Town of Michigan Bluff (No. 402 California Historical Landmark)
California Historical Landmarks Program
Historical Landmarks are sites, buildings, features, or events that are of statewide significance and have anthropological, cultural, military, political, architectural, economic, scientific or technical, religious, experimental, or other value. Historical Landmarks are eligible for registration if they meet at least one of the following criteria:
1) Is the first, last, only, or most significant of its type in the state or within a large geographic region
2) Is associated with an individual or group having a profound influence on the history of California
3) Is a prototype of, or an outstanding example of, a period, style, architectural movement or construction or is one of the more notable works or the best surviving work in a region of a pioneer architect, designer or master builder.
California’s Landmark Program began in the late 1800s with the formation of the Landmarks Club and the California Historical Landmarks League. In 1931, the program became official when legislation charged the Department of Natural Resources—and later the California State Chamber of Commerce—with registering and marking buildings of historical interest or landmarks. The Chamber of Commerce then created a committee of prestigious historians, including DeWitt Hutchings and Lawrence Hill, to evaluate potential landmark sites.
In 1948, Governor Earl Warren created the California Historical Landmarks Advisory Committee to increase the integrity and credibility of the program. Finally, this committee was changed to the California Historical Resources Commission in 1974. Information about registered landmarks numbered 770 onward is kept in the California Register of Historical Resources authoritative guide. Landmarks numbered 669 and below were registered prior to establishing specific standards, and may be added to the California Register when criteria for evaluating the properties are adopted.
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Currently considered a quiet mountain hamlet of a few dozen people today, Michigan Bluff was once overrun with miners who struggled across steep mountain trails and through ravines to reach the rich diggings they expected to find. Hundreds of miners began their ascent into Michigan Bluff in 1849. In 1850, thousands of more miners followed, coming from nearby El Dorado County mines.
Michigan Bluff, seven miles east of Foresthill, is perched upon the Foresthill Ridge at the 4,000 foot elevation overlooking the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the American River Gorge and El Dorado Canyon. Michigan Bluff connects to the Last Chance Trail of the Western States Trail, offering spectacular scenic views of the Sierra Nevada.
Leland Stanford lived in Michigan Bluff between 1853 and 1855. This period was when Stanford held his first conversations regarding rail travel. These discussions eventually led to developing the Central Pacific Railroad, that years later connected the west coast to form the transcontinental railroad. After leaving Michigan Bluff, he became one of the “Big Four” financiers of the railroad and became Governor of California.
Hydraulic mining began in 1853, using high pressure water jets to wash gravel away from mountainsides. Rivers downstream flooded from tremendous amounts of sediment. Riparian habitat was destroyed.
Fire swept through the town in 1857. The mines were rich in gold, so the town was rebuilt and residents stayed. By 1858, Michigan City, as it was originally called, was producing $100,000 worth of gold per month.
In 1858, a few years after hydraulic mining began, the damage was irreversible. The land below the town was so severely undermined that homes and businesses began sliding off the ridge and tumbled down the cliff to the river below. In 1859, amidst turf battles between residents of the “north and south,” the townspeople moved en masse farther up the hill and renamed their city Michigan Bluff. During the 1860s and 1870s, Michigan Bluff was one of the most prosperous mining centers on the Foresthill Ridge.
Fortunes changed in the 1880s. Large mining companies were buying out the smaller mines, so increasingly less land was available to mine. The “Anti-Debris Act,” also called the Sawyer Decision rendered in 1883, made hydraulic mining illegal. This became one of the first environmental decisions in the nation and changed the course of mining for camps throughout the Mother Lode. Hydraulic mining abruptly stopped. Town populations sharply declined anywhere hydraulic mining was the primary method of extracting gold. People moved on to other diggings and the places they left behind stood virtually abandoned.
The historical marker is located at the intersection of Gorman Ranch and Auburn-Foresthill Roads in Michigan Bluff.
Placer is a Spanish word describing surface mining. Gold that had been “placed” in streams or on the ground through natural erosion was processed by planning, rocking, and similar techniques. Such mining efforts made Placer County residents some of the richest in California.
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