Wildflowers, miners, gold mines, an old railroad bed and a beautiful but deadly river all have roles in this week’s blog. Oh, and can’t forget about the geese!
Where: Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Merced River Recreation Management Area
Distance: 13.36 miles round trip but you can go shorter or longer
Elevation Range: 1,001′ – 1,215′
Elevation Total Ascent: 1,125′
Date: March 7, 2022
CALTOPO: Hiking From Briceburg Downstream Along the Merced River Trail
Dog Hike? Yes
To reach Briceburg and the Merced River Trail, I drove up Hwy 140 north about 15 miles from Mariposa to the Briceburg Visitor Center. You can’t miss the beautiful old stone building that William M. Brice, who Briceburg was named after, built in 1926 as Highway 140 into Yosemite was being built. The BLM acquired the property in the 1980’s and refurbished the building to its near-original condition to be used as a visitor center. The Visitor Center’s sign on the door said that it is currently closed and to visit them May through August. For more history about William Brice, check out my prior Briceburg Blog. After driving by the Visitor Center, I parked in the parking area along the Merced River where the restroom is located.
It was 30 degrees and low clouds were hanging in on the river when I started my hike, walking across the suspension bridge, then I stayed to the left and walked on the road along the Wild and Scenic Merced River. The headwaters of the Merced River originate in the high country of Yosemite National Park and ultimately flow into McClure Reservoir, but not before winding their way through the canyon where I hiked. In 1987, the Federal Government designated 122 miles of the Merced River as a “Wild and Scenic” river. The trail also follows the grade of the old Yosemite Valley Railroad and if you look closely, you can saw the remains of old bridges, dams, flumes, rock walls, ditches and what was left of old mining structures. If you interested in reading more about that railroad, check out my prior blog.
As I walked down the river on the trail, I passed evidence of mining in the past but there is still plenty of mining going on today. This is a popular area for goldpanners and there are some private property and mining claims in this area. The nice path I walked on along the Merced River was built in 1907 for the railroad that carried passengers from the central valley to El Portal. Due to the Depression and World War II, the railroad lost customers and the last run occurred in 1945. The railroad ties have been removed making a dandy path for all of us.
Plenty of wildflowers lined the sides of the road as I walked.
And then I spotted something way up on the road. What was it?
A couple of geese were standing on the side of the road and as I approached them, they kept their eyes on me but did not leave this area. I suspected that they could have a nest nearby and skirted the opposite side of the road to leave them in peace.
I continued on as the clouds lifted and the warm sunlight touched the road.
Even though it was morning, wildflowers such as bluedick and poppies were ready to receive visitors such as bugs and butterflies.
And the Merced River delivered some beautiful reflections.
And a few redbuds were starting to bloom.
There are a couple of small burial grounds along this road.The first one is above the road past the McCabe Flat Campground and it is easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it. It is just a smidge east of where Good Gulch reaches the road and empties into the Merced River. It is small gentle slope with remains of a rock building and other outbuildings. The Pamlico Mine was also located near this site.
This is the resting place for 2 people who lived in this area. Their gravestones show the following information: A. C. Matlock born 1856 died 6-11-1906 and J.B. Landrum born 11-12-1867 died 3-12-1908.
From a public comment submitted on the 2001 Merced Wild and Scenic River: Comprehensive Plan, it stated that these graves belonged to Alexander Cameron Matlock and Jeff Landrum. I was curious to learn more about these people and did some research. The 1900 census for Alexander Cameron Matlock says that he was born in Iowa and his occupation was Miner Gold Ore. He was living at Township 4, Mariposa County with his second wife Leonora and 2 children. His wife and children are identified on the census as Indian. By searching old copies of the Mariposa Gazette online, I discovered a May 24, 1896 marriage.
I also discovered a Matlock/Landrum partnership on a mine in this area. So it appears that A. C. Matlock’s wife’s brother was a partner in the mine located where this grave was.
And I located the sad story about how A. C. Matlock died.
I also wanted to learn more about J.B. Landrum and located him on the 1900 Township 4, Mariposa County census with his second wife Grace and 2 daughters. His name is listed as Jesse B. Landrum, born California and occupation listed as Miner Gold Ore. He and his family are also listed on the Schedule 1 Population Addendum as Indian.
