The Dardanelle Resort was ice cream on the green adirondack chairs that lined the front of the general store and restaurant.
It was trout fishing on the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River. It was the homestead of Tuolumne County's oldest pioneers. It was where couples fell in love.
For Laurelin Lewis and her husband, Jim, the Dardanelle Resort was all these memories and more. Growing up in Tuolumne County, and over the past decade with their three children, Sierra, 10; Hank, 8; and Willie, 1; it was a summer tradition to recreate in the high-country mountains outside Sonora Pass.
Each trip, while they all rested out front of the resort, Laurelin and Jim nursed a desire to steward the property. In May, their wish came true, and they purchased the 12-acre resort for $750,000 from the people who had owned it for 15 years.
On Sunday, their dream — like the 11,344 acres of Stanislaus National Forest ravaged by the Donnell Fire — burned to the ground.
“I’ve just pictured the building like I always pictured it so anything beyond that is incomprehensible at this point,” Laurelin Lewis, 40, said on Tuesday from the family’s home in Sonoma County.
“It’s heartbreaking. All of the potential that we felt like we had there and the future we felt like we had there, that was completely destroyed,” she said.
On Saturday at about 2 p.m., forest rangers were at the resort with Laurelin and Jim when a call came over the radio. The Donnell Fire had roared across Highway 108, burning through two-story brush and mixed conifer forest of pines, fir and cedar trees.
Torrents of smoke choked the horizon. The highway was to be shut down and a mandatory evacuation of more than 100 lodgers and guests at the Dardanelle Resort was imminent.
Lodgers inside the four-room hotel, six single-story cabins, an employee cabin, in about 20 recreational vehicles parked at the campsite, and inside the store were directed away from the oncoming blaze.
Laurelin Lewis drove away in her already-packed car with her 10-year-old daughter, 8-year-old son, 1.5-year-old son, two miniature schnauzers and a pet ball python.
Her husband Jim, the resort bartender, her father and her brother were escorted off the property by U.S. Forest Service officials the next day.
They all left with the hope that the Dardanelle Resort would be spared, she said, but they each harbored desperation that it would be the last time they would see the property standing.
“It feels like when someone you love is in critical condition and you just don't know. No one was going to sleep that night,” she said.
Despite news reports which showed orange flames licking at the outskirts of the resort, they resisted speculation about its survival.
But on Monday morning her husband, staying with family in Calaveras County, sent her current photographs of the charred, skeletal aftermath. Laurelin sat down with her children to show them the photos. None of them could completely comprehend what had happened, she said, but they all wept.
“We felt the loss of the incredible connection to the mountain and to the community. Now it’s in limbo,” she said.
None of the family has returned since the evacuation.
“It's too soon to tell. We aren't sure of the risks of going in there either,” she said. “We’re kind of at a ‘wait and see point.’ As anxious as we are in our own interests, we’re equally as anxious about the surrounding area.”
“It’s completely burned down,” United States Forest Service spokesperson Maria Benech said on Tuesday of the main 1,000 square-foot general store, restaurant and bar at the Dardanelle Resort.
Forest service crews visited the Dardanelle Resort and the surrounding area on Tuesday to account for the total property and structure damage, she said, and determined 15 structures were destroyed across the Stanislaus National Forest.
“We’re moving through these areas so we can contact the permittees and the owners as quickly as possible. But the resort is not standing,” she said.
The 15 structures included the Dardanelle Resort, she said, but she was not sure how many other structures were still standing there. Fire crews reported lingering smoke and a smoldering log still at the site, though there was no active fire.
Everything once wooded and green was now the color of smoke and ash.
Piles of concrete rubble and warped metal remained, but the iconic Dardanelle Resort gas pump — one diesel station and one gas station — survived. A wooden sign advertising the resort was largely unburned beside the road.
Even some structures, including the four-unit hotel and one of the RV restrooms were still standing. But “everything else is gone,” said Laurelin Lewis, after speaking to forest officials Tuesday afternoon.
Laurelin Lewis said that the business had fire insurance for the property, but a full accounting for the damage could not be done until she visited the site.
“We are resigned to the fact that there was damage beyond repair,” she said.
An untold history
Fire had not roared through the Dardanelle Resort since construction began in 1923, said Tuolumne historian Cate Culver, author of the in-progress book, “The Untold History of Sonora Pass and its People — 1860 to 1960.”
Culver, 72, said she remembers a time just after her parents purchased a cabin in the Bone Springs summer tract a half-mile from the resort in 1944.
With dead fir trees and vegetation understory after years of drought, she said, the threat of fire loomed larger than ever before.
“I kind of prepared myself that this could happen on my watch here. I’m just heartbroken that all this has been lost, but now that I’ve written all this history will anybody care now that it’s gone?” she said.
At times that history was charming, but the story of the Dardanelle Resort could also be volatile, she said.
