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Boomtown’s bust

It was a rustic, primitive town that sprung up seemingly overnight, born of a quicksilver boom and prospecting craze in the rugged Mayacmas Mountains that straddle Sonoma, Lake and Napa counties.

In a brief period in the early 1870s, Pine Flat was said to be the fastest growing town in Northern California with a population of between 1,000 to 4,000 inhabitants, according to newspaper accounts of the day.

The boom town northeast of Healdsburg had hotels, restaurants, stores, feed and livery stables, saloons, shoe and barber shops.

Today, nothing remains of the community that was killed by the plummeting price of quicksilver, or mercury, and the periodic wildfires that sweep the area. But author Joe Pelanconi has been fascinated by the rough-and tumble place that came and went in a historical blink of the eye ever since he was a teenager collecting square-headed nails there, the only remnants of the vanished structures.

“For something to disappear that entirely in front of our noses is unusual,” said Pelanconi, 64, author of the recently-released “Quicksilver Mining in Sonoma County,” subtitled “Pine Flat Prospect Fever” (The History Press, $19.95).

Published this year, the book centers on the town perched on a small plateau above Alexander Valley and some of the colorful characters associated with it.

Pelanconi, a retired high school principal who grew up in nearby Geyserville, was intrigued by the rumors and stories he heard of Pine Flat. He obtained his master’s degree in history and wrote his thesis on the town, scouring newspapers of the day, census and voting records, and visiting historical collections, building on the basis for his book.

Historians like Holly Hoods, curator of the Healdsburg Museum, said the well-researched book brings the Wild West mining village to life. But Pelanconi said some things still elude him. No photographs of the town are known to exist, and he would love to find a diary, or letters of someone who lived or worked in the ephemeral community.

These days, most of the site and more than 3,000 acres surrounding Pine Flat are owned by Audubon Canyon Ranch, a conservation and environmental education organization that also offers walks oriented toward birding, geology and some history.

The narrow dead-end Pine Flat Road, which starts at Highway 128 near Jimtown, is sparsely traveled, though popular with serious cyclists who enjoy a challenging climb and fast descent. Oaks and grasslands give way to fire-scarred Ponderosa pines and dense chaparral about eight miles up the former wagon road - now paved - where Pine Flat briefly existed.

Video camera views

A motion-activated video camera located a few hundred yards from the county-maintained road that crosses the bygone town testifies to the relative isolation of Pine Flat. It regularly captures images of bears, mountain lions, bob cats, foxes, deer and rabbits.

The bridge that crosses Little Sulphur Creek is close to the center of the disappeared town, which historical accounts said was about one-quarter-mile long and varied from 100 to 300 yards in width.

In the summer of 1874, the Russian River Flag described Pine Flat with a journalistic flourish:

“Lying in the midst of stately oaks and towering pines elevated two thousand feet above the sea and enveloped in a pure cool atmosphere, it is a delightful location. Disease will seldom call there, and death will be an infrequent visitor, unless bad blood and whiskey are allowed to become too intimate.”

On a visit to the forested and overgrown site earlier this month, Pelanconi observed that there were once 60 houses, at least eight saloons, three good-sized hotels, four dry goods and grocery stores, a post office, two meat markets and a couple of livery stables. There also were references to “hurdy gurdy” and “bawdy” houses, or bordellos.

There were no churches or schools, although a small schoolhouse existed briefly a couple decades later.

“You can only speculate it must have been a wild place,” Pelanconi said.

Dave Self, a resource ecologist for Audubon Canyon Ranch, said you have to look hard now to see even scant evidence.

“If you’re paying attention, you can find a few bricks and a depression that looks like part of some habitation,” he said. “I’ve found a few pieces of glass, fragments of plates.”

Quicksilver rush

But in 1872, it was a different story when the price skyrocketed for quicksilver, the mercury found in the reddish deposits of cinnabar around Pine Flat that is used to refine gold and silver ore.

Silver mining in the Comstock Lode of Nevada caused the price to explode, Pelanconi said.

By late 1873, the Russian River Flag reported “the subject of quicksilver mining has become so prominent in this part of the county that the whole region about the geysers has been overrun by prospectors seeking their fortunes in the silvery fluid. Nearly every spot that could be suspected of harboring mercury has been claimed.”

More than 70 claims were filed in the area known as the Cinnabar Mining District, with fanciful names like Fandango, Mohawk, Socrates and Rattlesnake.

