The ghosts of Cherokee
Digging up the history of a Butte County mining town
It’s possible to stand at the bend in the road that marks the heart of downtown Cherokee throughout most of the year, even at midday, and count the cars that pass in an hour’s time on one hand, perhaps two hands on a Sunday. Traffic picks up for a few months in spring, when wildflowers blanketing the top of Table Mountain lure thousands of visitors south from Highway 70 along rural Cherokee Road.
More than a few who make the trip for the wildflowers are also struck by another spectacle—a small collection of very old buildings springing from the rugged, overgrown landscape near that bend. On one side of the street sits the crumbling stone ruins of a mine office, on the other a bright yellow, ramshackle building fronted by a large porch—the Cherokee Museum. Resting nearby is a railroad caboose, which is downright puzzling when one considers the nearest tracks are miles away. There are a few other less-descript buildings, including an old post office.
The place evokes the aura of a long-abandoned Western movie set.
But Cherokee is the real deal, the ghostly remains of a once-vibrant town that, during its heyday in the late 19th century, boasted 17 saloons, eight hotels, two churches, two schools, and a theater, racetrack and brewery to serve its population of more than 1,000 residents.
Most came to work in the world’s largest and most technologically advanced hydraulic mining operation of its time. With the benefit of electric lighting and water cannons that allegedly could blow a hole through a man, they pulled millions of dollars in gold from the rich “diggings” just outside of town at Cherokee Flat, beneath a peak that is today partly collapsed from the efforts.
Cherokee’s fantastical history includes visits by President Rutherford B. Hayes, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, inventor Thomas Edison, O.J. Simpson and maybe even ancient Chinese explorers who allegedly predated white settlers by thousands of years. It’s also a story full of firsts, from the first phone call made in Butte County to the first diamonds discovered in America.
This history is unknown to most, and may have been forgotten altogether if not for the enduring efforts of one man: Jim Lenhoff, founder and president of the Cherokee Heritage and Museum Association. For more than 50 years, he has dedicated untold amounts of time, effort and personal finances toward preserving this piece of history for posterity.
Lenhoff is a well-respected historian. He is a past president of the Butte County Historical Society and that organization’s only surviving charter member, and a current or past member of other historical organizations too numerous to list.
A dedicated preservationist, he spearheaded successful BCHS campaigns to save local landmarks including Oroville’s Ehmann Home, the Oregon City Schoolhouse and the Bangor Community Church. For 21 years, he served as editor of the BCHS periodical, Diggin’s, which he also named (the word refers to any mineral-rich lands where mining occurs).
In 1969, Lenhoff was personally tapped by Ronald Reagan to travel to Promontory Point, Utah, and read the then-governor-of-California’s official proclamation celebrating the centennial of the completion of the transcontinental railroad, an event during which he shared a stage and shook hands with actor John Wayne and James Cash Penney, founder of the department-store chain J.C. Penney.
According to his own recollection in a 1991 Diggin’s piece about Cherokee’s nearest neighbor—the similarly boomed-then-busted mining town of Oregon City—he recalls falling in love with the area when he and his late wife, Donna, bought a cottage nearby in 1960.
The next year Lenhoff got word that Bank of America, which owned the property where the stone mine and assayer’s office sits, planned to tear the structure down.
“I asked them to please not tear it down,” Lenhoff recalled. “They said if I didn’t want that to happen, I’d have to buy [the property], so I did. We bought it and had it declared a historic site so it couldn’t be destroyed, then things kind of evolved from there.”
Over the next several years, Lenhoff acquired the rest of Cherokee’s remaining downtown structures, eventually opening the Cherokee Museum in the late 1960s.
The birth of Cherokee is shrouded in mystery. Legend and anecdotal accounts say that when white miners—the first wave mostly Welshmen—arrived in the early 1850s, they were surprised to find a band of Cherokee Indians already mining and panning the surrounding creeks and hills. While the presence of this band of Cherokee is rarely disputed, how they got there is.
The commonly accepted account is that a Maine-born school teacher named Sol Potter—driven by news of the discovery of gold in California—left his teaching job at a reservation in Oklahoma and headed west, taking a group of his students with him. Though this story is often repeated in historical texts, most note it is unsubstantiated.
What is recorded is that, by 1853, Cherokee was the site of a burgeoning tent camp and several gold claims. More permanent structures were soon built, the earliest of which included a stamp mill to pound placer from quartz taken from the surrounding local mines, and a post office established in 1854. The town boomed seasonally, as miners largely abandoned operations in the summertime due to lack of available water. News of fortunes found there spread and helped the population steadily grow, and gold wasn’t the only thing found in the hills—in June of 1961, the first of many diamonds was found in the area.
In the late 1860s, small mining operations began to merge to form Cherokee’s first mining companies, which grew and folded further into a few large, major players. With expanded capital enabled by these consolidations and the attraction of investors, the first of many ditches, flumes and pipes began carrying water into Cherokee from farther up in the Sierra Nevada mountains. This system was expanded over the next decade to include more than 100 miles of waterways conducting water from reservoirs, the largest of which was a 300-acre man-made lake at Concow.
