More about Helena

Of course now I regret not taking a photo of this one from the road. Actually, I regretted that before I ever took this photo as my socks (worn with open-ish shoes) were completely filled with terrible, sharp, pokey burrs hidden in what looks like lovely grass.  If you go to Helena, wear solid shoes and long pants.  But I digress…

Our friend Skippy was kind and generous enough to share some great historical info about Helena.  I’ll just pass it on from him. Thank you, Skippy !

By far one of the best histories of the area comes from editors/authors Jerry Rohde and Lowell Bennion in their 2000 book, Traveling the Trinity Highway. Mr. Rohde, Bennion, and others, have devoted 6 pages of interesting stories, excellent old pictures (including an old Trinity County Historical Society’s picture of the Schlomer building as Lynette photographed), and a well documented history of the ghost town, North Fork, later known as ‘Old Helena’. I encourage the reader to check out their book. It’s a fascinating and well documented history taken from primary sources– and a delightfully good read. A highlight is the sidebar story, The “Wedding” of Craven Lee, a surprising account of one of the first residents.

Traveling the Trinity Highway notes Helena’s origins: “The first recorded white settlement on this old Chimariko village site comes from John Carr, whose Pioneer Days of California recounts his 1851 trek over the Salmon Mountains to his long-term place of residence, Weaverville. As Carr and his weary travel companions reached the mouth of the North Fork, they stumbled upon four miners playing cards. The foursome had enough dried meat, beans, and whiskey stashed away in their tent to make Carr and company the outpost’s first customers.”

The authors continue with the progress of the town and the intertwining of the Schlomer and Meckel families building the areas first extensive brewery supplying beer. They noted, “… John Meckel (and his brother Christian) started several thriving businesses: a 50-mule pack train (linked to Shasta City), stores on the East and North forks, a hotel, and a brewery. The Meckels imported a German brewer and then packed his ‘heady, hearty’ beer to the mines in exchange for grains of gold dust to put into their money jars. By the early 1860s, the Trinity County Journal could assert that ‘a great quantity of it (North Fork beer) is annually consumed in that section of the county, which accounts for the robust appearance of the populations and their strong Union proclivities.

I never knew beer could do that.

Traveling the Trinity County Highway added, “… The Meckel brothers launched their first store at Rich Bar or across the East Fork in Store Gulch, near Rich Gulch, where the miners were ‘rich’ enough to keep them in business for about five years. Only then did they retreat to the North Fork and erect a more permanent mercantile. The quartz mines developed north of Rich Bar a generation later proved profitable enough for John Meckel to reopen Schlomer’s basement saloon (known as the ‘Brewery’) and for the Meckel hotel to stay in business until the end of the century. in 1891 the Postal Service established a new post office and renamed it Helena (at husband Christian’s suggestion) to avoid confusion with another California community called North Fork, which ironically, became known as Korbel two years later.” (Traveling the Trinity Highway, Rohde, Bennion, et al., 2001. pp 130-6)

There’s far more to add about historic Helena in their book than space here will allow. You’ll have to read it for yourself.

And part 2 from Skippy

Here’s the short synopsis of North Fork, or Helena, from Ghost Towns of California by Richard Miller (2001), also containing an older picture similar to the one here by Lynette:

“When it was settled in the 1850s, Helena was known as North Fork. In 1891 the name was changed to Helena to distinguish it from (another) North Fork… A gold mining camp, it served the local miners who prospered in the mid-19th century. Like others, Helena was a wide open town. One building that still stands served as a school in the day and a brothel at night.

“The town survived even after the mines gave out in 1931. But when the new coastal highway from Redding to Eureka bypassed Helena, it never recovered. What was left was bought by F. I. DiNapoli in 1966 for $50,000 undoubtably because of 130 acres of mining claims. The town is still owned by his family.

