History -- Mining Towns

Mormon Island

The once important town of Mormon Island is almost forgotten and is now buried under Folsom Lake. Mormon Island was situated where the North and South Forks of the American River join on the route from Sutter's Fort to his sawmill at Coloma. It was one of the earliest mining camps set up after the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill. Six weeks after the initial discovery of gold a small group of Mormons, once part of the Mormon Battalion and originally employed by Sutter to work his mill, was mining gold a Mormon Island.

The Mormons first arrived in California on the ship Brooklyn which was chartered by Sam Brannan (a member of the Mormon church at that time) and carried 238 members of the church relocating to California under the direction of Brigham Young. This is the same Sam Brannan that founded San Francisco and also Sacramento.

They set sail on February 4, 1846 from New York and arrived in Yerba Buena on July 31, 1846, just a few days after the U.S. took possession of Yerba Buena. So the 238 men, women and children were the first immigrants in Yerba Buena after the U.S. took possession. They brought along with them tools, dry goods, school supplies, 179 books, seeds, a printing press, and newsprint. They started the first school, first bank, first post office, the first library, the first newspaper "The California Star" and the first edition was published on January 9, 1847.

By summer of 1848, Mormon Island had over a hundred men. Samuel Brannan, the "Spiritual Guide and director for the Mormon population of New Helvetia and other districts of California" opened a store there. For quite some time, Brannan required the miners to tithe. That is, give one tenth of their earnings, to the Mormon Church. The camp was called Mormon Island because the early miners cut a channel across one edge of the gravel bar there, forming a small island. The town quickly outgrew the small gravel bar.

Because Mormon Island was a natural stopping point between Sutter's Fort and Coloma, there were two stage lines operating there by 1850. One ran from Sacramento to Coloma, stopping at Mormon Island. The other ran from Sacramento to Mormon Island and back. The town had become one of the main communities of the Mother Lode. In 1851, a post office was established at Mormon Island. By 1853, the population of the town was about 2,500, and by 1855, four hotels, seven saloons and about fifteen other businesses flourished.

In 1853, the first tent school was held in a grape patch on the Haxsel ranch, and the first teacher was Mrs. Rachel Mitchell Clark. This school may have been the first in Gold Rush country. It was followed by a more substantial school building that was destroyed by fire around 1900. A second school was built in the Blue Ravine area opposite the Jim Hoke home. In about 1910 the school was moved, due to dredging activities, to property owned by the W.B. Plumb family.

The completion of the Sacramento Valley Railroad in 1856 to what was then Granite City and the subsequent establishment of the town of Folsom marked the beginning of a long decline for the once important town. Mormon Island gradually decreased in importance despite the construction of a very fine winery. By 1880, the population had dwindled to zero.

The final end of the town came seventy-five years later, when the water of Folsom Lake flooded the site. By this time, the town had nearly vanished, and a chicken ranch was located where the thriving town square had once been. Today, all that remains is a marker on Green Valley Road east of Folsom and the relocated Mormon Island cemetery.

Negro Bar

Negro Bar was a mining camp, but it was not the lively mining town so often portrayed in motion pictures. Like many other mining camps in 1848, Negro Bar was little more than a cluster of tents and shacks thrown up to shelter men working along the river.

The community of Negro Bar was called "under the hill" after Folsom replaced the old mining camp along the river. Today it is under the water of Lake Natoma. Only the name remains on the opposite side of the river from where African American miners first started mining gold in 1849-1850. Negro Bar State Park is a reminder that a mining camp once bore a similar name.

James Meredith built a store and later a hotel at Negro Bar. A store could have been anything from a tent with a plank laid across two barrels to a rough lean-to with a few shelves. Hotels were usually large dormitories with bunks stacked in tiers against the walls. Almost anything that could serve as shelter for a large number of men was designated as a hotel.

Prairie City

Throughout California's Mother Lode area, many ghost towns can be found, but few are as totally gone as Prairie City. Except for a monument marking the spot where the town once stood, there is no visible evidence that it ever existed.

In 1853, when the Natoma Water and Mining Company began supplying water to the area around Prairie City, the village started to grow. With water present for mining, miners staked claims along the Natoma Company's canal. Then using a phrase of the era, they "pitched in" removing gold. These mines produced steadily, paying $5 to %8 per day. The town grew.

By early 1856, Prairie City was larger than Granite City (renamed Folsom later that year). It had a population of 2000 made up of men who came down from the mountains. These miners wanted to work where provisions were cheaper and danger of spring floods and winter snows did not threaten to drive them from their claims.

Before Folsom had its own school, children living in Folsom were sent to Prairie City to study. In 1853, Prairie City was the principal polling place for Prairie Township. When Granite Township was formed in 1856. Prairie City remained a voting precinct until after the fall election of 1864. However, by Election Day 1865, all the gold around Prairie City had been worked out, and the town was gone.

Chinese Influence on Folsom

During the mid 1800's, many Chinese men left their homes and families to look for fortunes in other countries. When the Gold Rush hit California, there were a few Chinese already here. The news spread, and by 1852 thirty percent of the population in some mining areas was Chinese.

Chinese workers played an important part in early mining activities. They utilized their own knowledge for developing and refining gold as well as their won mine engineering techniques. Because of cultural differences, appearance, and speech; they were generally regarded with suspicion and resentment. The Chinese were sometimes employed by regular mining companies, but more often they formed companies of their own to work claims which the with miners did not consider worth the effort. Often, because of their diligence and patience these claims paid off. This, coupled with the fact that the Chinese were so "different," often sending money back to China rather than spending it in the community, was a source of resentment. In 1878, there were over 3,500 Chinese mining in and around Folsom.

When the gold began to run out, the Chinese worked at many other jobs, including such tasks as building the first Delta levees and constructing the transcontinental railroad. They also developed small businesses becoming laundrymen, cooks, storekeepers, farmers, and fishermen.

Few people are aware that Folsom once had a Chinese community numbering about 2,500 persons, complete with its own shops, churches and mayor. The first mayor was Oak Chan. He came to Folsom while in his teens, during the 1850's. First he worked in the gold fields, earning the sum of #3 per month, plus room and board. Later he became chief translator, labor agent, banker, scribe, and all around liaison between the Chinese and other cultures. For many years, he operated the Wing Sing Woo store at River Way and Reading Street. He was revered as a humanitarian among the Chinese community for his willingness to personally assist anyone medically w, with housing, financing or their burial arrangements.

Folsom's Chinese community once extended between Leidesdorff Street and the river, from just below the old powerhouse. Three major Chinese cemeteries, Benevolent Associations and Joss Houses were located on the river bluffs, and a small Buddhist shrine was built at one. The Chung Wah Cemetery is a national registered landmark and a state registered landmark. The Young Wo Cemetery is a state historical point of interest.

Chinese communities were also located at Alder Creek and Nimbus, with many of the inhabitants working in fruit packing sheds there.

Folsom's Chinese community prospered for almost half a century. Eventually many people moved away to other parts of California. However, some of Oak Chan's descendants still live in Folsom. They are 3rd and 4th generation Folsom residents. In 1989, the Folsom Cordova Board of Education named a new elementary school in honor of Oak Chan.

More History


Click Here to Take a Virtual Tour of the Museum  

Hours: Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Admission: $4 for adults. $2 for youth. Children under 12 are FREE.
Parking: parking available in front and across the street from the Museum
Address:  823 Sutter St., Folsom, CA, 95630-2440 Get directions from MapQuest. 916.985-2707
Easy access from Light Rail and Bike Trail

A special thanks to CalWeb for hosting this website.