One of the charms of small-town life is sharing stories about the town’s history and culture.
Such stories often start in one part of town and wander over to another before they’re finished. And there is often more than one version of the same story.
“As kids, we were always running up and down it,” said Eileen Davis during her early morning Curves workout.
The Chicken Ladder is a long wooden walkway, stretching up a street now named Hardscrabble, from Bush Street at the bottom to Mark Twain Street at the top.
The wooden walkway has raised slats every few inches (like the bird walkway into a chicken coop), so that pedestrians can use the slats for traction to keep from slipping and falling on the steep, 8 percent grade.
First built in 1888, the Chicken Ladder was rebuilt about 25 years ago, and again about six years ago.
The Chicken Ladder is the place that some neighborhood girls (and boys) experienced their first kiss.
Donna Griffin thinks of the Chicken Ladder as the place where her son first wrecked his truck.
But for local businessmen Tad Follendorf and Dick Wilmshurst, talk of the Chicken Ladder quickly led to talking about the day the Hells Angels motorcycle gang took over the town.
Tad says it all started when the American Motorcyclist Association held a gathering at Frogtown and wouldn’t let the Hells Angels in. So the Angels got miffed and took over downtown.
Dick says that’s not how it was at all. He says the Hells Angels were part of the Frogtown gathering but they “killed a couple of people” and that’s why they got kicked out.
In any event, both men agree that for one very long day in June 1957 the Hells Angels took over downtown Angels Camp and the Chicken Ladder street.
There were several bars in town at the time.
“The Pioneer Bar on the corner and the Sierra Club bar was right where the gallery is today. Where the Pickle Barrel is was a smoke shop and bar, and there were more,” Tad said. “In those days we had a constable in charge of this district. Jinger Costa was the constable and he had a key to the Pioneer Club. He went in there and the Hells Angels followed him and took his gun.”
Faye Fletcher, a young wife and mother living near the Chicken Ladder at the time, watched the motorcycle riders with growing concern.
“There were streams of them going up and down Main Street. They’d turn at the thrift store end and come back. Driving up and down the street all day long. And they were drinking. And the drunker they got, the wilder they got,” she said. “It was pretty hairy.”
Faye said the Hells Angels had girlfriends on the back of their bikes. “They were doing capers on their motorcycles. Standing up. Things like that.”
Tad remembers the guys setting up beer cans down Main Street and weaving their bikes in and out at top speed.
“And they zoomed up and down the Chicken Ladder road,” he said. “They’d put their girlfriends on their shoulders and zoom up or down. I was about 13 and was well entertained that day, even though my dad didn’t want me anywhere near that stuff.”
Dick Wilmshurst, who is about 10 years older than Tad, said Costa called in the CHP and eventually cops inundated the town.
“I took a bunch of pictures of the Angels in town and sold them to the United Press,” he said. “That was quite a deal. It went on for about 12 hours. The whole main street, both sides of it were full of motorcycles. Not a car anywhere. They kicked the cops out of town. But then the police called in reinforcements from other areas and cops came from everywhere.”
Dick had a tow truck business, “and the police told us to tow about 40 or 60 bikes. We stored them until the owners (Hells Angels) came and bailed them out.”
Faye said police came from Stockton and other Valley cities.
“It was unsettling,” she said. “Roaring constantly all day. Up and down the street.”
Once the CHP and other law enforcement officers descended on Angels Camp, things settled down.
Tad and Dick say the spectacle was written up in The Saturday Evening Post, in Time magazine and some other national publications.
According to Dick, the Hells Angels visited Angels Camp more than once and they also took over other towns in other places.
But for Angels Camp, the day Hells Angels roared up and down Main Street and up and down the Chicken Ladder was a day to remember.