Samuel Clemens — aka Mark Twain — would have loved the irony.
The popular and controversial 19th century author — who many credit with penning the words “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over” — has been memorialized through the restoration of the cabin he stayed in from Dec. 4, 1864 to Feb. 25, 1865 just a short distance from where today’s New Melones Reservoir sits. The reservoir is a key player in California’s ongoing water wars that broke out months after the first gold nugget was discovered at Sutter’s Mill on the American River.
While staying at the cabin he heard the story of the jumping frog contest in an Angels Camp saloon. The short story that he wrote thereafter — “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” — would literally transform his life. It was originally published as “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog.” It represented his first major success as a writer and brought him national acclaim. “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County & Other Sketches” was the title of his first booked published in 1867. It included a collected of 27 stories that had been published previously from his dispatches to newspapers and magazines.
It was a long way from Jackass Hill Road in Tuolumne County north of Sonora where the cabin restored in 2002 by the Sonora Sunrise Club stands and the expansive three-story Gothic-style house he built in 1874 in Hartford, Connecticut, with his growing earnings from his writing. The house he lived in until 1891 today is a national historic landmark and houses the Mark Twain Museum. It is in that house that he wrote classics such as “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
The cabin on Jackass Hill is primitive to say the least and about the size of 1½ Chevy Suburbans. He had traveled to the Gold Country from Nevada’s famous silver Comstock Lode where he worked as a reporter for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. There he covered everything from the Nevada legislature in Carson City to reporting the number of hay wagons that rolled into town each week up Geiger Grade from the Washoe Valley.
He stayed with brothers Jim and Bill Gillis as well as Dick Stoker. The three were pocket miners that built the cabin. Some of the tales they spun were also included in Twain’s future works. Stoker was Dick Barker in “Roughing It.” One look at the cabin and “roughing it” comes to mind.
The cabin is on the Bret Harte Trail. The hill got its name as often more than 200 jackasses would overnight on the hill. Miners took some $10,000 worth of coarse gold from roughly 100 square feet of land.
The turnoff to the dead-end Jackass Hill Road is about a mile south of the Highway 49 bridge over New Melones Reservoir and the Stanislaus River heading north out of Sonora.
As landmarks go, it isn’t much to look at. It is protected by a wrought iron fence.
It is safe to say most people would be highly disappointed given the primitive cabin protected by wrought iron fencing and a historic marker is all there is to look at.
But if you’re a Mark Twain junkie (guilty as charged) or a history buff it is well worth the day trip combined with a visit to nearby Jamestown or lunch in Sonora that even has an El Jardin for the fans of the Mexican restaurants you can find in Manteca, Turlock, Oakdale, and Santa Cruz.
Given the fact I’ve taken in the old Virginia City Territorial Express office as well as went out of my way when I was in St. Louis 33 years ago to drive at night on a spur of the moment through a severe lightning storm to stay in Hannibal, Missouri, the fact I waited so long to see a spot where Mark Twain labored in the 209 is a bit perplexing.
That said, my trip there in 2018 was a lot cheaper than my 1988 trip to Hannibal where — just across the street from Twain’s childhood home — I managed to dump what was then (and still today) an outlandish sum of $290 in Becky’s Bookshop buying various books by Mark Twain that were among works and his letters that are slightly more obscure today than his books such as “Tom Sawyer”, “Huckleberry Finn”, “A Tramp Abroad”, “Life on the Mississippi”, “The Prince and the Pauper” and “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”.
And while the cabin where Twain once stood is definitely not going to get your heart racing if you are not a hardcore Samuel Clemens fan, it can be a good excuse to take a jaunt to the foothills.