The pine forest passes slowly by me. Reclined on a log bench, I stare at the trees and the complex patterns of shade and sun they produce. Birds chirp, and here and there I can spot one overhead as the branches thin. The whistle of a steam engine breaks the forest calm, and all heads turn toward the front of the train, watching for the release of a white cloud from the smokestack.

The ride on the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad is short, only about four miles. The train chugs slowly and rhythmically, the narrow gauge track making fairly steep grades along what was, until 1924, a working railroad for the Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company. The company, and the timber industry, was one of the main drivers of growth here in early Madera County, California, just south of Yosemite. The other: gold.

The engine as we prepare to get underway

It takes 40 gallons of oil and 400 gallons of water for the Shay locomotive – the largest produced for a narrow gauge track – to make the round trip down a valley, close to where the town of Sugar Pine would have been the company headquarters, and back up. The trip takes about an hour, with a ten minute stop to take on water at the bottom, a fun experience to watch. On the way, the conductor narrates, teaching visitors about the tree species of the area, the fire scars from California’s all-too-frequent wildfires, and the lumber industry that helped build the region. In 1874, the Madera County Sugar Pine Lumber Company was formed, primarily to cut down the vast forests of both sugar and ponderosa pine. And cut down the trees, they did. Nearly nothing here is old growth anymore, as most of what was accessible was removed, and sent by flume – think a twelve-hour Splash Mountain reaching up to 50 miles per hour – to the city of Madera, where it was milled and sent to growing cities in the American west and beyond.

Felled trees are still prevalent

The company built networks of railroads to easily transport their timber, and this was one of the spokes used, connecting the hub of Sugar Pine with a swath of forest that would be cut down. To those seeing the forests in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they must have seemed inexhaustible, too huge to ever clear. We know better today, so the area is now part of Sierra National Forest, protected for generations to come to enjoy as those of us on the train can today.

The art of the lumberjack is still very much in evidence in Madera County, despite the forest being for recreation only. North Fork, along Bass Lake, hosts annual lumberjack games, and the local champion opened Yosemite Axe Throwing in Oakhurst, as well as in a few other places in California. Here, I was able to throw a hand axe in the general direction of a target, occasionally even hitting the bullseye. (Athletic prowess is not my strong suit, but the rhythm of axe throwing came to me reasonably quickly, making for a fun workout.)

Got one!

Following an afternoon of lumberjacking, one will have built quite an appetite. The bestwestern burger at Oakhurst Grill will satisfy you if you can fit it in your mouth (a hard feat with the single, and they make a double), or try a beer at South Gate Brewing Company followed by a pork belly banh mi with a side of beer mac and cheese. I’m sure there are more good bites to be had in Oakhurst, but these were the ones I had and can recommend.

Lumberjacks work up a thirst

Back at Yosemite Mountain, those waiting for the train can participate in Madera County’s other region-building industry: gold panning. While there is gold to be found in most streams and rivers of gold country – the area spanning from here all the way north along the Sierra Nevada foothills toward Lake Tahoe – at most of the touristy panning experiences, pans are pre-seeded with a bit of gold dust, and participants use a trough to simulate the river environment. Is it a bit kitschy? Yes. But the gleeful exclamation of Audrey, a seven year old from Minnesota who was my panning buddy, that she “found so much shiny gold” made the whole thing worthwhile. Plus, you’ll get a small vial of gold dust to take home with you!

My vial of gold

Gold was discovered in California in 1848, and by 1849, thousands of fortune-seekers had made their way to Madera County in the hope of striking it rich. In all, more than 480 mines were dug in the area, most of which never produced anything of significance. The majority closed by the start of World War Two, although the “end” of the gold industry lingered through the 1950s. (There is still plenty of gold throughout the area, but what remains is not cost-effective to mine.) Some of the most successful mines were clustered around the town of Coarsegold, named for the coarse nuggets found in the nearby gulch.

The Coarsegold Historic Museum traces the history of the town. Its collection is large, ranging from old photographs and newspaper articles to mining equipment, furniture, and other oddities. Make sure to visit the old schoolhouse, relocated here to preserve it. (One small note on the museum. The collection is overwhelming, and it felt as though the volunteers running the place – not professional curators, it should be noted – feel obligated to display everything. As a result, some rooms felt cluttered and with little focus, although there are gems to be found everywhere.)

The old schoolhouse

Coarsegold’s main attraction is the Coarsegold Historic Village, a collection of historic buildings turned into antique shops and quirky stores. Even if one doesn’t like antiquing or vintage clothing, it’s worth a stop to grab a wild fig burger at the Wild Fig Kitchen. Miners certainly didn’t eat this well.

Today, Madera County – at least the foothills portion; Madera itself is an agricultural hub – boasts tourism as its main industry. However, if not for the twin resources of timber and gold, the area would not have become what it is. There is no better place to explore – and to personally experience – what life might have been like working the gold mines or pine forests of the early American west.

A huge thank you to Visit Yosemite / Madera County for hosting me on this exploration of California history. While my experiences may have been covered by their generosity, my opinions are my own.

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