From the Depths: Pioneer spirit

Mormon Island company played vital role in supplying region’s water
By: Don Chaddock, The Telegraph
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The remains of a 155-year-old water delivery system are emerging from the murky waters of Folsom Lake and for some former residents the old canals and ditches are bringing back memories. In 1851, Amos P. Catlin and a few others organized a loose association of mining companies to supply water to the miners, wineries and ranches springing up along the banks of the South Fork of the American River, according to materials supplied by the Folsom History Museum. By 1853, the Natoma Company had constructed 16 miles of canals and ditches to divert water from the river, particularly from upriver at the Salmon Falls area, and carry it to Mormon Island and Prairie City. A year later, their canals had reached Negro Bar. Some of these same canals and ditches can now be seen as Folsom Lake’s level continues to drop. Jim Davies, 75, who resided beside the Natoma Ditch at Red Bank while growing up, said the ditch was used as a water supply even as late as the 1940s. The ditch is sometimes referred to as the Natomas Ditch because of the ever-changing name of the company that owned and operated it. “Every one who lived near the ditch used it for bathing,” he said. “It was common to see a bar of soap lying on the ditch bank.” By that time, Mormon Island and the surrounding ranches, including Red Bank, had become a “community of small farms,” Davies recalled. “It was more like a village, really.” Davies now calls Galt home, but he often returns to the area. His sister, Myrna Brown, 69, now resides in Sunnyvale, but she also has fond memories of the ditch. “I don’t think I knew until later that (the ditch) was the Folsom drinking water,” she said in a phone interview with the Telegraph. “We learned to swim in it. It had pretty steep banks and it had a swift current. When I was allowed to get in, I was about 6. It was always exciting when we would get to go into the ditch during the summer and go swimming. The ditch was behind our house.” Brown said that for local kids, the ditch was also a means of transportation. “My grandparents lived further down the ditch, about a mile, and we would sometimes take inner tubes and float down to their house,” she said. Brown said her brother, Jim, learned the history of the ditches, canals and flumes and acts as the family historian. “I remember the flumes,” she said. “Some of them were built of wood and were really up high. My brothers were the explorers and they really explored and got to know that area.” Melinda Peak, with Peak and Associates in El Dorado Hills, wrote a 1993 survey of the ditch system. “These flumes were major engineering works,” she wrote. “For example, on the main canal of the Natomas Ditch system there were four flumes that measured over 1,000 feet in length. The most spectacular of these flumes was the ‘High Flume’ over New York Ravine which was 1,791 feet long, standing 83 feet in height.” The first time the family returned to their old home site at Red Bank was during the drought of 1977 and 1978. They returned 30 years later last Thanksgiving. “As we crossed over the ditch, my brother Don said, ‘Stop a minute and you can hear the water,’” she said. “There’s some kind of memory of the sound of that water coming down the ditch.” It is a crime to remove artifacts, no matter how trivial they may appear, from the historic sites that are emerging from the waters of the lake. Anne and Ralph Rhea penned the 2003 book, “The Legacy of Natomas,” that describes the evolution of the company that placed a dam along the river and ran water down to Prairie City, Mormon Island, Red Bank and Folsom. At the time they formed the company, Mormon Island boasted a population of “1,500 men and was one of the most important mining districts in the Sierra foothills,” according to the book. Davies remembers the ditch well. He said Salmon Falls was eventually a handful of ranches, the largest being the Miller ranch, with the family owning most of the valley before it was flooded by the construction of the Folsom Dam in the 1950s. “The ditch started near Salmon Falls with a dam (built in 1853) on the American River. There were two ditches. One went down the Negro Hill bank and the other went down the Folsom bank, and that one ran clear down from Salmon Falls to Red Bank and on to Folsom. There was the Sweetwater Creek and they dammed it up, but they only used it for irrigation there. The Sweetwater water was free, they didn’t have to pay for it,” he said. “Also on the Miller ranch was a huge water wheel and flume. The flumes were made from tin and crossed Sweetwater Creek, where it ran into the American River. There was a water wheel with a pump nearby at the Natoma ditch that