Also wanted to add that Jesse B. Landrum’s brother Simeon had several interests, including owning and operating a saloon down the road a short distance at Hall’s Gulch near the Mountain King Mine.
There is a second small cemetery on the uphill side of the road, across from the Railroad Flat Campground, and not far from the downstream end of the road. This one is easier to locate because there is a white fenced grave that is easy to see from the road.
Here is some information from Find a Grave.
A Skip is a container that is used to hoist ore up from the bottom of a shaft to the surface. Skips come in all shapes and sizes but it appears that Gay and Miller were riding in the skip from the bottom of the shaft to the top of the mine. There is also some sort of discrepancy here. The Mariposa Gazette article was from June 4, 1910 and it says the accident occurred on May 29, the California Death Index states that he died May 31 yet Louis’s tombstone says he died February 27, 1910. I took a look at 1910 calendar and the date that the Coroner was called to the Mountain King Mine would have been Monday, May 29. I believe that is the actual date of his death.
Since Louis Gay died early in the year of 1910, I went back to the previous census to try and locate him. I found him on the 1900 census in Diamond Springs, El Dorado County and he was working as a Gold Miner, single and a Boarder. That census stated that he had come to the United States in 1888. In his household were the Mining Superintendent, a Cook, 2 Gold Miners and a Blacksmith. Living next door is a man named Comile Gay, born 1868 Switzerland, a Gold Miner, and his wife Felecid. It also shows that both Louis and Comile Gay were both born in May 1868. This could be a mistake or these two men could have been twins. I tracked Comile forward and his name was spelled Camille, born May 10, 1866 Switzerland, died from heart disease October 8, 1912 Placerville, El Dorado County, and his parents were Gene Peter Gray and Gerrice Bondaz.
I continued walking up the road, though gates and over metal bridges.
I walked past the community that served the Mountain King Mine.
The Mountain King Mine was a bustling place back in the day though and the amazing photo from Mindat.org helps show that. I located a wonderful website with some old pictures. I assumed that these photos may be copyrighted so here is a Memorable Places link so you can check them out if you wish.
The Mountain King Mine experienced many injuries and deaths through its time, according to the many newspaper articles that I located. Below is just a sampling from Mine Disasters in the United States:
Mountain King Mining Company
Mountain King Mine Asphyxiation
Mariposa County, California
April 28, 1917
No. Killed – 7
When the shift entered the mine, two men obtained permission from the mine foreman to investigate the results of blasting on the 1,400-foot level. When they did not return, the foreman went to investigate, returned, and with two others climbed down to the 1,400-foot level, where all three were overcome.
Before proper supervision could be obtained and rescue work begun, three others had attempted to help by going to the 1,400 foot level (all at different times). Only one was able to return to safety. Seven men lost their lives from asphyxiation.
Mine Causes Death of Seven Miners
May 5, 1917
The miners who lost their lives are:
Petter DeFau, foreman of the mine, aged 42, of San Francisco
Carl Frank, aged 40, of Mariposa
John Esclose, aged 40, of Mariposa
Joseph Garino, aged 42, of Coulterville
John Locher, aged 36, of Bagby
Ili Clayton, aged 26, of Lodi
Peter Bruschieo, aged 40, of Stockton
The men were at work in the first level of the mine and a blast had been fired in the 1400-foot level shortly after midnight Saturday morning. Because of the breaking of the flume Superintendent Austin and Foreman DeFau had given orders to the miners to stay out of the lower level , and were shortly followed by their foreman, and all were overcome by the poisonous gases and died of suffocation.
Frank Stehr, another miner, made a heroic effort to rescue his comrades and almost lost his life in the attempt. He descended into the lower level, found the foreman and endeavored to carry him up the ladder. Feeling himself becoming affected by the impure air he fastened the body of DeFau to the ladder and came up for air. Again, he descended and found the body of another miner, which he succeeded in bringing up twenty feet before he was again compelled to seek fresh air. In descending the third time he was overcome and dropped. A rope was dropped to him and he was brought out in a weakened condition. Stehr is still suffering from the effects of the gas, and he was brought to the city Wednesday for further treatment.