A permit was issued to J.D. Bucknam in 1921 by the United States Forest Service, and in 1923 construction began on the main restaurant and store, as well as a small cabin where he lived. As many as 14 rental cabins once stood on the site, as well as the original motel building, a post office, a corral, and stables, for pack rides to Eagle Meadows, she said.
Everything was built around the central structure, which was finished by 1926, Culver said.
Bucknam hosted a grand party in 1926 to celebrate the installation of the wooden floor, which he advertised throughout Tuolumne County and at the surrounding campgrounds.
Bars of soap were rubbed on the new wood so people could dance. The party was a great success, Culver said, until it rained and the entire main building filled with suds.
The party didn’t last long. After the Great Depression, World War II, and the corresponding rationing of gasoline and other resources, business at the Dardanelle Resort declined significantly.
Bucknam sold the property in 1948 to Hobart McCullough, who may have been known as a cowboy, Culver said.
Business never seemed to recover. Around 1951, McCullough accused Forest Ranger John Spicer of diverting business to nearby Kennedy Meadows. The argument in the stables of the Dardanelle Resort soon turned to blows. Retreating from the fight to his cabin, McCullough found a knife and returned.
“He threw a knife on the floor to Spicer and said, ‘pick it up,’” Culver said.
Spicer was slashed across the eye and on his forearm in the skirmish, and won out over McCollough in a subsequent court case. Bankrupt and unable to pay his legal fees, McCollough transferred ownership to his lawyer, Wade Coffill, a member of the family that settled in Sonora during the Gold Rush era.
But much of the untold history of the Dardanelle Resort was written in the trees and the green adirondack chairs that lined the main building, Culver said, as transcriptions and initials.
“Many of the cabins that burned, these cabins did not change hands. They were passed down through the generations.”
Cindy Benedix-Fleischer’s family could track their own history in the area back 95 years, when her grandfather and his brothers — known as the Benedix Brothers — built one of the first cabins in the Brightman summer tract.
Her family cabin was one of many structures surrounding the resort that was destroyed.
“This mountain didn't go away. It can’t take our memories away. As long as we all got out safe and nobody got hurt, nobody got killed, our memories are there forever,” she said.
Benedix-Fleischer, 59, remembered a strict regimen of getting up at dawn and her friends entertaining themselves with fly fishing on the river or running around the meadow. While the adults spoke at the bar, the kids haunted the resort swing set, she said. Dinner was always at about 6 p.m., and once night fell, the generator went off and the entire family went to bed whether they were tired or not.
“We entertained ourselves. It was just a different way we just grew up there,” she said.
Ice cream on the Dardanelle Resort porch as a child and hikes in the wilderness eventually prospered into a profession, when Benedix-Fleischer and her husband purchased the Dardanelle Resort in 2003 from the previous owners of 25 years.
“We knew the resort from visiting from so many years before. The resort was never perfect because it was such a rustic resort. It was never perfect but it was loved by so many people,” she said.
In the 15 years before the couple sold to the Lewis family, her son met his future fiance there. The couple planned to wed at the Dardanelle Resort on Oct. 6, but now the wedding may be postponed, she said.
Family and community would always be intertwined with the Dardanelle Resort, she said. Just after the sale closed, she found out that she and Jim Lewis were third cousins.
“At the Dardanelle Resort, families met families and two families became one family. The whole mountain, in one way or the other, is related. If we’re not related by blood the mountain has joined you as a family.”
Will the Dardanelle Resort return?
The outpouring of financial contributions and dedications of assistance have been substantial since the destruction of the Dardanelle Resort.
“We hope that we can work with the Forest Service to rebuild. There's so many aspects of the property that stand out for people.” Laureline Lewis said. “We want to keep the tradition. That's what we love and that's what we started our journey with. But we don't know what we can do.”
She said she was not sure that the natural beauty of the landscape could be salvaged from soot and debris.
What motivated her to rebuild, she said, was to carry on a Tuolumne County tradition through the eyes of her children.
“They see the pictures and they see the loss. But for them the place still exists. The mountains still exist, the creek that they play in still exists. So they're holding onto that,” she said.
Benech said the Forest Service has not considerated the rebuilding process in the midst of the firefight.
That would come later, she said, and the Forest Service would work with permittees on a complete evaluation process.
“The bottom line is, if a cabin has burned down we have to go through a process of analysis to determine if it’s safe and appropriate to build a cabin in that location,” she said.
Laurelin Lewis commended the work of firefighters, the Forest Service, and the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office for their diligent communication and support.
There was no doubt that she and her family would return, she said.
And once the smoke cleared, the Lewis family expects to have an entire community of like-minded residents and recreators in the wake, Benedix-Fleischer said.
“I think people need to know that we’ll see you on the mountain. It might not be today, it might not be tomorrow, but we will be back.”