Plumas ghost town gains worldwide attention thanks to internet, Pee-wee Herman
11/23/2013 12:00 AM
11/22/2013 10:33 PM
Tim TenBrink, 67, says he is an “old troglodyte” with a dusty computer “sitting around somewhere.” He can’t remember the last time he turned it on.
So he apologizes for not grasping this Web sensation about the remote Northern California ghost town he is offering for sale. The announcement has stirred Internet news sites across America and drawn attention from CBC Radio-Canada and the Daily Mail of London.
Yes, he says, a former gold mining town, its shuttered bar, parking lot and three aging cabins on the north fork of the Feather River in Plumas County, is on the market for $225,000. Yes, road and weather conditions permitting, there is an open house Sunday and Monday. People can find the town by its address: half mile south of bridge, Seneca, California.
Suddenly, documentary filmmakers and would-be reality shows are inquiring about possible feature segments on the forgotten town of Seneca and the selling of a piece of California history.
Yet TenBrink, a retired hospital respiratory therapist and aficionado of vintage cars and old Westerns who lives in Susanville, is still trying to figure it all out. Since he doesn’t use the Internet, he can’t fathom how a months-dormant Craigslist ad, his blogger nephew in Michigan and, ultimately, a tweet from 1980s children’s television character Pee-wee Herman could stir such a holler.
The town for sale, off state Highway 89 and unpaved Seneca Road 35 miles north of Quincy and 6 miles south of Lake Almanor, is near where TenBrink and buddy Jerry Manpearl went duck hunting in 1975. Along with TenBrink’s brother Kent and Manpearl’s pal Bob Loeb, they stopped in at a generator-powered tavern – called the Seneca Gin Mill – that had a Douglas fir growing through its porch.
Inside the log and wood plank shack, they ordered beers from Marie Sabin, a barmaid there since 1934. Loeb starting playing the joint’s out-of-tune piano.
“We had about 20 drinks,” TenBrink recalled. “And then somebody saw a sign and said, ‘Hey, look, it’s for sale.”
TenBrink and Manpearl bought the 9.8-acre property for a little over $50,000. It included the bar, its liquor license and the incalculable lore of Seneca.
The town was born in 1851. It quickly grew to 1,000 residents, including 500 Chinese laborers. There was a dance hall, livery, hotel and gold mines called “Sunnyside,” “Lucky Chance,” “White Lily” and “Last Chance.” Mining continued there through the 1970s and the place remained a lure for prospectors for years afterward.
The new owners made a tradition of bringing friends and family for getaways at the river spot, with its cabins, picnic tables and swimming holes. TenBrink tended bar on the weekends, often with Sabin, a petite Canadian woman, barely 80 pounds, who charmed travelers with stories told in a French accent. She died in the mid-1990s and is honored in a historical placard at the site as “the Guardian Angel of Seneca.”
For nearly 35 years, TenBrink dutifully turned out, serving up beer and hard liquor in the tiny space with a dozen stools and a beat-up linoleum counter that he covered with plywood. The first few years, with hard rock mining still going on, he said the tavern “damn near” covered the costs of buying the town. The place routinely filled with “a couple dozen miners at a time and they would all drink like fish,” he said.
“There were a lot of guys coming through that were pretty obsessed with looking for gold,” TenBrink said. “It seemed to be the thing that woke them up in the morning and the thing they went to sleep on – that there was a good strike of gold someplace.”
In 1942, local miners pulled out a 42-ounce nugget. As late as the 1990s, TenBrink’s nephew Jeff Potter encountered a river dredge operator toasting his good fortune at the Seneca Gin Mill and “just itching to show off” a jar filled with glistening nuggets and flakes.
The new property owners found their own lucky strike through music. They built a concert stage and started staging acoustic music festivals in the late 1970s.
“The first year, we had about 100 people, the second year about 250. The third year, there were 3,000 people,” said Manpearl, now a semi-retired lawyer living in Santa Monica. “It was just crazy. The newspapers were calling it Woodstock West. There were people all up and down the mountain.”
For years, travelers kept finding their way to Seneca, tacking hundreds of business cards at its rustic dive bar to mark their passage.
Over time, someone stole the “Seneca Gin Mill” sign. Someone else made off with the tavern’s mounted elk. Four years ago, TenBrink, in declining health, stopped his weekend journeys to open the bar. The spirit seemed to run out of the old ghost town.
Potter, a Michigan resident who runs an outdoor culture blog, outyourbackdoor.com, placed a for-sale advertisement in the Backwoodsman magazine last spring. There was a typo in the Web address. Nobody contacted him. He placed an ad on Craigslist. It expired with no offers.
But then a travel site posted an original link to the ad on Nov. 7. Four days later, Pee-wee Herman, the goofball character played by actor Paul Reubens, sent a blast to his 1.5 million followers on Twitter: “gold mine GHOST-TOWN for sale!” Potter rushed out a blog post – “Buy a Scenic Ghost Town with a Liquor License” – with his email address.
“All of a sudden, it went wild – like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,” Potter said.
He said he heard from “three reality shows and two feature filmmakers” expressing interest in weaving a story on the town and perhaps even staging, and filming, an auction to sell it off. About 30 people inquired about buying the property, but there haven’t been any formal offers.
Potter acknowledges the site is appraised at only around $70,000, well below the listing price. But he insists “a gold mining ghost town with a bar on a beautiful river in a forest” is a one-of-a-kind find. He says two of the three cabins “aren’t so bad” that they can’t be restored. And he suggests the liquor license for the place where Marie Sabin served thirsty miners may be the grandest prize.
His uncle isn’t quite the salesman.
“It’s a shabby old place,” TenBrink says. “Nothing to write home about.”
TenBrink concedes the site has “ a bit of that old mining town flavor to it.” He says the grounds and weather-beaten old buildings reflect a time “when the whole western side of the Sierra” sprang up with bustling gold camps, then withered over generations as “people hit a little pay dirt and, when mining dried up, didn’t have anything to switch to.”
Manpearl, the property co-owner, and his wife, Jan Goodman, scheduled the open house. They planned to fly into Reno, rent a recreational vehicle and make their way to Seneca to open the bar. There will be drinks, grilled hot dogs, sausages and music – “a glorified boom box,” Goodman says.
TenBrink doesn’t figure he’ll make it. Fatigue from chronic pulmonary disease has worn him down “like an old watch.” All that Internet buzz, which he can’t contemplate, is unlikely to persuade him to serve up one last round at the Gin Mill.
He says he is glad to hear his friends “are going to have a hoedown there for whoever comes in from the Web.”
“Usually for me,” he adds, “it’s spiders.”
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