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.
Minnie MacDonald, 88, who lives on Jackass Hill and is the granddaughter of one of Twain's close friends, thinks the real Twain cabin was up the road from the replica.
"Nobody knows for sure," she said. "But when I was a little girl, there was a cabin up here at the top of the drive. That's the only thing that I ever knew that could possibly have been it."
Tuolumne County Supervisor Ron Rankin said the cabin is caught in a debate between preservationists who want it restored and Jackass Hill residents who fear any improvements will attract more visitors.
"At the moment, there aren't any funds to restore it, and even efforts to improve the area meet resistance from residents nearby," he said. "They don't mind the visitors, but the area's not well prepared to facilitate visitors."
A proposal to move the cabin down to California 49 next to a mini-market was dropped because of opposition from people who felt the move would distract from the structure's historical significance, Rankin said.
"It's been here since 1922, so under all the general rules of historical structures it almost qualifies itself," said Scott, the Tuolumne County Historical Society's treasurer. "Even though it's an imitation, there have been thousands of people from all over the world that come here all the time. Before they put a fence around it, they used to keep a guest book down there. It usually ran between 30,000 and 35,000 (signatures) a year."
A citizens group has raised some local money and gotten two state grants to replace the roof and make some other repairs to the Preston "castle," a massive stone structure that looms over the Mother Lode town of Ione, about 30 miles southeast of Sacramento. But Bonnie Randall of the Save the Castle Committee estimates that it will take millions to fully restore the building.
"What we need to do is get enough money to brace the flooring," she said. "The castle is three stories high, and due to windows broken out and rain coming in and vandalism, it is actually decaying from the inside out. The next big project is to get the floors braced or the castle is going to collapse from the inside out."
The castle was built in the 1890s to take young criminals out of the state prisons and try to reform them. It was used until 1960.
Mariann Layher, business service assistant at the Preston School of Industry, thinks the building would make an excellent bed-and-breakfast inn. "You could meet people down at the bottom of the drive with a carriage. People would come from miles around."
Problem With View
But the view from the castle is not a tourist's delight. Next door is the current Preston School of Industry, which houses 856 Youth Authority wards. Down the road is a new state prison.
The domed Auburn courthouse was built about the same time as the Preston castle, but the courthouse's future seems to be considerably brighter.
A local citizens group persuaded the Placer County Board of Supervisors to restore the building as a courthouse instead of constructing new court facilities. The county is scheduled to seek bids on the project next spring.
Barbara Wylie, secretary of the Courthouse Restoration Committee, said the county planned to use the old courthouse for some unspecified purpose. "They just said that sooner or later we will get around to that," Wylie said. "We knew that if they prolonged the restoration indefinitely, they would not have a building left to restore."
About 20 miles north of Auburn, some railroad buffs are rebuilding a portion of the Nevada County narrow gauge railroad, which ran between Colfax and Nevada City from 1876 to 1942.
The group has relaid some track and has obtained some equipment, including a 112-year-old locomotive that was used on the line from 1898 to 1940. The locomotive is on museum loan from Universal Studios, which used it in more than 100 Westerns, said John Christensen, chairman of the transportation museum division of the Nevada County Historical Society.
"What we would like to do is restore two miles of the old track for the museum and to carry visitors on rides," Christensen said. "Right now we're about to have public hearings in Nevada City about reusing seven-tenths of a mile of the route. We do have some track already laid in the middle of the old run."
Preservationists give mixed reviews to preservation efforts by local governments in the Mother Lode.
"In general, the atmosphere in this community is very good for historic preservation and restoration--Grass Valley, Nevada City, all of Nevada County," said Peter Browne, president of the Nevada County Historical Society. "We have never had a problem with wanting something preserved that deserved it that hasn't gotten consideration."
Nevada City, 50 miles northeast of Sacramento, enacted a historical preservation ordinance in 1968. The city requires that exterior alterations or new construction in a 10-block historical district compliment existing buildings.
'Very Little Support'
But not all local governments get such positive reviews. Brockman, president of the Tuolumne County Historical Society, is critical of the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors. "We get very little support," he said. "It seems that everything we want to preserve we fight a battle with them over it. It's better now than in the past, but it's not a positive thing."
Rankin, the Tuolumne County supervisor, said local officials are "on a tightrope" between the issues of development and historical preservation and complained that preservationists tend to oppose development instead of working to save structures before they are threatened.
"It's very difficult thing to draw a line between a reasonable amount of growth and maintaining the historical significance," he said. "We have been very fortunate in Tuolumne County that most of the business districts . . . have been able to maintain their historic flavor. But then people also want the services provided by good old Big Mac."