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Tahoe Nugget #71:

Hartley's Folly at Meadow Lake (3 Photos)
May 4, 2006

It took an unusual character named Henry H. Hartley to unlock the golden secret of Meadow Lake. Born in Pennsylvania in 1834, he was that rare precocious child who spent most of his time reading books. In 1860 he journeyed to California to recover from a chronic respiratory condition. An adventurer at heart who enjoyed wilderness and solitude, Henry Hartley built a small cabin near the remote lake in Nevada County and settled in.

Meadow Lake is located eight miles north of Cisco, between the headwaters of the middle and south forks of the Yuba River, at an elevation of 7,254 feet. The South Yuba Canal Company created the lake in 1858 when they dammed a small tributary of the South Yuba River to divert water for their foothill mining operations. For three years Hartley lived like a hermit at the isolated lake where he rarely encountered another person. He survived the harsh winters by trapping mink, martin, foxes, bear and otter. He maintained his animal traps by traveling over the deep snow on skis. Over the long, snowbound winter months, Harley worked his pelts into valuable furs. As often happens, the rigors of mountain life and beneficial climate improved his health.

In June 1863, Hartley noticed veins of a dark red, decomposed ore that upon closer inspection revealed particles of gold. Hartley needed help to make the ore pay so he partnered with John Simons and Henry Feutel and formed the Excelsior Mining Company. In the spring of 1865, hundreds of unemployed hard-rock miners, entrepreneurs, and businessmen from the financially depressed Comstock rushed to the remote lake. By June, at least 3,000 people had joined in the "excitement" at Meadow Lake.
In 1866, thousands more joined the Meadow Lake gold rush. Everyone was convinced that it was "the next big thing." By the end of the summer mining season, there were six hundred new buildings at Meadow Lake, including a church meeting house and fire-resistant brick bank. There were three large hotels packed with customers and ninety saloons slaked the thirst of the hard-working miners. Painted courtesans lounged in the saloons, drinking whiskey and smoking cigars. A small steamer cruised the shallow waters of Meadow Lake, which miners boarded for Saturday night excursions to hurdy-gurdy houses at the upper end of the lake.

Despite all the mining activity there was precious little money being made. The ore around Meadow Lake generated assays of up to $690 per ton, but there seemed to be a problem with the milling process that had everyone stumped.

Among the milieu swarming Meadow Lake was a cast of legendary characters from the Comstock era. Myron C. Lake, the founder of Reno, constructed a large hotel at the alpine lake with his wife Jane. She recounted the trek in her subsequent bitter divorce testimony: "In 1865 or 1866, [Myron] Lake took me up to Meadow Lake. It was the time of the excitement there. We intended to start a hotel. We went in a wagon, heavily loaded, so heavy that I had to walk up the hills for miles at a stretch. The fatigue that I endured on that trip, together with the hard work at the mines, brought on a dyspeptic and bowel complaint from which I never fully recovered."

Two of Nevada's best-known newspapermen, Dan De Quille of the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, and Alf Doten, editor of the Virginia City Union, arrived "to report on the tremendous agitation convulsing the Meadow Lake Country." Their observations inspired others to join the rush to riches, including attorney Orion Clemens and his brother Sam (Mark Twain).

The Meadow Lake population swelled again during the summer of 1867, but by then much of the hope for a big strike had dissipated. Despite all the mining activity there was precious little money being made. The ore around Meadow Lake seemed rich enough, but no one was making any money. There seemed to be a problem with the milling process that had everyone stumped or maybe the veins of valuable ore just pinched out too quickly. Despite many efforts, no one could make the ore profitable on a large scale so the town's inhabitants left in droves.

Eventually, the only person left was Henry Hartley, the eccentric and adventurous soul who had first settled there. Over the next twenty years, Hartley bought up and consolidated all the Meadow Lake claims into his own single holding. Occasionally during the summer, a prospector or two might give Meadow Lake a quick look-over, but only Hartley stayed through the deep winter snows. A curious resident of Grass Valley skied up to the ghostly mining camp in the winter of 1872-73. On twelve-foot-long skis he glided through its empty streets, level with the second story windows. The silence was eerie. He skied past the vacant office of the Meadow Lake Morning Sun newspaper, once a busy daily. Peering through the upper floor windows of one fancy hotel, he could see tidy furnished rooms still waiting for guests that would never arrive.

In September 1873, a transient lit a fire in the Excelsior Hotel, which spread through the dilapidated ghost town. The flames swept through Meadow Lake's wooden buildings destroying all but a handful. Hartley, however, remained at the abandoned camp living in the last remaining house, surrounded by fancy furnishings that he had salvaged. Hartley's dream of riches finally came true in November 1891, when a consortium of French investors offered him a good price for the mining claims. Tragically, fate intervened and Hartley died unexpectedly while preparing for his journey to Europe. Henry Hartley, is buried on a wooded hill west of the lake, "the last man in an ephemeral city he helped create."

Photo #1: The eccentric Henry Hartley.
Photo #2: Meadow Lake in the 19th century. Photo courtesy Dana Scanlon.
Photo #3: Celebrating the Golden Age of Meadow Lake in 1972. Photo courtesy Vi White.

Nugget #71 A Henry Hartley portrait

Nugget #71 B Meadow Lake Dana Scanlon

Nugget #71 C Meadow Lake fishing Vi White photo

 

 

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