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.”
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.