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Salt Spring Valley

Salt Spring Valley is located in Calaveras County at an elevation of about 1100 feet. It runs northwest/southeast and is bounded on the east by the Bear Mountain Range and on the west by Gopher Ridge and the Hodson Hills. The name Salt Spring Valley was originally extended to the entire area from the Calaveras River in the north to the Stanislaus River in the south, but more recently has been restricted to the area roughly from Siberia to the Hodson Hills. During the spring the valley is rich in abundant green grasses and wildflowers, which in summer turn to golden fields.  Salt Spring Reservoir, first dammed in 1857-58 by William H. Hanford, and expanded about 1880, is located in the central western portion of the valley and is fed by seasonal run-off from Bear Mountain and the valley.

historic photo of town
The Royal mill with 120 samps is on the hill above the town of Hodson, while the old Pine Log mill is in the left foreground, on the banks of Littlejohns Creek (Courtesy Calaveras County Historical Society).

The small Madam Felix mining district, located in Salt Spring Valley on the West Belt of the Mother Lode, is a typical problem district where the gold was not easy to find and, once found, difficult to extract from the parent rock. The district is undistinguished by big strikes or celebrated nuggets. However it does have a tenacious mining history that reaches from the present back to the late 1850s.  Prospectors first followed the trail of placer gold up to the quartz veins where it was mined by sporadic surface ventures through the nineteenth century.  The turn-of-the-century boom that invigorated most of the Mother Lode saw an enormous 120-stamp mill built for the Royal mine.  The ore body, however, proved smaller than expected and the venture rapidly failed.

The district settled back into intermittent small-scale operations through World War II and until the 1980s when the Madam Felix mining district was resurrected by Meridian Gold Company.  Using modern open-pit, conventional mill, and cyanide leach operations, it achieved much success in solving problems associated with recovering the district’s low-grade ore.  The ore bodies exhausted, the land re-contoured and reclaimed, Salt Spring Valley is once again an agricultural landscape.

The history of a mining district, however, can be richer than the value of its ore.  The characteristics of the local population can profoundly affect development, especially a long-lived district like Madam Felix.  The land attracted modest ranching and farming operations and from the earliest years these ranchers, and their employees and retainers, all dabbled in mining. They prospected, proved up claims, formed ventures, and milled ore. The lives of several generations of families like the McCartys, Towers, Blazers, and Wombles are interwoven with the more transient prospectors, promoters, and miners. The history of Madam Felix’s gold -- achievements and failures – is typical of numerous similar districts that once covered the Mother Lode.


by Julia Costello