Altaville - Passport in Time

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Previous Projects > States A-F

Six Rivers National Forest, California, 1998–2000
by Mary Maniery, President, Par Environmental Services, Inc., and Member, California State Historical Resources Commission

“A filthier, dirtier, nastier, noisier place I have not struck in the state.” —Wm. Brewer, 1863

When land surveyor William Brewer wrote those words in December of 1863, he was sitting outside Altaville, a “little town on a sharp ridge” situated a few miles south of the Oregon-California border in the northwest corner of the state. In Brewer’s day, Altaville was the center of a copper-mining district that boomed in interior Del Norte County in the early 1860s. The little town, located at Low Divide on the Pioneer Road (a major route into the mines), was laid out in 1862 in a rather arid ecotone about 11 miles southeast of Brookings, Oregon, and 20 miles northeast of Crescent City, California.

Altaville not only was the center of a Civil War–era copper-mining district, it was the major town on the road between the harbor at Crescent City and the gold-mining community at Jacksonville, Oregon. As such, it served as a stage stop and rest station for the teamsters, freight wagons, and stagecoaches that traveled over the route. At its peak between 1863 and 1865, the town prospered, with several saloons, hotels, a butcher shop, a blacksmith shop, general stores, and mining offices and housing. Altaville dwindled quickly after 1865, as the cycle of boom and bust played out its course. Its demise was aided by the end of the Civil War (which reduced the need for copper) and the migration of the Jacksonville miners to new gold fields. By the turn of the 20th century, the site was a ramshackle collection of stone foundations, fallen houses, dust, and one cabin, occupied by Frank Zaar, the self-appointed “caretaker.” Several attempts were made to open the copper and chromite mines in the 20th century, using Altaville as a base, but these ventures were short-lived, and the town site remained abandoned and isolated, but never forgotten.

The town, located on both private and public lands, was the focus of several inventory projects in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but no excavation was done. In 1998, the Six Rivers NF partnered with the landowner and planned one week of excavation. The forest also partnered with PAR Environmental Services for the duration of the project. While Six Rivers NF ran the program, PAR provided the historical-archaeological expertise in the field and lab and was responsible for cataloging, database creation and maintenance, artifact analysis, and reporting.

The first year at Altaville was an unqualified success, generating positive local and regional publicity. The interest generated during that week resulted in two more years of excavation, culminating in a final field session in June 2000. In the three seasons of digging, 381 volunteers put in 9,704 hours of their time excavating the Civil War town site.

The three years of excavation afforded us an opportunity to explore most of the lots that once lined the main street of Altaville. Volunteers uncovered a blacksmith forge, found the living quarters for the late-1850s stage stop, and exposed the hotel built and owned by Nicholas Tack and the mercantile store next door to Tack’s Hotel. We also finally located the garbage dump from Tack’s Hotel. The final session concentrated on answering questions raised during the previous two years. In addition, research in 2000 identified the water source for the town (hand-dug cisterns), tent platforms, the probable site of a miner’s cabin, and the main town plaza.

As archaeologists, it was extremely satisfying to have the time and opportunity to reconstruct the 1860s town. The archaeological evidence allowed us to interpret living and working areas in the community; estimate the size and mass of Tack’s Hotel (66 feet long, 20 feet wide, and two or more stories high); identify forges and domestic cooking areas; and verify the water source, layout, and design of the town as a whole and of individual lots.

For many of the volunteers, the highlight of the season was finally hitting the archaeological “jackpot”: complete or nearly complete bottles and dishes last touched by Altaville residents during the Civil War. A soup bowl with an English company mark, several medicine bottles, a piano hammer, a condiment bottle, and pieces of a door chime joined the thousands of nails, bits of tin cans, and fragments of dishes that filled our on-site lab. These items were discussed around campfires at night and gave volunteers a hands-on sense of Altaville’s history—much more than the stained and hardened soil in the outdoor kitchen or the traces of the interior posthole in Tack’s Hotel treasured by the archaeological staff.

Historical archaeologists handle old bottles and ceramics regularly, and it is easy to forget the real connection to the past that these artifacts can provide. It was a joy to view our profession through the eyes of volunteers, who treat these old objects with such respect and delight, even when examining the simplest nail. It was exciting to watch as these volunteers uncovered porcelain buttons, corset stays, and other objects that likely were used by Eleanor Tack or one of her female hotel guests so many years ago. The awed look on the face of Nicholas Tack’s great-great-great granddaughter when she found a pewter serving spoon within the walls of his hotel spoke clearer than words ever could about the feel for the past inspired by this PIT project.

Recovering these simple objects of day-to-day life allowed the PIT participants to explore the lives of people living in an isolated area of California during the Civil War. Camping on the site for a week and enduring high winds that blew over tents in the dead of night, days of temperatures over 100°F, and even cold, clammy fog one morning gave everyone a true sense of what it was like to live at Altaville so long ago.

Although the fieldwork is finished, the enthusiasm and dedication of the volunteers is still evident in the collection. The artifact labels within each bag, carefully written by the “lab rats” and sometimes illustrated with detailed drawings of maker’s marks or decorative designs, provide silent and eloquent testimony of the care that each individual volunteer put into his or her assigned task during a few hot summer weeks spread over three years.

Popular and technical reports on the Altaville excavations will be completed in late 2002. For more information, contact Ken Wilson at the Six Rivers NF.
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