"Normal" Places We Go

California Ghost Towns: Poker Flat

Made famous by the Bret Harte story, Outcasts of Poker Flat, which actually has nothing to do with the real town, the name “Poker Flat” will likely at least have name recognition for many people. And to expand on the previous sentence, although the Poker Flat in the story bears no resemblance to the real Poker Flat, it is quite possible that the town served as the inspiration for the Bret Harte story.

The real Poker Flat is located in a deep canyon roughly between La Porte and Downieville. However, unless you have a vehicle able to handle rough roads, Poker Flat is not easy to get to. This is particularly true if you try to access Poker Flat from the route through Howland Flat and Potosi.

The road just before it gets really bad:

road-to-poker-flat

The cliffs leading down to the bottom of the well-named Canyon Creek where Poker Flat was located are extremely steep. Wagon drivers used to drag large logs behind their wagons so that the weight and drag from the logs would prevent the wagons from losing control. Matters have not improved. Today the road leading down to Poker Flat from Howland Flat is little more than a glorified stream bed:

poker-flat-road

I have been advised that the road coming in from Downieville is slightly better, but I have never taken that route.

Once you reach the bottom of the canyon, you’ll discover that were in not for the massive amount of gold discovered here that Poker Flat is in an odd location for a town as there is hardly any level ground to be found. In fact, there was barely enough space for two rows of buildings with the street between them.

Poker Flat allegedly got its name from the nuggets of gold that were so common in the area that the miners used them as chips in their frequent poker games – hence the mining camp was named Poker Flat. Regardless of the hazy origins of its name, Poker Flat was known as a gambling town and the staggering abundance of gold found in the area was such that it was able to support fifteen saloons and gambling houses, a dozen stores, two butcher shops, a blacksmith shop, concert hall, jewelry shop, Masonic Lodge and three hotels. Miners with their pockets bulging with gold would pour into Poker Flat on the weekends where professional gamblers would be waiting for them to help lighten the heavy burden of carrying such loads of gold around. Sometimes, given the volume of customers, tables had to be set up out in the street.

This picture below from a dance (presumably at the concert hall?) gives some sense of what a lively town Poker Flat was at one time:

poker flat california

Today, when entering Poker Flat from the direction of Howland Flat, this sign is the first thing you will encounter:

poker flat

Nearby, are the remains of this structure… This was the Charles Scott home. Charles was Poker Flat’s first ski racing champion (skis were called snowshoes back then) and a butcher in Poker Flat:

poker flat

These pictures were taken in 2007:

poker flat

poker flat

Unfortunately, when I was up in Howland Flat being shown around by Jann Garvis and Don Goard two weekends ago, we were advised by a guy that had just made it back up the canyon from Poker Flat that this building had finally succumbed to the elements and collapsed.

*****

If one turns right at the Poker Flat sign pictured above, after a short while you will arrive at a primitive Forest Service campground (there are just picnic tables and fire pits). Nevertheless, it is more than adequate for a stay in the area:

poker flat

Figuring out the itinerary for the day:

poker flat campground

Amusingly, there was another group camped out at the campground when we visited. We figured they would be scary rednecks, but it became immediately apparent when we went over to chat that we were the scary rednecks to them!

That’s me by the campfire… Given how infrequently this area is visited, it is no trouble at all to locate plenty of dead wood around the campground to use as firewood:

Justin Ames at Poker Flat

The next morning we went exploring to the left of the Poker Flat sign…

poker flat road

…and came across this cabin in the woods inhabited by the guy on the left. Neither Ian (the friend I was with) or I could remember the name of the guy on the right – we think it might have been Dale – but he was quite friendly and quite knowledgeable about the area and had helped us the night before with directions. He helped us again with fresh directions when we saw him this time. Interestingly, all of those pictured expressed a strong dislike for hunters and our not being hunters was essentially a precondition to having assistance rendered to us:

Poker Flat

There are a few stone foundations and ruins, such as those pictured below, on the road to the left of the Poker Flat sign:

poker flat

poker-flat-california

However, overall, there is sadly little left of this once booming community.

The last permanent resident of Poker Flat was Pat O’Kean who lived here until 1950 (he would snowshoe out to La Porte once a week to pick up his mail). After 1950, he would spend early spring until fall here, but leave in the winter. Pat did this up until the 1970s.

All along Canyon Creek itself is extensive evidence of the hydraulic mining that took place in Poker Flat… Ian provides a little scale:

poker flat

As was typical during the gold rush, the streams around Poker Flat were mined first since that was the easiest. Hydraulic mining then took over on a large scale from the late 1850s through the 1880s. Some hard rock mining (mining using tunnels) took place through the early 1900s and the area was prospected into the 1920s and 1930s.

