Deadwood, Placer County, California

The town of Deadwood is situated upon a high narrow ridge of land, or promontory it might be called, high up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the eastern part of Placer County, between El Dorado Canon on the north, and the north fork of the Middle Fork of the American River on the south-east, at an altitude of 4,000 feet above the level of the sea.

The town is isolated, the country surrounding it not admitting of any settlements nearer than El Dorado Canon and Michigan Bluff on one side, and Devil’s Basin and Last Chance, on the other. There is, no wagon road leading to the town from the valleys and settlements below, except that leading up the main divide by the Forks House and Secret Springs, and around the head of El Dorado Canon, and down the narrow ridge, to the town, making a circuit of some seventy miles from Michigan Bluff to reach the town, seven miles distant. There is a good trail leading across the canon from Michigan Bluff to Deadwood and Last Chance, over which the supplies of the settlers are transported on the backs of mules.

Mining at Deadwood is carried on extensively by both tunneling and by the hydraulic process; and the yield of gold is considerably more than the average yield for the same amount of labor performed in the generality of mining settlements. The number of inhabitants amount probably to 160 or 175. The mines are supplied with an abundance of water, by means of ditches brought from the canons, and the people are independent, prosperous, and happy.

The name of the place originated from this circumstance: “Deadwood” is a California provincialism, and signifies a sure thing. In 1852, some miners found a rich prospect here, and exclaimed “though unsuccessful hitherto, we have now got the “Deadwood.” Other miners flocked into the place; a town was built and christened Deadwood. The sides of the ridge upon which it stands are so steep, that rocks rolled from the top in some places would continue their motion until they reached the bed of El Dorado Creek on the one side, or of the north fork of the Middle Fork of the American River on the other, a mile distant from the place where they were set in motion. In the wet season, when the warm rains are falling in the valleys below, the falling moisture is here precipitated in the form of snow, which sometimes falls to a great depth. About Christmas of the present winter, (1860), we had one of those terrible snow storms which annually fall upon the snowy mountains, and as is usual every winter with such storms, its history is a history of great suffering and loss of life.

On the 24th day of December, Mr. David Davis and Mr. John Williams left Deadwood, for the purpose of attending to a ditch, which brings water into town from a canon some miles higher up in the mountains. Snow was falling when they left, and continued to fall until the ground over which the ditch runs was covered to a depth of six feet. They were never seen alive afterwards. The body of Mr. Williams was found twelve days after he left, in the ditch, where it is supposed he had sunk exhausted. He had lain himself upon his back, folded his arms upon his breast, and given him-self up to die. But the savage coyotes had found the body before human eyes had rested upon it, and by their tracks had directed the persons in search to his snowy bed. Their voracious appetites had been glutted upon the flesh of the face and hands and other parts Of the body which were not covered by the clothes. The Masonic fraternity, of which he was a worthy member, took charge of the body, removed it to his place of residence, and respectfully committed it to its final resting place.

The body of Mr. Davis still remains undiscovered, securely hid from human view; wrapped in a heavy mantle of snow, it will probably sleep quietly where it lies, until the powerful rays of an April sun remove its covering, and point out the dying bed, unless the wild beasts previously scent it, and appropriate it to themselves.

But while these unfortunate individuals were struggling for dear life in the snow, or their bodies sleeping quietly beneath it, a more thrilling, but fortunately not fatal scene, was transpiring at Deadwood.

On one side of the hill, about so rods from town stood the house of Mr. A. J. Felch. Two live oaks on the lower side afforded a sure foundation for the sleepers upon which the floor was laid, while their spreading, branches shut out from the verandah the oppressive rays of a summer’s sun. A stream of pure mountain water gurgled at the door, conducted from a spring near by. Thirty or forty rods higher up the mountainside, runs a ditch, which conveys water for mining purposes. Mr. Fetch’s family consists of himself, wife, and Willy, a sprightly little boy about eight years of age. Fortunately Mrs. Felch was at the time at Michigan Bluff, receiving medical treatment for her eyes, in consequence of which, she was not in the house. It is now Christmas Eve. The snow covers the ground to the depth of several feet, clings in huge masses to the leaves and branches of the evergreens, and fills the air with the large feathery flakes, which are rapidly falling. The wind whistles through the trees the swollen rivulet near by, roars over its rocky bed, and masses of falling snow from the trees ever and anon splash upon the roof. But the father and son are comfortably seated, each in a chair, by the warm stove, Willy with his feet on the hearth. “Come, Willy,” says Mr. Feld’, “you had better hang up your stockings, and go to bed, and perhaps Santa Claus will bring you something before morning.” “I know what you want!” says Willy; ” you want to get me to bed, and then you will put something into my stockings.” “Why, it is late as you generally sit up, Willy.” “Yes, but I’ll bet that when I get up tomorrow morning, I shall find a candy rooster or something else in my stockings, that you have put there.”