As the hydraulic systems grew more sophisticated, so did the town of Cherokee. The community was divided into three parts—Upper, Middle and Lower town—all connected by miles of boardwalk.
Between 1870 and 1894, Cherokee’s hydraulic-mining operation, at its peak controlled by the Spring Valley Mining and Irrigation Company, was regarded as a technological marvel. Using gravity and a series of pipes that gradually grew smaller, the water was channeled through 18 huge water cannons—called monitors—that spewed water at pressures high enough to shoot 400 feet. These monitors blasted away at Cherokee’s proximate peak, washing tons of rock and gravel down shafts through the humongous Eureka Tunnel and over nine miles of industrial-sized sluice boxes. Dynamite helped rip loose more stubborn rock faces, and water-powered derricks moved boulders weighing several tons. Electric lighting enabled three shifts of 100 men to work around the clock, with hundreds more constructing and maintaining the water system.
Much of that rock, mud and water, known as “slickens,” washed down into the Mesilla Valley north of the mine and was carried out into the Sacramento Valley via Dry Creek, which flows west toward Richvale. The first of several lawsuits from valley farmers claiming crop damage was filed in 1872, but judges determined that, with all the other debris-dumping going on, the Spring Valley company couldn’t be held accountable. To prevent further litigation, the company purchased 23,000 acres of land south of Durham—still known today as the Cherokee Strip—and built a series of levees and canals to strain the slickens and lessen damage.
Controversy still raged over hydraulic mining, but the Cherokee miners’ efforts at mitigation allowed the mine to continue as others were being closed by new anti-debris laws, until 1887. For a brief time, hydraulicking was replaced with drift mining, but large-scale mining at Cherokee ceased altogether in 1894. All told, according to mineral database mindat.org, more than $15 million in gold (at period prices), 400 diamonds and some platinum were taken from the mine during its boom years.
After the mine closed, Cherokee’s long, slow decline began. Smaller-scale efforts to mine Cherokee continued sporadically until the 1930s, with little success. In 1947, a fire burned the town’s last store to the ground. No new businesses have opened since. All that remains of Cherokee’s past are the buildings described earlier, an old schoolhouse now used as a private residence, and a pastoral cemetery where some of Cherokee’s pioneering spirits rest eternally.
As of the 2010 census, the population of Cherokee was 69. Modern-day residents live mostly on more modern ranches and small farms spread throughout the rural area, built on the bones of the once-thriving mining mecca.
So runs the thumbnail history of Cherokee, as told—sometimes with diverging details—by sources including Joseph F. McGie’s two-volume History of Butte County and Erwin G. Gudde’s California Gold Camps. In a Chico State University graduate thesis titled “A History of Cherokee Flat,” published in 1961 by Jack Dean Sturgeon, the author remarks that his was the first attempt at a comprehensive history of Cherokee.
This remains true; the canon of Cherokee history has expanded since only by the occasional article written by Lenhoff for Diggin’s, and a few Internet articles penned by travelers who stumbled upon the ghost town.
Lenhoff can be credited with discovering, or at least re-discovering, the evidence of Thomas Edison’s presence in the North State. Lenhoff explained the famed inventor also had a side venture designing and selling mining equipment, and for a time owned a store selling these in Oroville. He visited that city, and Cherokee, in 1878, striking up a friendship with the Cherokee mine’s manager, Louis Glass. He brought two telephones with him, enabling him to make the region’s first phone call—over existing telegraph lines—from Cherokee to Oroville.
Lenhoff also recalls, in more recent history, a number of film productions shot in the Cherokee and Oregon City areas, including parts of 1981’s On Golden Pond and principal shooting for 1974’s The Klansman, which starred Lee Marvin, Richard Burton and a young sports star making his crossover attempt into film—O.J. Simpson.
A more visceral and engaging glimpse of the storied mining town is best found through a visit with Lenhoff at the Cherokee Museum, which today is open only by special appointment or on Sundays during wildflower season.
The museum is housed in a building moved in 1878 to its current Middle Town location from the Upper Town section of Cherokee. The building, constructed many years earlier, has formerly served as a miners’ boarding house, a stagecoach stop and a private residence. Its interior, behind a set of large double doors still opened by an old brass key, and the surrounding grounds are cluttered with relics illustrating the area’s past.
In the arena of natural history, these include many rocks, fossils and petrified wood, including fossilized mammoths’ bones which, Lenhoff gleefully points out, retain intact petrified flesh.
Some relics directly relate to Cherokee, while others—like old bottles and other paraphernalia—are merely meant to illustrate the era. Some include hand-carved wooden replicas of old Cherokee storefronts lining the walls of one room, a replica miner’s kitchen crammed full of cutting-edge late-1800s cooking gadgetry, and a pioneer bedroom decorated in period-appropriate replica quilts, some of which were handmade by the late Mrs. Lenhoff.
Practically every available space inside in the building is covered in relics, photos, paintings and maps. Many of the objects were collected by Lenhoff and his wife from yard sales, flea markets and hiking trips to long-abandoned settlement sites, while others came courtesy of descendents of those who worked the mines or modern Cherokee residents who stumbled across them. In fact, as we stepped outside, Lenhoff pointed to a heavy, metal machinery wheel dropped in front of the museum by an anonymous donor a month earlier.