Poker Flat mines were:

Alturas Gravel
Ballarat
Beaver Gravel
Belmont Consolidated
Big Grizzly Quartz Mine (New York, Poker Flat Gold Mining and Milling Company, Poker Flat Shaft)
Bonanza Extension
Bruckermann (Studhorse Canyon, Blue Lead, Renaissance)
Burnham Consolidated Placer
Captain Cook
Carleton Placer
Carlisle & Company
Cold Canyon (Montrose)
Copper Ledge (Lassiat)
Doray & Company
Descombes Claim (Big Canyon Creek)
Empire Gravel # 2
Enterprise
Fashion No. 1 and No. 2
Forest Queen
Gibraltar (Germania, Eclipse, Divide)
Golden Nugget Gravel
Gordinier & Company
Grand Prize
Happy Day Gravel
Hayes Gravel
Herkimer & Bunker Hill (Enchantress, Evening Star)
Hidden Treasure Hydraulic Mine
Illinois Gravel (Happy-Go-Lucky)
Jones’ New Diggings
Kirkpatrick Claim
Liberator Gravel
Little Grizzly (Kendal & Company)
Luella
Magalio Gravel
Mammoth Quartz Mine
Monterey
No. 2 Quartz (Terhune & Company)
North Bald Mountain
North Side Company
Orleans Gravel Claim
Poker Flat Drift Prospect (Gold Gravel)
Poker Flat Mill and Mining Company
Pyro Group (Hunter)
Rattlesnake Ledge
Reese Ravine
Rocky Point
Sebastopol Gravel
Sierra Company (Sierra Tunnel Company)
Sierra-Phoenix (Alhambra, Sutherland)
Sky High Mine
Soldier Boy
Steamboat
Sunnyside
Sunshine Gravel
Swallow Gravel
Tefft Quartz Mine
Tennessee (Scott & Sons, Conglomerate, Commonwealth, Manxman, Bluebell)
Turner & Company
Waterford Tunnel Mining Company (Quinn Mine)
Wells & Company
West Branch Gravel
Whitehead
Wilsdorff
Winchester Gravel
Wingate

If you are interested in the history of this area, this is a series (search “California Ghost Towns on this site) and I am trying to cover as many towns and as much history as possible in this area of the High Sierra. I am not trying to provide a complete history as Jann Garvis and James Sinnott (I highly recommend both of their books) have covered that ground far better than I. However, given the history rapidly being lost, I hope to show a little of what was once here and to perhaps inspire others to explore and appreciate the rich history of these areas as well.

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23 thoughts on “California Ghost Towns: Poker Flat

  1. Ah memories! In the late 60’s my family spent 2 weeks every summer staying with Pat O’Kean (my father was a fly fisherman) . Thanks for the article and pictures!

  2. my grandfather has the cabin directly across from the cemetery. I grew up in La Porte and know ea. of those locations well. used to stay with Dick O’Rourke in poker flat and fly fish canyon creek @ copper ledge. I miss those day’s immensely, with Mr O, also miss Leroy post & Jim & Madeline Burkholder, I would sit for hrs and listen to them talk about working in the mines. My father also built the bunk house’s @ the feather fork when it was open in the early 80’s.

    • Thank you for sharing your memories. You were there for what, at least from my perspective, was a golden time. I’ve had the good fortune to meet some of those characters you mentioned, but I wish I had met them all.

  3. The ‘Cabin’ you two came across is the Mojer (sik) camp/claim. Nicest guy around, and will remember your drink of choice on your next visit.

    • Thank you, Sev. Do you happen to know the name of the guy at the Mojer? Do you recognize the others in the picture?

  4. I am Maurice Hamilton’s grandson. I spent each summer from 1971 through 1980 there. The last several years at The Clippership near St Louis on Cedar Grove Ravine. If it’s still standing the ore mill in poker flat was the Alhambra mine. I knew Pat Okean. He spent several nights at the Tennessee cabin. We scolded our dog for taking a nip at him and he said ” it’s not his fault! All dogs hate me!” Dick Orourke was an amazing man. I don’t recall copper ledge but he and Earl Twede (sheriff) used to fish at the end of the road past the Tennessee by Blair’s mining claim.I hope to go back someday.

    • Thank you for adding in those details, Rick. It’s great to have you guys that had/have these connections to the prior generations add in some color.

      Hope you get the chance to come back to visit someday… Ha, I’ll warn you that the road from Howland Flat down to Poker Flat is pretty horrendous now though.

      • Haha, well, you’re certainly right about that. It would’ve been something to see the old wagons making it down there!

      • Thanks for allowing me to go back in time via this site! I could write a book about those days and the characters involved! It was a great way to spend a childhood full of summers!

  5. My wife and I just spend the Labor Day weekend camping at Poker Flat. I couldn’t stop exploring the area and wondering what it must have been like 100 years ago. I was so intrigued that I’ve been doing research since I got home last night. Thanks to all of you for helping me learn a little more about this amazing place. And the fly-fishing is still pretty good…

  6. I went down to poker flat in 1981 with a couple of friends in a jeep pickup. We drank whiskey with a guy named vern overbee. Said he was the mayor! Quite the trip! Dave ward.

    • Ha!Oversbee’s name brings a smile to my face. He had a dragline (like a crane with a bucket attached) that he ran up and down Canyon Creek removing the gravel bed to process for gold. His efforts would often take out the crossing that had to be used when coming through from Downieville. My dad would get so mad when the Toyota got swamped because Vern had made the crossing impassable. Dad would steal the rotor out of his distributor. The motor was some obscure car engine out of the forties which made buying another a huge chore.

      • Thanks for sharing that, Rick. Great stories like that definitely won’t be making it into the history books and so it is great to get them down in this format…

  7. Pingback: Playing Games » Twelve Mile Circle » maps, geography, travel

  8. I whish I had the money to rebuild poker flat and all the old towns just putem back!!! Does anybody no were the store of Jerome Peyton was?

  9. I whish I had the money to rebuild poker flat and all the old towns just putem back!!! Does anybody no were the store of Jerome Peyton was at poker flat?

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