An Archaeologist’s “Paint Your Wagon”
CSU, Chico Program Searches for Treasure Beneath the Floorboards at Shasta State Historic Park
In October this year, the Archaeological Research Program conducted a fascinating study in the Gold Rush-era ruins at Shasta State Historic Park, six miles west of Redding, in a section of the old town where commercial buildings once stood. Old Shasta is best known as a rough-and-tumble Gold Rush berg. The city was founded in 1849 by Pierson Barton Reading, who selected the place for a settlement and commercial operation based on the location’s productive year-round springs. The town was first known as “Reading’s Upper Springs,” then as “Queen City of the North,” “Head of Whoa Navigation” (because the town served as a hub for roads and trails extending in all directions), and finally “Shasta City.”
Gold mining was the primary focus of the initial settlement, and between 1849 and 1860 it was considered one of California’s wealthiest Gold Rush towns. However, between 1872 and 1925 expanding transportation corridors and development in the Redding Basin dealt the town a crushing blow. Wagon roads were developed elsewhere, ending the city’s role as a transfer point, and in the 1870s the railroad would bypass the city for Redding. In 1888, the Shasta County seat was moved to Redding, followed in 1890 by the land office. Wells Fargo withdrew its Shasta City service in 1892, and the town dwindled and then collapsed.
Our work focused on the former commercial district on the south side of Highway 299, where park visitors can walk through the standing ruins of 12 brick buildings. The California Department of Parks and Recreation provided the Archaeological Research Program with a $70,000 grant to conduct field and laboratory studies for a proposed ruins stabilization project.
Since level ground was limited in the area’s hilly terrain, early in the town’s history, road and building sites were created by excavation of flat building pads cut directly into the bedrock slopes with little room for buffers and no provision for drainage. Runoff and spring water immediately impacted these building sites, and when a disastrous fire swept through and destroyed the town in 1853, drainage structures were incorporated into the replacement building designs. The brick structures, generally built between 1855 and 1870, incorporated scuppers and hoppers in the rear walls and sub-floor drainage trenches, such that visitors to the commercial establishments in these buildings might have heard a stream running beneath the floorboards.
The town site and brick buildings burned again in 1877, and large sections of the town were never rebuilt. All of the buildings fell into ruin by the early 20th century. In fact, the old drainage structures fell into disuse and filled with wall collapse and sediment. The park system, which acquired the town as a Gold Rush interpretive site in 1947, has taken note of a growing drainage problem in the old ruins, some of which fill with water in the winter and spring—moisture that wicks up into the walls and destabilizes the ruins, making many walls in danger of further collapse. Because the Department of Parks and Recreation is charged with the preservation and interpretation of these ruins, they asked us to dedicate our effort to archaeological study of the layers within the buildings, to identify and sample the various strata of rubble and sub-floor sediment, and to attempt to relocate the original drainage structures.
Between October 16 and 27, we dug a series of small test pits, and in two of the buildings excavated trenches all the way across the width of the building to bedrock or sterile subsoil. One of these trenches encountered bedrock immediately, and obvious drainage structures cut into the bedrock historically. The second trench encountered a complicated stratigraphic sequence with five distinct layers (from bottom to top): (1) the original soil, (2) the 1853 burn layer, (3) post-1853 rubble and construction fill, (4) 1856 brick-building sub-floor sediment, and (5) post-1900 wall collapse.
We also found evidence of drainage trenches and drain pipes installed in the sub-floor dating throughout their period of use, between 1851–1891. We excavated these layers, and our laboratory team is now engaged in analysis of the artifacts, which include an array of iron, ceramic, glass, leather, and wood pieces.
I am a big fan of American musicals, with “Paint Your Wagon” among my favorites, and visions of gold dust definitely danced in my head, but to no avail. Maybe what we do next time is dig a bigger hole.
“Where am I goin’? I don’t know. Where am I headin’? I ain’t certain.”
Documentary, archival, and museum studies we are now conducting for this study focus on three research themes: economic history, transportation, and social history. If you are interested in visiting our lab at 25 Main Street and having a look at the finds, please contact the offices of the Archaeological Research Program to arrange a tour.
—Greg White, director, Archaeological Research Program