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Chapter 3 -- History of the Smith River Watershed (continued)

Arrival of European Americans

Spanish sailors explored the coast of northern California in the 1700's, but there is no record that they landed. Several nations including Russia engaged in a fur trade with coastal native peoples which reached a peak about 1800 and declined by the 1840s (California Department of Water Resources 1965). On about June 18, 1828, Jedediah Smith and his expedition arrived at the river that now bears his name. They crossed "below Peacock Crossing" and traveled up a ridge and camped somewhere near the head of Myrtle Creek. They were probably the first white men to explore the area by land. Grizzly bears were a common hazard in the region.

Shortly after the discovery of gold at Sutters Mill in the Sierra, gold strikes were also made near Happy Camp, Yreka, and the Trinity Mountains. In the spring of 1849, thousands were traveling to these gold fields. This brought the first rush of development to the Smith River area. Crescent City emerged as a supply point for the mining camps around Happy Camp, Yreka, and Southern Oregon. Then, in 1851, gold was discovered at several locations in the Smith River watershed including Myrtle Creek, Haines Flat, and French Hill. By 1852, gold mining was booming and hundreds of mining claims were staked. Mining camps sprang up chaotically, disregarding all considerations except access to mining operations (Keter 1995).

During the 1850s, homesteads and farms were established on the coastal plain and most flat areas including Big Flat, Gasquet Flat, and Hiouchi. In 1858 the Cold Springs Trail was opened into southern Oregon. It followed the Smith River upstream, crossed the North Fork Smith, and proceeded up Elk Camp Ridge to the northeast. The trail continued to the Illinois River valley, "Sailor’s Diggings", and Jacksonville, Oregon. In 1858, the Kelsey Trail, was constructed from Big Flat on the South Fork over the Siskiyou Mountains to Happy Camp on the Klamath River. Beginning in the 1850s, commercial hunters supplied game to the mining camps and hotels. This led to large decreases in populations of wild game for about ten to fifteen years until mining receded in importance.

In 1858, new gold fields were discovered on the Fraser River in British Columbia, and many miners left the Smith River basin for the new strikes. As placer gold deposits in the Smith River system were running out in 1860, copper ore was discovered in serpentine areas. Copper mining was soon booming, and mines were established in serpentine areas of the basin including Hardscrabble Creek. Copper was in demand for manufacturing ammunition shells during the Civil War. At the end of the war in 1865, copper mining declined rapidly.

At about the same time, another important mineral was discovered in the serpentine areas: chromite, the source of the metal chromium. Chromite mines were established in the North Fork area, including High Divide near Hardscrabble Creek, Low Divide, and High Plateau. Mining of chromite fluctuated with international markets and politics (Keter 1995). In 1894, chromite mines were shut down due to changes in tariffs. Smaller deposits of platinum, silver, and mercury were also mined (California Department of Water Resources 1965).

After about 1865, hydraulic mining became the most widespread technique for extracting gold. Entire stream terraces were eroded to bedrock, adding large volumes of sediments to the streams. Hydraulic mining required diversion of stream water into ditches and flumes. Water diversions for hydraulic mining sometimes completely depleted stream channels for long periods.

As gold mining declined overall, it persisted in some areas, especially near Big Flat. At the mouth of Hurdygurdy Creek, mining continued into the 1890s. After a landslide destroyed the main water supply ditch, mining in the area became limited and sporadic.

Lumber was exported from Crescent City as early as 1859 (California Resources Agency 1965). In 1872, large-scale logging began in coastal areas. The Timber and Stone Act of 1878 allowed timber interests to acquire large tracts of productive forests in the Smith River area and throughout the Pacific Northwest (Dana 1956). In 1889, 11.5 million board feet of lumber were exported from Crescent City. A railroad was built to carry lumber from Smith River to the wharves of Crescent City.

In addition to logging, other activities also influenced the lower Smith River and surrounding areas. In the 1860s, a cannery was established near the mouth of the Smith River. Many areas were cleared for agriculture and, by 1880, dairy farming was the primary agricultural activity in the area. Levees were constructed although the dates of construction have not been determined. Apparently woody debris jams were removed from the Smith River estuary and sloughs.

In 1904, a hard rock gold mine and the town of Monumental were established about two miles from the top of Shelly Creek. However, Monumental Mining Company went bankrupt following the destruction of their offices in San Francisco by the earthquake and fire of 1906.

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