Donn Harter wants to see a beach at Rainbow Pool on the South Fork Tuolumne River restored to the way it was when he was a child growing up nearby in the 1930s and 1940s.
He’s 87 and he was raised on the old Colfax Springs Ranch on Big Oak Flat Road, before it became known as Highway 120.
The place known today as Rainbow Pool was called Cliff House Pool, for businesses that used to be right next to the popular swimming hole. He worked as a bellhop when actors Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman stayed at the hotel while filming “For Whom the Bell Tolls” in the early 1940s.
Today Harter says he wants to see the Forest Service and other authorities approve removal of an old diversion wall put in many decades ago to protect Big Old Flat Road. He says the diversion wall has altered what used to be a sandy beach, which is now all rocks.
“The diversion wall is not necessary because they reinforced the old road,” Harter said Monday, after meeting with a Forest Service hydrologist at Rainbow Pool. “All I’m saying is restore it to what it was naturally. They altered it to protect a manmade structure and they don’t need it anymore.”
Harter lives up in Fish Camp now, above 5,000 feet elevation, and he does winter road maintenance and plowing to keep the roads clear in that part of Mariposa County. He said he visits the family place at Rainbow Pool and Colfax Springs Ranch once a week.
Cliff House Pool
Back when Harter was a boy, he said Tuolumne County used to plow Big Oak Flat Road up to Colfax Springs Ranch each winter and stop right there, just over 3,000 feet elevation. The 32 miles to Yosemite would remain closed all winter. He said he’d walk three miles west to get to school in Buck Meadows each day, and sometimes the snow would get up to 3 feet deep.
“We were snowed in for a time in 1938,” Harter said. “We had to eat chicken feed and scratch from the barrel for three weeks.”
The family ranch was less than a mile from Cliff House Pool, and he said he enjoyed the sandy beach that is now a rock pile. The sandy beach was a great place to spread towels for sunning.
Back then the pool was famous as one of the largest natural swimming and diving pools in the Mother Lode, and thousands used to come to swim and sunbathe. The diversion wall was built in the late 1940s to try to prevent erosion of the old road, and then a retaining wall was put in later, probably in the 1950s.
Consequently, Harter says, the diversion wall is no longer needed and its removal will restore the natural flow of water and restore the natural sandy beach that used to be there.
Jim Phillips, 88, who lives in Groveland and Sacramento, said Monday he remembers old Cliff House Pool in the 1930s. Phillips said his grandmother was born in Groveland in 1854 and his father played on Sonora High School’s first football team in 1921.
“The first time I went by the pool was on the way to a family resort called Carl Inn on the South Fork of the Tuolumne River right near Evergreen Road,” Phillips said. “I remember the 4th of July 1939. We swam at the pool. There was a cliff house. I was nine years old then. There was a hotel there with a ballroom and kitchen. The Old Mine Cocktail Cavern, that was there too.”
Phillips, who is on the board of directors for the Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society, said he wasn’t familiar with the diversion wall issue at today’s Rainbow Pool, but he has fond memories of the old Cliff House Pool.
Cliff Lodge burns
Harter has put together a timeline to explain the story at Cliff House Pool and the old Cliff House Lodge. He starts with 1868, when the Big Oak Flat wagon trail was extended from Elwell’s to Hardin Flat.
At that time the South Fork Tuolumne River was forded but impassable in winter. In 1870, the Lumsden brothers, James and David, built a covered bridge over the South Fork.
In 1894, a newspaper publisher named John Cox came from San Francisco to the Mother Lode, discovered the Big Oak Flat Road crossing at the South Fork, and promptly built a little house on the granite boulder to the right of the falls.
Cox set up a tollgate, which he operated until the state took over in 1915. In 1924, Nellie Bartlett and her brother, Tug Wilson, leased the property and added to the cabin, a room at a time. This was the beginning of the lodge called Falls Inn, later renamed Cliff House.