was owned by the Miller family. It pumped water into their house.” He said after the ditch left the settlement of Salmon Falls, it traveled along the banks of the river and hillsides. “It passed above the waterfall that was known as Salmon Falls. It was probably pretty difficult putting that ditch around it. And those falls were kind of interesting. They got the name Salmon Falls because that’s as far as the salmon could go. The Indians used to come down to collect salmon there. Later, the residents dynamited it and sort of stair stepped it so the salmon could get farther up the river,” he said. “Then it got down to a place called White Oak Flats. It’s where New York creek ran into the American River and it was a pretty deep canyon. They built a siphon there. … Instead of going over the canyon, they put this ‘u’ shaped pipe down in the canyon that climbed back up the other side,” he said. “Then it continued on it to the Hart Winery. There’s a pretty steep hill and rather than dig into the hill, they dug a tunnel that was maybe 150 to 200 feet long. It was the only tunnel along the ditch.” He said from there it continued on to the El Dorado Ranch and the last flume. “That flume, that will be out of the water pretty soon, if it’s not already,” Davies said. “It crossed Brown’s Ravine.” Peak and Associates, in their 1993 survey, indicated the ditch was a “cultural resource.” The Parkway at Blue Ravine Project was required to adhere to the National Historic Preservation Act during construction in order to help preserve what remains of the old water delivery system. Davies fondly recalls his days as a kid playing in the ditch, particularly the flume. “It was a half of a pipe, a trot, built out of steel. Inside that flume, the water probably was going 20 miles an hour,” he said. “As kids, we used to ride that flume and boy it was fun. We would lay back with just our nose and eyes above water. We’d hit that flume and shoot off. You didn’t dare raise your head or you would get hit by one of those beams overhead.” He said that when he was growing up there were fewer than 12 families who lived in the area, but they were all served by the ditch. “The Natoma ditch made a big difference in the income the land produced,” he said. “The ditch also supplied Folsom with drinking water. I remember seeing small fish and tadpoles coming from kitchen faucets in Folsom. In the summertime, most people stopped drinking the ditch water because it acquired a fishy flavor.” Nancy Percy, with the Heritage Preservation League of Folsom, said the network of ditches provided water to the miners in Folsom. “There are ditches all over Folsom,” she said. “There was a ditch that fed the Willow Hill reservoir, which is now a pond, and provided water for the Chinese Digging.” She said the ditch supplied water as far down as Alder Creek, where the Folsom Automall now sits. The Mormon Island company went through a series of transitions through the 20th century and finally ceased operations as in independent company in 1984 after 133 years in operation, according to the book, “Legacy of Natomas.” Other recollections Myrna Brown: “The first time we went out to the Red Bank Ranch, in 1978, was the first time we saw it since it was flooded. We found things, like pennies, on cement pylons and it was interesting to us that very little was disturbed. It’s not like an ocean. It was amazing to us that all the foundations were there. We were there last Thanksgiving, and there was an outcropping of rock that was one of my favorite places to play. It could be anything, (like) a castle or a boat. I let my daughters play on it and took pictures. My brothers thought it was a fort, so they had their own way of playing.” Jim Davies: “After the Natoma ditch left the settlement of Salmon Falls, it traveled downriver and steadily climbed above the river on its way to Folsom. The river was falling, but the ditch sort of stayed level. … The Bugbee Winery was a forgotten ruin on the south bank of Brown’s Creek. The Hart Winery was now planted to pears. … It was a beautiful area and to a kid like me, it was fascinating. … In 1936, my parents (Artie and Bud Davies) started a dairy on Green Valley Road just below the ditch at the county line. In 1941, they bought the ranch that had been the Red Bank Winery. There was no running water and no electricity.” --- Links to the rest of the series: Part 1 From the Depths: History resurfaces as lake level falls Part 3 - From the Depths: A bridge across time Mormon Island remnants Photo Gallery Natoma Ditch near Mormon Island Photo Gallery More Mormon Island artifacts Photo Gallery Salmon Falls Photo Gallery Natoma Ditch near Mormon Island Photo Gallery Salmon Falls Revisited Photo Gallery Red Bank and Mormon Island video Salmon Falls video Uncovering Mormon Island and Salmon Falls, an editor's journey