The museum’s yard is littered with rusted mine- and waterworks: small monitors, lengths of pipe, a huge metal bucket Lenhoff explained was used to haul ore (and workers) from deep shafts. The yard also holds one of the museum’s more mysterious holdings: Coffin Rock. The oddly shaped rock was a landmark to local miners that Lenhoff decided to move from Cherokee Flat to the museum, using the services of a very confused tow-truck driver.
Once in its current resting place, the sun dried the thick layers of moss and lichen covering the stone so that they fell away, revealing the long-hidden carved graffiti of miners and juvenile taggers from Cherokee’s gilded age, as well as stranger, older symbols. Lenhoff said visiting experts over the years have been unable to fully solve the mystery, but some have conjectured they are ancient Phoenician or Chinese. He explained that evidence suggests the Chinese did visit North America 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, but wonders what the heck they were doing in Cherokee.
He also laughed at an Internet claim that it’s been translated from an ancient language called Ogam to read, “I am striped and in pain from Bel’s poison arrows. I give an uproar at the smiting of my mindful body.”
“The rock attracts lots of interesting characters,” he said. “I came out and a woman was lying on it. She said she was a medium and was in a trance with who made this rock. I said, ‘Oh really? Please tell me who it was.’
“So she said, ‘I’m being shot by arrows and I’m dying!’ I thought to myself, ‘Well, who is dying after getting shot full of arrows and finds the time to stop to carve a rock?’”
Also outside—near a large, flat rock formation pockmarked with holes used for grinding foodstuff by the area’s pre-Gold Rush inhabitants, the Maidu Indians—is a dilapidated old carriage house Lenhoff cheekily named Hayes Hall. He used the opportunity to convey the details of President Hayes’ Sept. 24, 1880, visit (along with his wife, Lucy, Gen. John Bidwell and then-U.S. war secretary Gen. Sherman). They were given diamonds and gold that are still on display at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio, and one of Lenhoff’s enduring quests is that of locating a picture reportedly taken of Gen. Sherman riding and firing one of the mine’s water cannons. Though not actually entertained in the museum’s Hayes Hall, the party did dine in a blacksmith’s shop, where they were treated to music played on anvils with different pitches.
Then there’s the train car, which prompted the question of how Lenhoff got it there. He said it was donated by the Western Pacific Railroad and transported from Idaho to Oroville by rail. From there, it was hauled up the mountain in pieces, the wheels separated from the main cabin.
Still more wonders abound. The museum property is adjacent to a house-sized hole lined with stones that Lenhoff explained was the basement of a general store, one of many stone basements found all over the remains of Cherokee. The town well sits on the other side of an overgrown field where a Catholic church once stood before it was moved piece by piece to Durham, and eventually burned down.
Until the last few years, Lenhoff and a group of present-day Cherokee residents held large celebrations twice annually to celebrate Cherokee’s history and the small community living there today. These functions—on the Fourth of July and Hayes Day, which would fall on the weekend closest to Sept. 24—were well-known locally, attracting hundreds of visitors and raising money for the Cherokee Volunteer Fire Department.
Though no large gathering is planned for Hayes Day this year, Lenhoff is preparing a special museum exhibit and the museum will be open the previous weekend, on Sept. 21 and 22.
“We haven’t had the celebrations in three or four years now, because some of the people who helped organize them have moved out of the area or simply wore themselves out,” Lenhoff said. “It takes a lot of organizing, and is hard to keep going.”
Lenhoff’s wife, and main ally in the ongoing struggle to preserve what’s left of Cherokee, passed away in 2008. He sidesteps discussion concerning who will carry Cherokee’s torch in the future, but said he believes that, when the time comes, someone will (“We cross these bridges as we come to them,” he said).
Lenhoff remains a dedicated steward of Cherokee’s history. He challenges claims that the mine had an adverse effect on the environment, noting the lack of contaminants used in hydraulicking and pointing to the positive legacy it left.
“The quartz and gravel that went down through the Eureka Tunnel emptied out into the Mesilla Valley, where they’re still making millions of dollars today mining it for quartz sand and gravel,” he explained. “All the mud that was left over created 25,000 acres of fertilized land where it was once worthless hardpan, enabling all those beautiful orchards and rice fields south of Chico that are still employing and feeding people today.”
He further noted the water infrastructure and mountain reservoirs are also still in use, providing power and water for rural North State residents, as well as beautiful recreation areas.
“You have to put it all in perspective,” he continued. “Mother Nature has a way of balancing herself out, and of reclaiming these things very quickly. So you might say, ‘This or that happened over there,’ but you go to these places and they’re completely covered by vegetation.”
In Cherokee’s case, Lenhoff intends to preserve what remains as long as possible. When asked why he cares so deeply about history and preservation, he offered, “It broadens our own life view. If we didn’t know anything about the things around us and the past, then we’d have a very limited view of what life is all about.
“By preserving some of these things, it expands our own little lifetime into something much broader and more meaningful.”