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  • The road to Sterlingville

    Traveler's diary paints a portrait of a mud-caked mining town springing to life
  • Seasoned traveler James Mason Hutchings clearly was not impressed with his lodgings.
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  • Seasoned traveler James Mason Hutchings clearly was not impressed with his lodgings.
    First, there was the little problem of water dripping on the native Englishman's head while he tried to sleep in the hotel.
    "Last night it rained for about three-quarters of an hour, and as I felt it pattering on my head I didn't approve of such an unfeeling course," he scribbled in his diary. "I however moved further down in bed and covering my head with the blankets told it to rain on but it didn't for long.
    "Still, it is an unpleasant situation, sleeping in the best hotel of the place to find that when the rain can get at your head you feel its cold fingers down your back," he added. "Such is hotel accommodations here."
    Second, there was the mystery cuisine which he found less than appetizing.
    "There is moreover two women to cook, yet nothing fit to eat," Hutchings noted. "Went without dinner rather than go to eat it."
    The date was Feb. 8, 1855. The hotel — such as it was — reflected the rough lodgings available in the now long-defunct rustic mining town of Sterlingville on Sterling Creek in the Little Applegate River drainage.
    The writings are part of Hutchings' travel diary that Medford historian Ben Truwe dug up on a recent visit to the National Archives and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
    Hutchings, just two days short of his 35th birthday, was checking out the southern portion of the Oregon Territory. In addition to Sterlingville, he also spent time in Jacksonville, then a major hub in the vast territory.
    That was before he became known as the "Father of the Yosemite" for his promotion of the valley that became part of what is now Yosemite National Park in California.
    "He was a significant guy in the history of the West," Truwe said of Hutchings. "He was doing surveys and censuses as he traveled. He was really fixated on the number of eligible marriageable women in each community. He had it broken down into the number of marriageable women, children and prostitutes."
    There were no marriageable women in Sterlingville, Hutchings noted. As for women of ill repute, he failed to mention.
    The traveler, who would later publish the California Magazine, seemed intent on capturing the life and times in the upper Rogue and Applegate river drainages.
    Hutchings traveled north to Sterlingville from Cole's Station in what is now Hilt just south of the California line. On Feb. 5, he wrote about the rough route between Cole's and the Rogue River Valley.
    "The road is very heavy and clayey mud," he wrote. "The horse's feet when drawn out go off like corks from large bottles, such is the suction of the mud. At other times the water from an old hoof hole would squirt six or eight feet above one's head when on horseback. Plug! Plug! Plug! would be the music."
    Upon reaching the summit, he was impressed by the valley opening up before him.
    "When you get a distant view of the Rogue River Valley, you are struck with the beautiful green slopes and clumps of oaks and pines on a rounding knoll here or there with the smoke curling up from one of those woody dwelling places," he wrote.
    In addition to the occasional log cabin, he also ran across pack trains bound for Yreka by way of Jacksonville and Crescent City. And there were a few other travelers well met.
    "Met a lady sitting astride her mule the same as the two men with her," he jotted down. "She didn't exhibit much of the beauty or ugliness of her understandings. I must say I like to see a neat ankle on a woman! She had one, and I of course had to admire, consequently, looked!"
    He would spend the night in what was then known as the Eden District — now called Talent — at a place dubbed Rockafellow's Tavern. He and his horse were charged $3 for the night, a fee he described as good.
    From the tavern he took a 12-mile trail through the mountains that took him to Sterlingville.
    He reached the mining boomtown at 2 p.m. on Feb. 6.
    "This is a small town that has newly sprung up, the diggings not having been found more than seven or eight months," he wrote. "There are now in the vicinity about 550 miners — about 20 families — no marriageable women — about 35 children."
    He called it a "busy little spot."
    "The hillsides and gulches are alive with men at work either stripping or drifting or sluicing or tomming or draining their claims by a tail race," he noted, referring to a method of mining that used water to separate the gold from the other material.
    "Yet the water is thick with use, being very scarce, as a large number of men are using it," he added. "Here you see a prospector with his pick on his shoulder and a pan under his arm, and his partner coming along with the shovel upon his shoulder."
    Hutchings doesn't indicate where he spent the night but wrote he traveled down Sterling Creek the next day to a hamlet he called "Bunkumville," where the stream met what he referred to as Applegate Creek.
    "On the hillsides men are very busy the same as in town," he observed. "Many are doing remarkably well with the little water they now have."
    Farther downstream he reported more miners in the hills as well as working the stream.
    "Then cabins are seen and in the distance a flag — perhaps a piece of old canvas tied to a pole (although sometimes the stars and stripes are floating proudly as if to say 'walk in — there's liberty here to get drunk if you have money or credit)," he wrote.
    "At all events it indicates a trading post," he said of the place now known as Buncom. "Opposite to that the rocks and the water and the pick or the shovel or the fork are rattling in or about the sluice boxes. People are all hard at work. What a contrast to some places."
    It was that night he spent under a dripping hotel roof in Sterlingville. The next morning saw him heading out in the rain to Jacksonville, where he spent a few days observing life.
    "The population is about 700 — 22 families — and over 200 families in the Rogue River Valley," he wrote. "There are 53 marriageable (women) within a circuit of 12 miles of Jacksonville — nine within Jacksonville."
    He also listed 10 stores, three boarding houses, one bowling alley, one saloon, four physicians, one tin shop, one meat market, one livery stable, one church and one schoolhouse.
    Apples grown in the Willamette Valley were being sold in Jacksonville for 90 cents a pound, he noted.
    "There seems a number of long-faced religionists — how blue and mean they look," he wrote on Feb. 10. "They want credit, hum and hah and rub their hands and hang their head on one side as if deprecating their unworthiness to be a man."
    Feb. 12 found him slogging south back up over the Siskiyous in the rain and snow.
    "Oh, horrible — horrible has been the road today," he wrote. "The road over the Siskiyou Mountains had enough before, is now from the recent rains much worse. Mud Mud Mud.
    "Horse drawing long corks for 10 miles," he added. "Now he would only be up to his knees, now again he would be up to his belly. ... This may have been a good stage road, but I wouldn't think so now. It is the worst road I ever traveled."
    Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or pfattig@mailtribune.com.
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