Today, Helena is slowly decaying. Brick buildings including one built in 1858 as a general merchandise store are boarded up.” ( Ghost Towns of California: Remnants of the Mining Days, Richard Miller, 1985.)

For interested readers, another brief summary may also be found in Phillp Varney’s Ghost Towns of Northern California.

If you want to go to old Helena, take Highway 299 east; it’s about about 12 miles shy of Weaverville– in Trinity County. Before you come to Big Bar, well, you’re almost there. Watch for East Fork Road and turn left before crossing over the Trinity River bridge. There’s a small, wooden sign on the highway that says “Helena, ¼ mile.” Drive about an eighth of a mile to Helena.

“Ghostly winds still fan the white locust blossoms, but little remains to mark the passing of this mining crossroads save the few ramshackle buildings, the rustic graveyard, and the fond memories of a few aging survivors…” (Traveling the Trinity Highway, p. 134)

I did NOT see the graveyard and am terribly disappointed. Wes Keat is not the only one with an affinity for such things.

And then I must thank Ross for this addition

Ah yes, Old Helena. Last time I was there, I bumped into a rattlesnake. Growing up, there were more buildings like these around the area, but the Forest Service has taken down most of them. Most were wooden miner’s cabins and such. Not like the brick buildings found here and throughout Trinity and Western Shasta county. A curiosity is where did the bricks come from that built these buildings as well as those in Weaverville and Old Shasta.

From Wikipedia: The community was settled in 1851 as a mining camp. It was known as Bagdad, North Fork, and The Cove before its post office opened in 1891; the post office was named Helena after the postmaster’s wife. The post office was later moved to North Fork.

A little trivia. Dick and Tommy Smothers (The Smothers Brothers) grandparents lived in Helena.

26 Responses to More about Helena

  1. skippy says:

    In the Spring of 1851, John Carr ventured from Humboldt Bay through Klamath and over the Salmon Mountains to Weaverville. In his epic memoirs, Pioneer Days in California, he describes his experiences coming to this very spot where Lynette took her photographs.

    It wasn’t known as Helena then, nor Bagdad, nor even as North Fork. In fact, there was no town– nothing– at all. It was simply a place– a place where ‘the East Fork met the North Fork of the Trinity River’. This was a wildly primitive time and place: a risky venture of unknown, unmapped, and unforgiving terrain, a newly minted mixture of miners and explorers, little to no comforts and accommodations, and grave perils for mistakes. His account is one of the first– and best– observations to be given.

    CHAPTER X.
    Wanderings Between Trinidad And Weaverville.
    …Disgusted with Salmon River. —Departure for Trinity River and Weaverville.—Snowed under.— Finding a trading post and supplies…

    “One night we held a council in our tent, to take in the situation and consider what was best to be done. We had heard of the Weaver Flats and the good reports from the Trinity River diggings. We discussed the question whether we would go to the North Fork of Salmon, or to the Weaver diggings. Finally, we came to the conclusion to take the back track and go to the Trinity River and Weaverville. Next day we sold all the surplus provisions we had, getting one dollar and fifty cents a pound for our flour, and other things in proportion, and struck out for the Trinity River.

    It was well we did. About one day from Salmon it commenced raining, and it rained and snowed until we got to the top of the dividing ridge between the Trinity and Salmon. On the Trinity side of the mountain the trail followed a spur for several miles, the divide between the East Fork of the North Fork and the North Fork. It cleared up as we were coming down the spur of the mountain, and, coming to a little flat where there was good grass and a good place to camp, about one hour before sunset, we camped.

    When dark came on we tied up our mules and turned into our tent, very tired. We ate the last we had for supper, with the exception of a few scraps which we had left in the bottom of the “grub box,” expecting to get down to the North Fork early next morning, where there was a trading-post. We slept soundly that night. When we turned in it was a beautiful starlight night, and to all appearances the storm was completely over.

    We were feeling good at having the most of our journey over, but, when we awoke next morning, things did not look quite so pleasant for us. The tent was completely buried in snow, and was weighed down to within a few inches of our heads by the load of snow on it.

    I said to the boys: “We are in a d—l of a fix now,” and they were soon out of their blankets. The snow was fully four feet deep, and still coming down with a vengeance. Every flake was as big as a silver dollar. The mules were nearly covered up with snow, standing with their backs humped up, and shivering as if they had the ague. We built a fire, got some coffee, and, eating what little we had left, packed our shivering mules and made a start.

    It was hard work to get them to move at all. For some time one of us had to go ahead and throw himself on his back on the trail in order for the mules to get through. As luck would have it the trail was blazed, and we were able to keep it. For three or four hours we labored in this manner, but as we got down the mountain the snow became lighter, and at nearly night we got out of it altogether. It was nearly dark when we reached the junction of the East Fork with the North Fork, and our mules were about given out and ourselves not much better.

    I told the boys that if they would camp there I would go and hunt the trading-post. From the directions we had it could not be far off. I started down the North Fork, and just as it was getting dark ahead of me I saw a light across the stream…”

    (Pioneer Days in California– Historical and Personal Sketches by John Carr: Times Publishing, Eureka, California; 1891. p. 105-110)

    To be continued, below…

  2. skippy says:

    Pioneer Days in California, continued…

    “… Following the trail, I came to a log on which I crossed, and soon came to the light. It was in a large tent stretched on four logs.

    As I entered the tent or store there were four men in it playing cards, with a few goods in one corner and a keg of whisky set on a log beside the goods.

    They sang out to me: “Stranger, where are you from?” I said, “Salmon River.” One remarked, “I thought so.”

    I said, “Have you any whisky?” pointing to the keg. He told me to help myself. There was a pint cup standing under the faucet, and I filled it half full of whisky and drank it. In less than two minutes I felt like a new man. At other times that amount of liquor would have made me drunk.

    Our temperance friends may preach what they please, but there are times when a drink of liquor helps to give a worn-out man life and vitality. I know it was so in my case. I purchased a few pounds of flour and bacon and other things for supper and breakfast and started back for camp, making me a California lantern before starting. I had a good light whereby I might follow the trail.

    I will tell you what a California lantern is and how it is made. I took a bottle and put a little water in it, placed the bottom on the fire and kept turning it around slowly; when the water heated the bottom burst out; I then lighted a candle and dropped it down in the neck of the bottle, and then had a very good lantern.

    I reached camp all right. The boys had started a fire and pitched the tent. The first question Dave Young asked me was: “Did you bring any whisky?” I told him, ” Yes.”

    “Where is it?”

    I told him, “In my stomach.”

    There were a few curse words used about that time. After tantalizing him for a short time I drew out a bottle of whisky and shook it at him. They went for it with a will. Supper was soon cooked and eaten, and we were all happy.

    Our tent was pitched on a sidling place, and it came on to rain in the night. The boys had not thought of digging a ditch around the tent when they put it up, and the water coming down from the mountain ran through the tent. When we turned over in the blankets we could hear the water slosh under us, but we slept the sleep of the righteous, and the water did not bother us much.

    Next morning we packed our “traps” and went down to the North Fork. The day was clear and the sun was out in his full glory. We soon had everything dry and as good as new.

    We had a narrow escape; had we been one day later in starting from Salmon the State would have lost four good citizens. The Pence brothers, as I afterwards found out, were camped about three miles above us on the mountain, with a train of forty mules when the snow came on. Every one of them perished, chilled to death, and one of the brothers caught such a cold that in less than a month he died also. Provisions on Salmon gave out, flour could not be purchased at any price, and men told me that they lived on venison for at least one month. The salt gave out also, and one ounce of gold for a pound of salt was offered.

    Such were the straits miners were reduced to in the spring of ’51 on the Salmon River. Thanks to our good fortune we were now in a country where there were plenty of provisions.”

    (Pioneer Days in California– Historical and Personal Sketches by John Carr: Times Publishing, Eureka, California; 1891. p. 105-110)

  3. Sabine Becks says:

    Excessive beer brewing may sometime leads to spoil taste of the beer. They are needed to given care while brewing beers.

  4. skippy says:

    So what do you do living in the early days of Bagdad when the money was good– but seemingly nowhere to spend it? The early miners of Rich Bar, 3 miles North of Bagdad, reportedly were panning out 2-3 ounces of gold making $30-50 a day. One early account has 33 pounds of gold taken during a particularly good 3 day haul. The Trinity canyons, forks, creeks, riffles, bars, and veins were lending their help to the golden cause. Many of the early mining camps were small family or ethnically linked operations in character.

    But, alas! By 1852, a serious problem was alarmingly at hand:

    “The population of Trinity, as shown by the state census of 1852, was 1,741 males and 23 females. The undue preponderance of the sterner sex was followed by a result which often occurs in new countries, for many of the miners mated with Indian women; some, indeed, of those pioneers of early days have Indian wives to this day…”
    (The Overland Monthly, Vol IX; San Francisco, 1887. p 19)

    These pathetic figures would lead one to believe there was a lot of… loneliness going on.

    Enter the emerging outpost of Bagdad located at the timely intersection of the Trinity and Salmon River trails, founded previously by pioneers and entrepreneurs Lee Craven and David Weed around 1850. Perhaps these were the very same ‘trading-post’ characters happily alluded to in John Carr’s previous account above? Miners traveling up and down the Trinity River and its North Fork found some comfortable lodgings and supplies at the Lee and Weed place, sharing their tales of plentiful strikes and riotous living. The name? Most likely Bagdad was conjured up by Lee and Weed having reputations as notorious jokers. Craven Lee, in particular, had a reputation for pranks and good humor:

    “The first mining camp in the area was lightheartedly called Bagdad because of its exotic and international nature… that ‘ladies of accomodation’ who settled there came from various countries. A Bagdad miner described them as ‘madamoiselles, senoritas, and jungfrau’s.’”
    (Ghost Towns of Northern California, Philip Varney, 2001. p 99)

    Gold, gold miners, and gold diggers? Throw in a some drinks and a few more pranks– and Bagdad now looks like it has a real party going on:

    In the early 1850s, a rumor spread up and down the river that Craven Lee was going to marry a comely young woman from Big Flat … Lee then made a very public trip to Big Flat — returning shortly (and very ostentatiously) with “his heavily veiled bride.” Upon arrival the pair was met by a rowdy band of miners determined to give the newly married couple a ‘grand shivaree’ …. whereupon …. the music, drinking, and noisy revelry continued throughout the night … but through it all the “bride” stubbornly refused to unveil. Finally next morning when the miners’ patience to see the new bride’s face was wearing thin… David Weed demanded the bride be seen. The veil was removed — and jaws dropped.

    “Lee’s “bride” turned out to be a bearded character called “Jim, the Packer” …. of course later none of the miners would ever admit to have been really taken in …. Lee, as always, enjoyed his practical joke to the end…

    Bagdad’s reputation and Lee’s character made it further into the annals of history. The Overland Monthly of 1887 reported:

    A mining camp that flourished for a time and got a reputation for pure cussedness that may have been equaled but never excelled, was located about twenty miles from the county seat. There was nothing vicious about the good people of ” Bagdad”— for so they had named their city— but the genius of the inhabitants was exercised on every available occasion to extract fun and amusement from any and every source.

    “Birds of a feather are said to flock together, and the city of Bagdad held more than its proportion of practical jokers, supplemented, if occasion required, by reinforcements from the “Algerines;” who dwelt upon the opposite bank of the river. Generally speaking, their jokes were of a harmless nature, and they could give and take with equal zest and relish. Their pranks were usually played upon each other, and the person of the chance visitor was held sacred, unless he was thought to be “too fresh,” in which case the genius of the jokers was set at once to work to “take him down” a little.

    Craven Lee, the storekeeper, was one of the most inveterate of the lot, and though the boys might have the best of him to-day, the tables would be turned and he be on top of the heap to-morrow. When the boys led him off one night to rob a Chinese melon patch, while at the same hour another part of the crowd had taken advantage of his absence to rob his own, and then invited Lee to help eat his own melons in the belief that they were stolen from McGillivray’s four miles above, Lee did not wince; and the only time he is said to have lost his temper was when, having got his packs all ready for a trip to Rattlesnake, twenty miles away, the boys stole out two kegs of gin, deftly abstracted the contents, refilled the kegs with water and got them back in place, leaving Lee to find out the substitution at the end of his journey.

    I might fill scores of pages with the record of pranks like the above, but the samples I have given will suffice to show the kind of people who flocked to Bagdad, and held the fort there through many changing years. But as the placer mines in the vicinity became exhausted the jokers sought for other quarters, and to-day Bagdad, no longer so-called, consists of four or five buildings only. Rich quartz discoveries on the streams tributary to Trinity that flow by the place may bring to it something of its former prosperity if the promise now given is realized, but to get together such another set of jokers, is something that will not happen in these matter-of-fact times. The memories of those days are in the main pleasing ones…
    (The Overland Monthly, Vol IX; San Francisco, 1887. p 29)

    This reader wonders what became of our entrepreneur and prankster, Craven Lee? In later years he falls off the map and roster for Bagdad.

    But in 1876, an individual by the same name of Craven Lee shows up as the first pioneer, saloon owner, storekeeper, mining supplier, ‘Recorder of Record’ and one of the founders of a notorious soon-to-be-named town in South Dakota.

    The name of that town? Deadwood, South Dakota. Mr. Lee would also find himself at the periphery of the infamous murder of Wild Bill Hickok there, as well.

    • Lynette M says:

      Skippy, you are a researcher extraordinaire. Truly.
      Thank you so much for being so incredibly generous with your fantastic historical finds .

      • skippy says:

        Thank you for having me and sharing as well. I do realize these posts are long; hopefully not tediously so…

        • olmanriver says:

          How fun! thanks again to Skippy… I so appreciate your time and efforts good sir. What a delicious blogname… Craven Lee! Good stories.

        • Lynette M says:

          Absolutely not. You can tell by the responses that folks love the background info/history and it adds so much to the posts.

  5. skippy says:

    For those interested souls still living, wanting to visit the old Helena cemetery, here’s the information. While yours truly hasn’t been there to vouch for it, this seems pretty clear and easy:

    The Helena cemetery stands southeast of town. From Helena, return to State Route 299, cross the bridge going east, and stop to read the historical marker about Bagdad. Immediately beyond that marker, turn left from the highway (onto Cemetery Road). That road takes you in a few yards to what is now called the Trinity County Cemetery.

    There are ten marked graves of the pioneer Schlomer family, including H. (Harmon) K. Schlomer (1825-1898). Most of the Meckel family members left and returned to Weaverville where several are buried in both the public and Catholic cemeteries. Only Edna Meckel (1883-1946) has a marker in the Helena Cemetery.

    The Bagdad marker you’re looking for looks like this, although it’s a difficult one to miss on the right side of Highway 299 traveling from Humboldt:
    http://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=32634

    And a map of Helena and the above marker (the red target): zoom in two or three clicks to see the cemetery road lying to the East, on the left side and after the bridge on 299:
    http://www.hmdb.org/map.asp?markers=32634,32635

    Happy travels and photographs!

    • Lynette M says:

      Oh ! I so wish I had seen this.
      I do have a few interesting photos from the Shasta Cemetery I plan to share, but I do regret not finding this cemetery !