In 1931, the covered bridge was replaced with a sturdy wood timber bridge, and in 1934, the first Cliff House was destroyed by flood waters. The Bartletts rebuilt and opened a two-story structure in 1935. Swimmers would climb to the roof and dive off into Cliff House Pool nearly
50 feet below, Harter says. The place was destroyed by fire in 1939 and another one-story lodge was built in 1940.
Bartlett and Wilson brought in a young couple, Ralph and Ada Baldwin, as partners to help manage the business, open 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily for early fishermen and late night bar customers. Saturday night dances were popular at the Cliff House.
The owners added more motel units in the canyon 100 yards west of the lodge, and that’s where Cooper and Bergman stayed when they were filming part of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” in Jawbone Canyon.
“I was bell hopping at the time and carried Cooper’s luggage to his room,” Harter says in his history of Cliff House. “I wasn’t impressed with who they were until the movie was released and then I fell in love with Ingrid!”
The film, released in 1943, was based on the 1940 novel by Ernest Hemingway. According to film historians, other production locations in Tuolumne County included Kennedy Meadows, Relief Canyon and Sonora Pass. Filming took place from July to October 1942.
At Cliff House Pool, the Old Mine Cocktail Cavern was a favorite watering hole for years, at a time when it was illegal to play slot machines, but it was OK to own them. People would play slots until early word arrived of approaching deputies, and everyone would turn the slot machines against the walls. No one was playing when the law arrived.
A postcard dated 1947 shows a hand-painted wood sign inside the Old Mine Cocktail Cavern for the “Big Oak Flat and Yosemite Turn Pike Road Co.” with old rates of toll and main offices located at Priests Hotel in Big Oak Flat. The sign hangs above bottles of liquor and a heavy-duty, late 19th century cash register.
Cliff House Lodge burned for the last time in 1958, and the Forest Service discontinued
leasing the property, Harter says. Today the place is known as Rainbow Pool Day Use Area and it’s still enjoyed by thousands of rock jumpers, divers, swimmers and sunbathers each summer.
Zach Croyle, a hydrologist with Stanislaus National Forest who visited Rainbow Pool on Monday with Harter, said Monday afternoon he could not talk about it because he’s not authorized to. Jim Junette, the Groveland district ranger, said he’s aware of Harter’s concerns and he had staff visit Rainbow Pool last year in addition to this week.
“We're looking at it again,” Junette said Monday. “Before we make a public opinion we gotta look at it more. We want Fish and Game to look at it. When you try to do something in the stream channel you have to get permits. It's nothing we have the money for right now. It’s not a priority for us.”
John Gray, 69, the Tuolumne County supervisor for District 4 that includes Groveland, Big Oak Flat and Rainbow Pool Day Use Area, said Monday he knows the situation and he, too, has fond memories of the old Cliff House Pool.
“My earliest memory of that place is when I was 5 or 6 years old,” Gray said.
He said his mother worked at the Cliff House restaurant in the late 50s.
Gray said he went fishing there with his dad when he was 7 years old. He said he doesn’t remember when the last Cliff House burned but he used to spend days jumping off that rock and diving into the pool.
Gray said he’s talked with Harter and he’s recommended bringing experts in, including hydrologists and Fish and Game biologists. He’s OK with taking the diversion wall out if it causes no problems.
“My point of view is knowing where it’s at, I would be concerned to see if taking that wall out would cause washing out around that rock,” Gray said. “Harter’s older than me and he says he remembers before that wall. But it’s been there so many years, I assume it was put in to reduce washing around that rock.”
Gray said he believes it’s important to get perspective from hydrologists and engineers, and if taking the diversion wall out is going to cause bank erosion or other problems, that may not work out.
“If it won’t cause problems I’m OK with it,” Gray said. “Blow it up. But let’s leave it to the experts. That makes sense to me.”
Contact Guy McCarthy at email@example.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.