There were high-profile lawsuits over possession of the mineral deposits that played out at the Santa Rosa courthouse.

Chinese workers, who came from San Francisco on the railroad that was completed to Cloverdale in 1872, did much of the hard work in the mines, along with Mexican workers. They were paid less than half the typical $3 a day wage for a white miners, Pelanconi learned. Miners also suffered from mercury poisoning known as “salivation,” a condition that causes the gums to pull back from the teeth.

“The usual mix of whiskey, women and cards killed a few men, but the unusual hazards of mining and processing mercury ore killed many more,” wrote Robert G. Evans in his 2005 book “Pine Flat, a Quicksilver Boomtown.”

‘American sector’

The community was segregated, with Chinese living in shacks and tents at one end, Mexicans on the other and whites in the middle, in what was known as the “American sector.”

The Calistoga Free Press mentioned poker games and a Mexican dance house at Pine Flat, “where the pockets of the miners are lightened of their surplus cash, and blood-letting is sometime done for free gratis.”

There were homicides in Pine Flat’s short history. One involved Eadweard Muybridge, a pioneering British photographer who became notorious for killing his wife’s lover. Major Henry Larkins, described as a dashing, suave member of the San Francisco press, was shot at the cabin of a mine superintendent near Pine Flat. Muybridge pleaded temporary insanity and was acquitted.

Winding, steep wagon roads served Pine Flat from Calistoga and Healdsburg, with both towns competing for a commercial link with the mines.

Legendary stage coach driver Clark Foss, who thrilled passengers with his daredevil driving until his stage overturned and killed one of them, was associated with the earlier “Calistoga Road,” or the “Foss & Connelly Toll Road,” running through Knights Valley to the Geysers area, with a stop at Pine Flat. Even before Pine Flat was built, he carried some famous and wealthy passengers to view steam vents, hot springs and fumaroles and stay at the long-gone Geysers Springs Hotel.

Vestiges of the stage route can still be seen on the former Modini property that is now part of the land owned by Audubon Canyon Ranch.

One significant problem for the miners, Pelanconi noted, was getting brick for their furnaces, which they needed to reduce the ore and extract mercury. Hauling thousands of bricks up the mountain was overwhelming, so kilns were built at Pine Flat and clay was obtained close by to produce a brick of relatively good quality.

Teamsters made numerous daily trips up the mountain from Healdsburg via the Geysers Toll Road that began near Cloverdale, hauling supplies and goods. Lumber to build structures came from trees along the Russian River, much of it redwood that was milled near Guerneville by Thomas Heald and George Guerne.

Built road

But to shorten the route to Pine Flat and facilitate commerce with the miners, Healdsburg voters approved a $10,000 bond to build a new, 16-mile road between Healdsburg and Pine Flat.

Construction of Sausal Road, today’s Pine Flat Road, suffered delays, and by the time it was complete in late 1874, Pine Flat was already starting its decline, in tandem with a slowdown in production of silver in Nevada.

By 1879, newspapers were comparing the boarded up mining town to the bustling place that existed just a few short years before:

“Five or six years ago, when this part of the country was all excitement on account of the quicksilver discoveries, Pine Flat was a lively town of three or four thousand inhabitants,” the Healdsburg Enterprise reported.

“Six or eight hundred men were to be seen in the streets, the hotels could not accommodate all who came and business of all kinds was just ‘booming.’ Houses were put up in a day, canvas tents stood upon every available spot, a system of pipes supplied water to the town and a wave of prosperity threatened to swamp everybody with riches.”

By 1880, the buildings were largely abandoned, which drew the interest of folks such as author Robert Louis Stevenson. He was living in San Francisco, recently married and looking for a favorable climate to help fight tuberculosis.

“It was with an eye on one of these places, Pine Flat, on the Geysers road, that we had come to Calistoga,” Stevenson wrote in “The Silverado Squatters,” his chronicle of living in another abandoned mining settlement on the flanks of Mount St. Helena.

“There is something singularly enticing in the idea of going rent free, into a ready-made house.”

He may never have made it to Pine Flat, but it’s just as well. The same year he lived in Silverado, many of Pine Flat’s structures were overrun by fire. Even today, there are ample numbers of burned and singed trees from the widespread 2004 Geysers Fire.

Mercury mining spiked in some of the nearby mines over the years, including during the two World Wars, but it would never be like those long gone “Days of ‘74.”

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.

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