The History of Dutch Flat: A Sketch

by Russell Towle.

Once the largest town in Placer County, Dutch Flat is now a peaceful village, with Victorian houses nestled amidst the tall pines. It has a richly brocaded history, only faintly suggested by the rugged old stone store on Main street, or the tall spire o f its Methodist church. In fact, the deeds done in Dutch Flat in days gone by were highly significant to the development of the United States generally, and California in particular: for it was here that the old dream of a railroad linking Atlantic to P acific was finally nurtured into reality; and it was a wagon road from Dutch Flat to Virginia City that blazed the trail across the Sierra followed today by mighty Interstate Highway 80.

The geology of Placer county is a crucial part of the story.

The slate, serpentine, and granite bedrock of the ancestral Sierra had been thrust up, and gradually worn down into low, rolling hills, covered with tropical vegetation. Among the low hills meandered sluggish rivers, choked with the detritus of millions of years of erosion. In these deep beds of river gravel was gold, worn from the quartz veins which laced through the bedrock. This ancient landscape was then buried by volcanic ash and mudflow, which filled the old valleys up completely, and left but a few of the higher ridges exposed.

A few million years ago, the eruptions ceased, and the entire Sierra Nevada began tilting up like a trap door, hinged beneath California's Central Valley. This imparted a fresh gradient to the volcanic plateau, and canyons cut swiftly through this volca nic veneer and hundreds, even thousands of feet into the old bedrock below. Where these new canyons cut through the old river valleys, the gold was re-concentrated in the new rivers. Hence the Gold Rush; and it was found, as early as 1849, that as one w orked one's way up the canyons, above a certain point, the gold petered out. Within a few years the existence of the ancient river channels, left high and dry on the divides between canyons, was well known; and a new form of 'hydraulic' mining was devise d to work these old gravels.

It should be emphasized that today's canyons expose the bedrock, the old bedrock land surface, the ancient river gravels, the volcanic ash layers, and the volcanic mudflow layers in cross section, throughout the northern Sierra. In fact, the flat ridge- tops in this part of the Sierra are actually remnants of the volcanic plateau; the Forest Hill Divide is the largest such remnant left.

Hydraulic mining involved the use of great quantities of water, under pressure, used to blast apart the banks of ancient gravel, and send a muddy slurry of boulders, sand, clay and gold roaring through sluice boxes, which trapped the gold. A sluice box was a wooden trough, typically four feet wide and deep, but often over a thousand feet long; along the bottom of the sluice 'riffles' and other obstructions were placed, where the heavy gold could find a lodging.

The water was brought out of the major canyons, from a distance of ten or twenty miles, or more, in long ditches. Several major ditches brought water to the hydraulic mines at Dutch Flat, from the Bear, North Fork of the American, and Yuba rivers. From the ditches, the water fell through large iron pipes into devices resembling cannons called 'monitors' or 'giants.' Tons of gold were extracted from the ancient gravels before the courts brought hydraulic mining to a halt in 1884, in California's first environmental court case.

Dutch Flat itself is perched beside an old river channel on the divide between the Bear and North Fork of the American rivers; this ridge was once known as the Dutch Flat Divide. Students of California history will recall that on the Donner Trail, the p ioneers lowered their wagons by ropes into Bear Valley, from Emigrant Gap; few realize, however, that a branch from the Donner Trail avoided this awkward descent, and simply kept to the ridge. This branch of the trail followed the Dutch Flat Divide west from Emigrant Gap, by way of Lost Camp, Alta, Dutch Flat, Gold Run, Illinoistown, and Auburn, to Sacramento itself, and was in use in 1849.

