This is part of a series of posts chronicling my travels across the western United States over the course of several weeks, living on the road and randomly visiting places along the way. You can start reading about the journey from the beginning.
If you’ve been following my entire journey thus far, you’ll recall my time in Calico Ghost Town which felt closer to a touristy Six Flags attraction than a dilapidated gem begging to be explored. Fortunately I came across an actual ghost town along the road that made up for it.
Well, almost…once again we put “ghost town” in finger quotes. The town of Chinese Camp, CA is not completely abandoned as there are a few patches of occupied homes and trailers, visible cars and even a school and post office remaining. In fact, I know of towns in Missouri with less residents than what the census of Chinese Camp apparently has. But with citizenship only a mere sliver of what it once was, it may qualify in many books as a ghost town. If the town isn’t dead, then the hospice staff have stepped away and completely forgotten about the patient.
During the days of the gold rush, many discriminated and displaced Chinese miners wandering around California eventually took up residence on a site called Fort Washington. Over time the town became known as Chinese Camp, becoming a transportation hub and metropolis with nearly a population of 5000 at it’s height. Tongs – secret societies and organizations based on homeland native areas – were formed and hostilities resulted between the rival groups over mining disputes. In October of 1856, a major Tong War broke out in the area and roughly 2000 participants armed themselves with anything from pikes, daggers, spears and even muskets.
As common with old mining towns, the modern times came and it’s Chinese occupants have long since departed. Walking about, there are remnants of old buildings here and there and the elementary school is worth a look as well.
But there were more hidden relics of the past to be discovered near Chinese Camp. As I drove away from the town and resumed my present course, I passed by Shawmut Road and had a feeling that I should turn back around and take a look.
The road ended alongside a branch of the nearby Don Pedro Lake and I could drive no further, so I parked the car and walked around on foot. The scenery was alright but there was something far more curious on the other side of the water that caught my eye.
Looking like an old and abandoned building crusted in mud in the hillside, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking at. I very much wanted to take a closer look but there appeared to be no way of getting there on foot from where I was standing, and I didn’t have a kayak in my camera bag at the moment to get across the waters. The best I could do was photograph and admire from a distance.
Only later I would find out the full story behind this place, and it’s a fascinating one that will sound familiar to Missourians aware of the old towns sacrificed under the waters of what would eventually become Missouri’s biggest summer vacation spot – the Lake of the Ozarks.
Decades ago, a new dam was constructed on Don Pedro Lake which would expand the reservoir but would flood out the town of Jacksonville below. Like Chinese Camp, Jacksonville’s glory days of mining had also long passed but the town still lived on as a quaint country town where remaining locals didn’t take kindly to eminent domain moving people, homes and cemeteries. (You can watch old news footage from 1970 about the dam’s construction and Jacksonville’s last stand archived right here.)
What I was staring at was the remains of what was left of one of Jacksonville’s major projects, the Eagle-Shawmut Mine. The mine had ceased operations during the 1940s, so it had already been long abandoned when it was retired underneath the waters with the rest of the town. The only reason the mine was now visible for the first time in decades is because of the drought in California drastically lowering the water level. Earlier that year, apparently large amounts of people and tourists were drawn to this area when the mine was shown on the news, but I guess eventually everyone had lost all interest as I was completely alone out there the whole time.
Either way, I was very fortunate to be traveling through California when I did to see this rare phenomenon. If it hasn’t already, I have no doubt the water levels will eventually rise again and the last remnant of Jacksonville will be put to watery rest once again.
Next time: Yosemite