On Pennsylvania Gulch the mines are similar to Murphys, deep – all dirt being hoisted out in buckets, by horse-power… On the banks sloping from the north, between Pennsylvania Gulch and Coyote Creek, are some extensive hydraulic claims now being worked… in fact, the mines and mining operations in this vicinity are of a superior order and looked “Healthy,” in the finest sense of the word. Fine ranches and gardens line the creek on either side, down to Douglass’ Flat. Here the “Ranch Act” is much complained of, and appears to be quite unpopular with the miner – while it is the reverse with the farmers and gardeners. A ranch was offered us for $700, while the owner said that if there was no gold in the ground, he would not take less than $7,000.00. We laughed at him and remarked that if it was not for the gold in the ground, him or his ranch would not have been heard of in “these parts.” He tacitly admitted the fact and thereby became a convert to the “mining interest” (San Andreas Independent, November 14, 1857).

As the mines waxed and waned, however, it was the ranchers and farmers who supported the town. In the late 1850s the county assessor noted over twenty ranches on the flat and along Coyote Creek, ranging in size from 15 to 360 acres. By the 1880s, most of the smaller ranches had been absorbed into larger ranches by settlers who remained in the area for many years, some of whose descendents still farm the land (Calaveras County Assessment Rolls, various). In 1859 a writer noted that Mr. (David) Healey produced fine assorted fruit: Isabella grapes, Mixon clingstone peaches, Sweetbough apples, freestone peaches, and a variety of pears, as well as “Pick’s Pleasant,” and “Baldwin” apples, in his garden in Douglas Flat (San Andreas Independent, September 10, and November 26, 1859).

By 1860 three stores had been established in town, those of Joseph Winn, S.A. Perry, and Antonio Gagliardo, also known as the “Italian Store.” Later sold to the Malespina family, the stone store still stands on Main Street, while the others disappeared long ago Other businesses included a hotel, butcher shop, shoe store, a wheelwright, and the ubiquitous saloon, but the majority of the men listed their occupations as “miner” through the 1880s (Calaveras County Assessment Rolls, various; U.S. Federal Census 1860, 1870, 1880).

A post office was finally established in 1879, but discontinued in March of 1891, reestablished the following May, and has been active since. In the 1880s, long after mining activities in Douglas Flat had been recounted in the local publications, several of the farms in the area were bustling with activity. A county history noted that

S. A. Perry has one of the model homes of Calaveras County at Douglas Flat. A comfortable home with a nice orchard of apple, plum, fig, cherry, and apricot trees, as well as a vegetable garden. He also has five cows, several head of young cattle, sheep, horses, and poultry on his place. S.A. Perry & Sons are engaged in general merchandising: he is postmaster, two of the sons are of the firm (Elliott 1885:98).

The same writer described the farm of Ansil Davis as a successful fruit place of 40 acres, with 3,000 trees of all varieties of fruit. Included were apples, pears, peaches, and plums, as well as 3,000 grapevines of selected varieties (Elliott 1885:92).

By this time the Malespina, Bertatta, Raffetto, Copello, Sanguinetti, and other Italian families had established cattle operations on their ranches, practicing transhumance, taking their livestock to the high country to pasture during the summer, returning in the fall to their foothill ranches.