Bear River Awakening

Bear River Timepiece:
Dutch Flat's Golden Drift Museum

"China Mary" was a professional wailing woman from Virginia City, whose lamentations were frequently heard at Chinese funeral services in the Dutch Flat area during the town's timber and mining heyday. She was 100 years old in 1925, when she posed for the picture that's been copied and put on display at the Golden Drift Museum in Dutch Flat.

Mary's black and white image is midway down the wall in the porch gallery's "Pictorial History of Dutch Charlie's Flat," that begins with faded photos of Charles Frank Dornbach and his wife Elizabeth, credited with founding Dutch Flat in 1851.

The photos and maps spreading down the wall from there lead visitors into the regional history of unrestricted mineral and timber extraction in Dutch Flat, Gold Run, Alta, Towle, and Baxter. The Bear River is seen or implied in nearly every picture, providing the immense force that scoured the earth for gold and produced barren moonscapes like the one just outside of town, or as the power source that drove the lumber mills and irrigated fruit trees via an extensive regional canal system.

Named after the Golden Drift Mine, the museum is a cramped, three-room house converted to hold the historical legacy that has been assembled by volunteers of the Golden Drift Historical Society. As with many museums, visitors aren't seeing the entire collection. What's there, however, opens a window on the upper Bear River's past, adding perspective to a recent satellite photo clearly showing the watershed's devastating erosion and broad western fan of sedimentary spew.

Historical Society president and museum curator Doug Ferrier lives in the house his grandfather built in 1923 as part of a tuberculosis cure that required him to spend part of the year in a hot, dry climate. Ferrier is a professional forester who was raised in Berkeley but moved to Dutch Flat in 1973 after years of summer visits. He is a prime contributor of information and artifacts to the museum.

"It started out as a private museum and then we decided to join the county museum system and sold it to the county for a buck," he says. "That was only fair because that's what we paid the Ladies Aid for it, and it's worked out for us. The county covers the building for insurance, we get their expertise on layout and display, and they get our expertise on local history."

Much of that expertise comes from Ferrier himself, who researched all of the extended captions that describe the large photo collection. "It took a lot of time and a lot of research to come up with all of those," he says. "Basically 25 years, off and on, of reading old notes, letters, newspapers, books, and articles."

Other displays include a working model of a hydraulic monitor, local family histories, mining and logging tools, and a "Chronology of Dutch Flat" marking such special dates as a big fire in old Chinatown (1873), the first town water system (1880), Eric Von Stroheim shooting scenes for his film "Greed" in town (1923), and the loss of Buster Sharon's pool room to fire (1938). The newest display, "The Nisenan's Summer Retreat," draws attention to the area's earliest inhabitants, who returned each year after snow melt before whites drove them out.

There's also a small gift shop featuring tee shirts, wine glasses, tiles, magnets and postcards with regional themes. The Golden Drift Museum is open seasonally, from Memorial Day through Labor Day, noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. It can also be opened by special appointment with a call to Ferrier at (530) 389-2617.

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