Folsom Lake’s decline exposes Gold Rush history

Never mind that there are no signage, docents or information pamphlets, Sacramento-area residents by the dozens took advantage of a warm New Year’s Eve afternoon to tour the Mormon Island Museum.

Call it the upside of drought.

Folsom Lake’s historically low water level has exposed remnants of the Gold Rush mining town of Mormon Island, the last to be razed in anticipation of the flooding of the American River Canyon upon completion of Folsom Dam. The town was buried by water in 1955.

Currently, the water level at Folsom Lake is lower than during the winter season of 1976-77, one of worst drought years in history, according to data from the California Department of Water Resources.

Pompeii it’s not, but the water’s retreat has exposed at least two rock-lined foundations, a score of rusty nails, piles of old glass and perhaps more as the water continues to decline. Experts say what is exposed now would have been on the outskirts of the once-booming community, founded by Mormon prospectors who made their way to California for the Mexican War.

“The actual town itself is close to 90 feet underwater,” said Richard Preston, sector superintendent for the California State Parks system.

Mormon Island wasn’t actually an island, explained Dennis Holland, who studied the site’s history for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was a sandbar no more than 300 feet long near the confluence of the north and south forks of the American River where gold was found by members of the Mormon Battalion, who had stayed after being discharged from the military to work for John Sutter.

Once word of the find spread, the camp grew quickly. By 1853, the population of the town was 2,500 with four hotels, three dry goods stores, five general merchandise stores and seven saloons. Diminishing gold, a new railroad path and a fire set in motion the town’s decline, Holland said. Only a few scattered families were left by the 1940s.

It’s not the first time these artifacts have been exposed. They most recently resurfaced in 2007, said Folsom resident John Gladding, who helped write a Wikipedia article on the site.

But the town of Mormon Island proper hasn’t been seen for decades.

“Hopefully, we will never see it,” Gladding said. “(The lake) would have to be bone dry for us to see it.”

News of the old town’s remains brought about flurry of human activity to the normally winter-quiet Browns Ravine at Folsom Lake Recreational Area, along the lake’s southeast shore. As many as two dozen cars occupied the parking lot and dozens – young, old and canine – took the half-mile walk to the shore. Along the way, the beached marina sits in a dried inlet.

“I found a doorknob,” one boy called out from a distance.

With no experts on hand, moms and dads were left to hazard their own answers to inquisitive youths.

“How often do you get to come out and get to walk around a lake bed?” offered Robert Vosberg, who brought his Fair Oaks family to check it out.

Preston said people are welcome to come look (parking is $12), but he warned that state and federal laws make it illegal to take the artifacts.

“Our primary concern is the safety of the resource and to make sure people aren’t carting off the history,” he said.

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