Dutch Flat itself did not come into existence until 1851, when two German brothers, Joseph and Charles Dornbach, drove their wagons down the Old Emigrant Road. They found a sunny hollow, just above one of the richest reaches of Bear river, and set their stakes. Below the Divide to the south was the busy mining camp of Green Valley, just upstream from Giant Gap in the mighty canyon of the North Fork of the American river, where 2,000 men were at work when the Dornbachs arrived. Across the Bear in Nevad a county was another camp, Little York, and just west, the trading post at Cold Springs (later known as Gold Run). All these camps were supplied by mule train from Illinoistown, near today's Colfax. The muleskinners referred to the Dornbach's camp as 'D utch Charlie's Flat,' and thus the town was named.

Large numbers of Chinese immigrants were at work in the canyons below, and as the importance of the high gravels at Dutch Flat and Gold Run were recognized, and the old claims along the rivers were worked out, the Chinese formed a part of the migration f rom the canyons to Dutch Flat. Dutch Flat's Chinatown began in the 1850s, and by the late 1860s, when the railroad was under construction, it was one of the largest settlements of Chinese outside of San Francisco. In 1877 Old Chinatown burned down, and the settlement relocated south of town, near the Dutch Flat Depot on the Central Pacific Railroad. The last Chinese resident left Dutch Flat in the late 1930s, but, over a long period of time, Dutch Flat had the largest Chinese community in the foothills , replete with Joss houses, tong headquarters, general merchandise stores, gambling halls, brothels, opium dens, restaurants, pharmacists, laundries, and so on. Chinese New Year was celebrated with especial splendor and fanfare at Dutch Flat, attracting crowds of visitors from surrounding towns.

The Chinese were known for their capacity for sustained hard work, and had more than a little to do with the construction of the ditches which led water to Dutch Flat, along with the two wagon roads from Dutch Flat to Virginia City, Nevada, and of course , it was the Chinese who built the Pacific Railroad.

In 1859 Dr. Daniel Strong of Dutch Flat invited railroad surveyor Theodore Judah to come and evaluate a possible route across the Sierra. One of the first large mining ditches to reach Dutch Flat had, in effect, demonstrated the existence of easy grades up to Emigrant Gap; from there, the line of the old Donner Trail across the Sierra was also such that a railroad could be built. Judah recognized the value of the proposed route, and at last the Pacific Railroad, proposed decades before, became a realit y. The first shares in the new venture were subscribed in Dutch Flat.

The many dozens of mining claims which divide the old channel gravels beside Dutch Flat and Gold Run made for a thriving economy, until the courts brought it all crashing down in 1884. However, Dutch Flat could rely on more than just gold for its liveli hood; the Towle Brothers Lumber Co. was among the largest in the state, owning over 20,000 acres of land, with a narrow-gauge railroad 38 miles long, and employing a workforce of around 200 men, including fifty Chinese.

Dutch Flat was a kind of New England village set into the tall pines of the Sierra Nevada; it hewed to a higher grade than the ordinary mountain town, and imagined itself, at least, the Athens of the foothills. It could boast of excellent musicians, an Opera House where Mark Twain lectured, a thriving amateur dramatical society and debating society, and some of the prettiest, most mythically beautiful scenery in California. It celebrated 4th of July and Chinese New Year with unusual vigor, and during i ts glory years, inspired residents to cherish memories more precious than gold. There had been no place quite like Dutch Flat before, and there would never be one again. For more information, see The Dutch Flat Chronicles, by R ussell Towle, available at Seva Books in Auburn, the Literate Raven and the Armchair Coyote in Colfax, the Coyote Girl's Den and the Dutch Flat General Store in Dutch Flat.

The Dutch Flat Chroniclesis a portrait of Dutch Flat from 1849 to 1906, composed of almost 1,000 different newspaper articles, short stories, diary fragments, and poems. These were collected from Dutch Flat's three nineteenth-ce ntury newspapers, and many other sources.

[Cover, The DF Chronicles]
Giant Gap, North Fork of the American River

Selections From The Dutch Flat Chronicles

Email: Russell Towle (

Page created: November 3, 1995
Last modified: November 4, 1995