A call for help was sent from the mine to Bagby, El Portal, Coulterville and Mariposa, and 300 men responded and at once began the work of repairing the flume so that fresh air could be pumped into the mine. A hand pump was also put in operation, but it was not powerful enough to clear the mine of the poisonous air. The bodies were recovered and brought to the surface shortly after the flume repairs had been completed at 3 o’clock Sunday morning.
Dr. D. W. Zirker of Merced and Dr. D. I. Aller of Merced Falls were summoned to the mine to render medical aid to the miners as they were brought to the surface, but all had been suffocated before the bodies were found.
Following the inquests held by Coroner Johnson of Mariposa county the bodies were taken care of by W. N. Griffin of the undertaking firm of Welch & Co. of this city, several of the bodies being brought to Merced and prepared for shipment to burial places.
The mine is owned by the Mountain King Mining company, of which H. T. Harper of San Francisco is secretary, and it has been extensively operated especially during the past year.
Delinquency notices for the mine started showing up in local newspapers in 1915 and continued appearing in newspapers through 1922 but I didn’t spend much time trying to track the ownership forward.
I continued on down the trail past a pickup and trailer being utilized by a person working on the property, then over the metal bridge. the trail continued to narrow down as I walked.
I continued down the trail about a mile or so. It had been improved since the last time I had come down it. Rock slides had been made more passable with steps and vegetation had been cleared along the trail. Thank you to the trail crew that did this!
As I headed back toward the car, I thought of the people who lived and worked in this area, scanning the hillsides for old roads and trails that would lead to their diggings and houses. The below picture is looking up Hall’s Gulch. I could spot the old foundation of the stamp mill up in the gulch and I could spot old roads that led up that way and beyond.
As I walked along the road, I kept my eye on an old trail above the road that someone had put a lot of work into back in the day. It shows up on maps but why was it there? I guessed that it led to an old mine and walked up to check it out a bit more.
As I was almost back to the car, I took a look behind me to see some white puffy clouds passing by. What a beautiful day I had!
Most of this week’s hike can also be enjoyed by bike or car. There are plenty of places to pull over, enjoy a picnic lunch and watch the river flow by. On prior hikes, I usually turn around at the point when I reach 2 1/2 miles or so down the trail past the last gate but you can go all the way to Bagby. I know someone who just finishing up hiking the stretch from El Portal to Bagby in sections, so it is do-able! I have included a link to a TrailLink write up on the trail.
The campgrounds along the Merced River have reopened and I recommend that you contact BLM for the most up to date information.
There are three developed BLM campgrounds along the Merced River between Briceburg and Bagby. The campgrounds are accessed by crossing the suspension bridge just past the Briceburg Visitor Center and heading down river along the unpaved Briceburg River Road (old Yosemite Valley Railroad Grade).
McCabe Flat – 2.3 miles downstream from Briceburg
Willow Placer – 3.6 miles downstream from Briceburg
Railroad Flat – 4.5 miles downstream from Briceburg
North Fork Primitive Camp – 2.5 miles downstream from Railroad Flat Campground
Cable Rock Day Use Site – 1.4 miles downstream from Briceburg
Briceburg Day Use/Put-in – Hwy 140 at Merced River, 12 miles east of Mariposa
Dog Hike? Yes
I did not bring Sally or Fannie on this hike but Sally has hiked along the Merced River before. There are some places where you can get your dog down to the river for a drink but be very careful because that river can run fast and cold. One slip into the river could be disastrous and deadly. Also when the weather warms up, the rattlesnakes are out and about. And those rattlesnakes are out now! Dog rules in this area include the following:
- Dogs must be on leash at all times.
- No dogs allowed at McCabe Flat swimming beach.
What is a Doarama? It is a video playback of the GPS track overlaid on a 3 dimensional interactive map. If you “grab” the map, you can tilt it or spin it and look at it from different viewing angles. With the rabbit and turtle buttons, you can also speed it up, slow it down or pause it.
Maps and Profile:
This trail is fairly level with only 214′ difference between the lowest and highest points, but there are plenty of small ups and downs that add up to have a larger total ascent on the hike. CALTOPO has some free options for mapping and here is a link to my hike this week: CALTOPO: Hiking From Briceburg Downriver On The Merced River Trail
Johnston, Hank, Railroads of Yosemite Valley (Yosemite National Park, Yosemite Association, 1995)
Prior Blogs in This Area: