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.