JACKASS HILL, Calif. — The mule teams and the hill's most famous resident, Mark Twain, are long gone, but the old cabin is still there, a decaying reminder of a Gold Rush era that lingers along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada.
The roof sags and the rough-plank walls are rotting away. A metal fence surrounds the structure, supposedly a replica of the shack that Twain used for a few months in the 1860s while he gathered material for "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" and "Roughing It."
Local residents, officials and preservationists have debated for years about what to do with the cabin. At the moment it is just "sinking into the ground," said Lyle Scott, treasurer of the Tuolumne County Historical Society.
Gold Found in 1848
Hanging onto history--even a replica of history--can be a tough proposition in the Mother Lode, a 170-mile-long region where gold was found in 1848.
The discovery set off a westward stampede that boosted California's population from 14,000 in 1848 to 380,000 in 1860. Miners took nearly $1.3 billion in gold from Mother Lode streams and mines by 1900, and some mining goes on today.
The prospectors built a series of mining camps in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Many of them are still there, and some still look much the way they did in Twain's day--small, picturesque towns with narrow streets flanked by Victorian-era buildings.
But time and growth are taking their toll on the Mother Lode's Old West atmosphere. Shopping centers, fast-food restaurants and gas stations line the region's main highway, California 49, as it winds through some towns.
"We are just moving the valley up the hill," complained Ed Brockman, president of the Tuolumne County Historical Society.
Last year one Mother Lode county, Calaveras, had the biggest percentage increase in population in the state and six others were among the top 20, according to state Finance Department estimates.
More rapid growth is expected. The Finance Department predicts that most of the region's counties will at least double in population by the year 2020, and some people are concerned about the impact that growth will have.
For example, Calaveras County's population of 28,794 is expected to reach 42,804 in the year 2000 and 62,440 in 2020, according to Finance Department projections issued last December.
Placer County, the most heavily populated in the Mother Lode, will have more than 200,000 residents in 2000 and more than 287,000 in 2020, the department said. It now has 144,940.
Conrad Montgomery, community development director for Placerville, said he is not sure if the region can maintain the Gold Rush atmosphere over the next 30 years.
"I would hope so," he said. "But I don't know if I can answer that confidently. Obviously, growth will put some of the historic buildings in jeopardy. The only thing we can do on a case-by-case basis is at least point these historic resources out and try to figure out if they can be incorporated into a project's design."
W. P. Fuller Jr., office director for the Calaveras County Historical Society, said most of the growth in his area is taking place in large subdivisions away from town.
"Of course, one by one the old buildings get liquidated," he said. "That's the old slow process of attrition. . . . (But) I think the towns themselves, the main parts of towns, are going to survive a great deal of this."
There have been a number of successes for Mother Lode historical preservation groups in recent years. Placer County, for example, is about to begin restoration of the historic courthouse in Auburn. A group in Nevada County is rebuilding a portion of the Nevada County narrow gauge railroad, and there has been a business and restoration revival in Mokelumne Hill, one of the best-preserved Gold Rush communities.
Some Mother Lode cities have passed preservation ordinances to try to save their older sections, and one town, Columbia, has been preserved as a state park.
But there have also been some failures or unfulfilled preservation efforts. The 126-year-old Wilcox warehouse, which preservationists describe as a unique rock structure, appears headed for demolition to make way for a new Placerville motel.
A citizens group has had some success in raising money and making some repairs on the Preston "castle" but still has a long way to go to preserve the imposing structure--the state's first reform school.
And efforts to save the so-called Mark Twain cabin have gone nowhere.
The cabin was built with great fanfare in 1922, supposedly on the same site and with the same fireplace and chimney as the original Twain cabin, which Scott said burned down in 1906.
(Jackass Hill, now home to about 16 families, got its name from the Gold Rush mule teams that stopped there on their way to the mines.)
The replica, owned by Tuolumne County, draws thousands of visitors a year, even though some people say the existing cabin is not even on the same site as the original one.