Four horses in blinders stand harnessed to the spoke-wheeled stagecoach behind them. Two people, one with a wide-brim hat, appear to be seated in the driver’s box and the shotgun seat, and two other people behind the stagecoach are bending to tend to lines attached to the ferry, which the stagecoach stands on for the moment.
The old photo shows how people used to get around in the Mother Lode more than a century ago. It offers a glimpse of everyday life that may predate the temporary domination of steam-driven locomotives, and the advent of gasoline-powered automobiles.
It also presents a monochrome mystery, because no one knows for sure when and where it was taken, or who took it. A long-time Union Democrat reader who asked to remain anonymous brought the photo to the newspaper last week. She said she wasn’t sure where she found it. She said she’s a “junker” and she goes to a lot of flea markets and occasional estate sales. She came across the relic in the course her collecting and she wanted to share it.
Billie Lyons with the Tuolumne County Historical Society said she believes the photo shows a scene at Robinsons Ferry, the earliest name for what became known as the town of Melones deep in the Stanislaus River Canyon. Melones is now about a hundred feet underwater, next to the old course of the Stanislaus River, near the bottom of New Melones Reservoir.
Melones is still there and its flooded remains emerge during times of drought and low water in the reservoir, including July 2015. The remains of Melones are within sight of the Highway 49-Stevenot Bridge. They are not to be confused with Old Parrotts Ferry and the Old Parrotts Ferry Bridge, further upstream in the easternmost reaches of New Melones Reservoir.
The site of Robinsons Ferry and Melones was first occupied by Me-Wuk Indians about 500 years ago, according to the federal Bureau of Reclamation that manages New Melones.
Need for transport
The area known as Melones was already a focal point for incoming Gold Rush miners when John W. Robinson and Stephen Mead established their ferry in 1848, to get people and horses and wagons back and forth across the Stanislaus River. This was before the creation of Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, and before California statehood, which all came to be in 1850.
Some accounts say local Native Americans trained in mining techniques by pioneer speculators made the first major discoveries of gold in the Melones area. According to historian Carlo M. De Ferrari, the Indians found gold nuggets in the river channel and in nearby ravines, nuggets described as large and plentiful enough to bring many miners to what they called the Southern Mines.
Gravel deposits in water courses were uprooted for gold, and pieces of the precious metal were found daily, weighing as little as a fraction of an ounce and as much as one that weighed 14 pounds. The main mining camp was called Melones, perhaps for the name Mexican miners gave to melon seed-shaped nuggets they found, or perhaps for Robinson’s brother-in-law, pioneer barkeeper and trader John Melone.
About a mile upstream from Robinsons Ferry in early 1849, an Englishman from Hawaii named George McLean put in another ferry that became known for a time as the “Upper Ferry” because it was said to be the highest-elevation crossing of the Stanislaus River at the time.
According to De Ferrari, proprietors of the two ferries competed bitterly for several years, until they united under single ownership and all traffic was diverted to Robinsons Ferry.
Lyons compared the old photo Wednesday to others she has access to in the Tuolumne County Historical Society archives and she said it appears to show a scene from 1885 to 1890.
The ferry proved vital for trade and commerce through the Gold Rush and helped ensure the town of Robinsons Ferry outlasted the gold fever. In the late 19th century, hard rock mining of gold on nearby Carson Hill made the town a center of commerce for several mining companies, including Melones Mining Company, and the name of the town was changed to Melones in 1902.
Then came dams
Construction in 1926 of the first Melones Dam brought the edge of the new reservoir to the outskirts of the town of Melones. Mine workers remained the majority of the town's population until the mines closed in 1942. Ranching, a public campground, and a gas station operated into the 1970s, until New Melones Dam was completed in 1978 and the Stanislaus River filled the reservoir and drowned the town in the early 1980s.
"The new lake with its many benefits was not without its human tragedy," George Spelvin wrote for the first edition of "New Melones Lake," published in 1988. "The residents of Melones were displaced." Among them were the Pendola family, whose forebears had occupied a family ranch on the north side of town since Lorenzo Pendola arrived in the area in 1852.
Manny Marshall, a former locomotive engineer in Tuolumne County, born in 1902 near Angels Camp, recalled in his memoir “Sugar Pine Memories” that his father was born in Murphys in 1852 and his mother was born at Robinsons Ferry in 1862.
Robinsons Ferry and Melones are still down there underwater at an elevation of 955 feet. The surface of New Melones as of Wednesday was a quarter-inch under 1,055 feet.
Contact Guy McCarthy at email@example.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.