These were the last words spoken. In a moment afterwards, quick as thought, crash went the house. Another moment, and Mr. Felch found himself in the open air, up to his waist in the snow, the tempest roaring around him, and volumes of snow and water rushing down the mountain side. “Where am I!” is this a dream, or a reality?” thought Mr. Felch. It seemed to him, he says, as though he had just returned to a state of consciousness, from a state of insensibility. He looked all around to see where he was, not noticing the gash on his head, nor the bruise on his shoulder, which afterwards told that the falling timbers had struck him. There stood the live oaks-there is the mountain side-there the cañon? This must be the very place where my house stood. But where is my boy? Carried off into the cañon by an avalanche along with the house. “William! William! William!” No answer. O, what an anxious moment was that, to that father!

From the position of the oaks which stood by the side of the house, he calculated the place which his boy occupied before the catastrophe; there he commenced digging with his hands in the snow, Two men living near by, having heard the crash, soon came to his assistance. The work of removing the snow from the spot designated, now progressed rapidly. Calls were made to the boy, but no answer was returned. A few moments will tell whether he is carried off into the canon along with the beds, trunks, dishes, furniture,. and wreck of the house ; whether his body lies lifeless and mutilated beneath the snow, or whether he is buried alive with the avalanche. ” William! William!” “Sir!” was faintly responded from beneath the snow. “Thank the Lord! The boy’s alive;” was the heartfelt response of the father. A moment after, two strong arms pulled him from his snowy bed uninjured, although the chair upon which he had sat, and the stove upon the hearth of which were placed his feet, were broken to pieces. “William, are you hurt said Mr. Newell. “No! but my pa is gone, sure!” was the reply of the noble little boy. The question now arose, whether they should go into the tunnel and stay there till morning, or endeavor to wade through the snow, up the hill, to town. The latter course was decided upon, and half an hour later, they were in a warm house, in the hospitable town of Deadwood, receiving the congratulations of the people that the whole family had escaped with so little injury from the avalanche, which had swept the house and its contents into the canon.

3 thoughts on “Deadwood, Placer County, California”

  1. Carol Anne Duncan

    My daughter’s great grandmother Stella Bowman passed away about 30 + years ago. It was often said she was the last surviving person from Deadwood. Stories shared said she grew up going from mining camp to camp cooking and washing laundry, no roads just trails to follow. When I came to know her she lived in Foresthill and was known as the bird lady. She continued to use her wood stove daily to cook and heat. At one point was given an electric stove that promptly found a home outside of her kitchen. She was 104 years old.

    1. I had the honor to meet Stella Bowman on the event of her 100th birthday. I grew up in Foresthill (Todd Valley), and my parents were part of the Canyon View Assembly church up there. If memory serves, this was even before Worton built the big grocery store across the street from the church. Anyway, I was actively involved in the Royal Rangers group at the church, and our “den mom,” as it were, gathered us all together to walk over to Stella’s place, which I remember being out off of Timberland Drive, though I could be misremembering that. I don’t think I was more than 8 years old at the time. Anyway, if I have a point to all of this, I remember that Stella and Deadwood were all a big part of my early education at Foresthill Elementary, and that that information has stuck with me all my life as a point of fascination. I’ve long since moved away, but Foresthill is as much a part of me as my own name, and I feel a sort of kinship with those who share in its rich history.

  2. On or about 1986 I interviewed Stella about her years living in Deadwood. She told me of one story of when her family would walk to Michigan Bluff to celebrate the 4th of July and how scared she became when she walked past the homes of the ‘Chinese’, who were smoking their ‘pipes’. If you have been told that story I’d like to interview you for the new museum being created in Auburn, the ‘Western States Trail Museum”. We would like to document her story with permission from the family. My interview would involve cameras recording your recollection of her life.
    Please contact me and let me know if this is possible. Bob Kelley, dba Bobkat Productions, 916-715-3903 or email at
    Thank you.

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