Valley Springs: Gateway to the Mother Lode
By Sal Manna
“A more beautiful, as well as favorable location for a village could not have been selected…From the outset it was the intention…to make Valley Springs a desirable point of resort, for people who seek a healthy foot-hill climate and a desirable location accessible by rail. In point of beauty, scenery, climate, healthfulness…the new town will rank second to none in the mountains.” –Calaveras County Illustrated and Described (1885)
Despite the hopes of its 19th century promoters, for most of its existence the Valley Springs area in West Calaveras County was a place to go through rather than to. Visitors and commerce using strategic roads, stage lines and a narrow gauge railroad were quickly sent on their way to the Big Trees, the gold mines, and the timber up-county and then back to cities such as Stockton, Lodi, Sacramento and San Francisco. The Valley Springs area was rightfully known as the Gateway to the Mother Lode.
While gold prompted many to move to California, there wasn’t nearly enough of it in West Calaveras. Yet with the Gold Rush came mule trains, ox freighters and horse stages on their way to the camps of the foothills. Stage stops sprang up along the Stockton and Mokelumne Hill Road (today’s Hwy. 26), such as Tremont House, North America House, Spring Valley House and Pattee’s Place, serving passersby and providing overnight lodging. The crossroads where that trail connected with the more east-west Chaparral Road (today’s Hwy. 12) would one day become Valley Springs thanks to the San Joaquin and Sierra Nevada Railroad.
All roads seemed to come from or lead to Stockton and its Central Pacific railhead–and Calaveras folks were not happy about that. Miners and farmers wanted to bypass the Stockton middlemen and directly connect via steamer with the more lucrative market of San Francisco. Also, James Sperry, proprietor of the hotel at the world-renowned Big Trees in eastern Calaveras County, wanted to expand his business by providing an easier trip for visitors than the stage lines.
Frederick Birdsall, an organizer and director of the Sacramento Bank, signed on as the railroad’s principal investor. The first rail was laid at Brack’s Landing on the Mokelumne River near Woodbridge, west of Lodi in San Joaquin County, in April 1882; by June the tracks reached Lodi and by October entered Calaveras at the newly-founded Wallace before extending to newly-founded Burson in September 1884.
The Valley Review newspaper touted that “this new railroad will prove a great blessing to these people so long shut off from the commerce and manufacturies of the world…all the advantages enjoyed by the denizens of more favored localities will be meted out to those brave pioneers who have toiled and reared their families on their foot-hill farms contented with their surroundings.”
The next stop for the SJ&SNRR was just west of Pattee’s Place, on the land of George Late, who in 1862 built a magnificent home from limestone quarried from a nearby hill. In 1884 Birdsall purchased 45 acres at $50 per acre plus the right-of-way for the railroad for $1. Within months, enterprises at Pattee’s Place–T.J. French’s general store and Zimmerman’s saloon–moved to the new town, officially called Valley Spring but soon known as Valley Springs. Also arriving were Plummer’s Hotel, the Paulk Bros. & Johnson store, blacksmith shops, livery stables, a restaurant and, typical of the time, ever more saloons.
On April 25, 1885, the first train of the SJ&SNRR pulled into the station–a tent erected until the depot could be finished later that year. Optimism ran high. But the railroad did not continue as originally intended to the Big Trees. Instead, Valley Springs would be the end of the line. Able to reach San Francisco in seven-and-a-half hours, Sacramento in three and Stockton in two-and-a-half, Valley Springs became a major freight distribution center for the county. In 1888, the Northern Railway, and later its operator, the Southern Pacific, gobbled up the plucky narrow gauge and in 1904 turned it into a standard gauge line.
Valley Springs could claim a population of just 350 in 1923. Two years later, the Calaveras Cement Co. began building a major plant adjacent to limestone deposits at Kentucky House near San Andreas and needed rail access. So the SP extended its line east eight miles where it reached the five miles the cement company built. A crowd of 15,000–two and a half times the county’s population–was at the dedication of the plant. The SP would also lay down a temporary line running north seven miles from Valley Springs to aid in constructing Pardee Dam. The railroad and Calaveras Cement would also help build the area’s original Hogan Dam, completed in 1931 for its owners, the City of Stockton, as well as the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, McClellan and Travis Air Force bases, San Francisco Airport and dams in the Central Valley.
With the rise of the automobile, the SP abandoned all passenger service in 1932. Freight however continued, including lumber from sawmills in the mountains that arrived at the local plant for American Forest Products, a major wood producer during World War II and until the early 1960s. The SP also served the small-scale gold dredging businesses and Penn Mine, a copper and zinc operation in nearby Campo Seco.
Still, for its first 100 years, the main occupation of Valley Springs residents was agriculture. Ranchers raised sheep and cattle, and conducted an annual ritual of moving their herds up-county to the mountains during the hot summers and returning them to Valley Springs before the winter. Given the relatively poor soil and lack of reliable water, there was no large-scale farming other than in grains. The land was suitable for grassland pasture, for growing wheat, barley and oats. Attempts at growing other crops were sporadic; only olives took a foothold, with the Rocca Bella brand gaining renown. In 1963, the Camanche Reservoir, a flood control project by the East Bay Municipal Utility District, was built near Wallace. The next year, New Hogan Dam greatly expanded its original design. With Camanche, Pardee, and Hogan offering camping, boating and fishing, the Tri-Dam region was born.
Visitors who came for recreation fell in love with the countryside and began to become residents. In 1967, several large ranches combined to form the 6,000-acre Rancho Calaveras subdivision. A few years later, just north of Rancho Calaveras, the La Contenta Golf Course and its homesites proved another attraction. Valley Springs continued to grow in population despite the closing of every major manufacturing facility–the cement plant ceased operations and the SP made its last trip in the early 1980s.
Today, experiencing a residential real estate boom prompted by abundant and affordable land along with commuter proximity to urban centers, the rural community of Valley Springs has become for the first time since the days of its pioneers, a place to go to.
First published in “Sierra Seasons,” Summer/Fall 2007