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:
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:
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:
Today, when entering Poker Flat from the direction of Howland Flat, this sign is the first thing you will encounter:
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:
These pictures were taken in 2007:
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:
Figuring out the itinerary for the day:
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:
The next morning we went exploring to the left of the Poker Flat sign…
…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:
There are a few stone foundations and ruins, such as those pictured below, on the road to the left of the Poker Flat sign:
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:
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:
Big Grizzly Quartz Mine (New York, Poker Flat Gold Mining and Milling Company, Poker Flat Shaft)
Bruckermann (Studhorse Canyon, Blue Lead, Renaissance)
Burnham Consolidated Placer
Carlisle & Company
Cold Canyon (Montrose)
Copper Ledge (Lassiat)
Doray & Company
Descombes Claim (Big Canyon Creek)
Empire Gravel # 2
Fashion No. 1 and No. 2
Gibraltar (Germania, Eclipse, Divide)
Golden Nugget Gravel
Gordinier & Company
Happy Day Gravel
Herkimer & Bunker Hill (Enchantress, Evening Star)
Hidden Treasure Hydraulic Mine
Illinois Gravel (Happy-Go-Lucky)
Jones’ New Diggings
Little Grizzly (Kendal & Company)
Mammoth Quartz Mine
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)
Sierra Company (Sierra Tunnel Company)
Sierra-Phoenix (Alhambra, Sutherland)
Sky High Mine
Tefft Quartz Mine
Tennessee (Scott & Sons, Conglomerate, Commonwealth, Manxman, Bluebell)
Turner & Company
Waterford Tunnel Mining Company (Quinn Mine)
Wells & Company
West Branch Gravel
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.