  6. skippy says:

    Your readers, Wes, and myself now know where to find it. Perhaps we’ll stop by on a trip towards Redding. I’d like to poke around there too, and follow the cemetery road up further around the corner and beyond. It leads North and turns shortly East around the hill into the next drainage– the Canyon Creek area and mines.

    • skippy says:

      Beyond the Trail’s Gary posted photographs of Helena with the cemetery and some history.

      • Excellent Blog and great commentary from readers!

        And thanks, skippy, for the mention. Thoroughly enjoyed your commentary about Old Helena. Used to live just a few miles up river from there — hiked the area a lot. Barney Gulch is where the Smothers Brothers grandparents lived — it’s a few miles on past Old Helena — believe the property is still in the family, actually. [I have a copy of a yesteryear Jack Benny show -- Tom and Dick were guests -- talked about Barney Gulch and their grandparents.] BTW, almost stepped on a rattlesnake last time I visited Old Helena Cemetery (Oct. 2011) – it’s generally over-grown so pays to be cautious —

        http://www.flickr.com/photos/garytrinity/6298443882/

        • gail says:

          Hello Gary,
          I also spent time in Helena and also knew Bert & Ed Remmick
          Smothers grandparents as my g-parents and parents retired
          a little further up the canyon. What year were you in the area?

          • carolyn dickson says:

            Hello Gail..you may be one of my cousins..Im Carolyn (Brockway) Dickson…would your Mother be Hazel Roberts?
            My Mother was Dorothy (Pitzer) Brockway.

            • Gail Paladines says:

              Hi Carolyn,
              Yes, Hazel was my mother your mothers sister. You have sister Connie and brothers Tom and John. Would love to talk to you.

              • carolyn dickson says:

                amazing…think the last time I saw you was at the “Cabin” at Maude and Paw’s…I was 18 or 19 (?) Now 67 closing in on
                68. Would love to talk with you as well…my email is dicksoncarolyn@gmail.com. May I have your email? “Cissy”
                Carolyn

  7. Tim Shey says:

    I have hitchhiked through Helena, CA probably once. I have hitchhiked through Helena, Montana many times. At first, I thought this might be a blog about Helena, MT. You have some nice photos here.

    “Hitchhiking Stories”

    http://tim-shey.blogspot.com/p/hitchhiking-stories.html

    • skippy says:

      …And you’ll have some fine adventures here, Tim. Hope you have a chance to visit sometime and see some of the ancient redwoods near our Western ocean, or any of the other beauties that abound during your travels. You may write future volumes of inspiration. Keep the faith, my friend.

  8. niceartlife says:

    I love ghost towns, fantasizing , exploring, cool!

    • skippy says:

      Wow. You have a nice site, niceartlife. Your articles and pictures were stunning. There wasn’t a single favorite; all of them were favorites. Thank you.

  9. Tim Shey says:

    Just thought I would let you know that I had a book published in January of this year:

    “The First Time I Rode a Freight Train & other hitchhiking stories”
    http://tim-shey.blogspot.com/2012/02/new-book-first-time-i-rode-freight.html

  10. Justin Sousa says:

    I haven’t found much information on Rich Bar other than “3 miles north” and of course the information from L.K. Wood’s memoirs on the Josiah Gregg party. Any other tidbits you’ve run across on this location? Love the blog, hope you can keep some time set aside for it! Thanks – Justin

    • Lynette M says:

      HI Justin,
      Nothing comes to mind right now re: Rich Bar, but I’ll keep it in mind. Re: the blog, life has gotten the better of me lately but I do hope to get back to it eventually. Glad you enjoy it.
      ~L

  11. gail says:

    Really interesting as spent many summers up the canyon from Helena as both grandparents and mother and father lived up
    the north fork. Also knew the all the forks that lived up the canyon.great memories. Gail

  12. Its like you read my mind! You seem to know a lot about this, like
    you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you could do with some pics to drive the message home a little bit, but instead of that, this is wonderful
    blog. An excellent read. I’ll definitely be back.

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