If you were to follow the Mokelumne River upstream past Camanche and Pardee reservoirs, past Salt Springs, all the way up beyond Cedar Camp and Camp Irene, you’d eventually reach a tributary — a cool, healthy stream splashing down the back side of Round Top Peak, in the upper Mokelumne Wilderness.
And at the head of this stream, there was once a silver mine and a town where Adaline Winaford (Winnie) Williamson Pleasant lived — and died.
This is Summit City, hidden in the upper reaches of a canyon just a couple of hundred feet below the crest of the Sierra Nevada.
My mind is on Summit City today; it tends to wander there each year when the snow melts off the high country.
These days, not many people venture into Summit City Canyon. While only a few miles from the busy Carson Pass area, backpackers don’t like having to drop down into the canyon because they know they’ll only have to climb back out again.
The few who do wander these parts probably have no idea of the history.
Summit City was a silver mining town that flourished for a few years in the 1860s before mysteriously vanishing almost overnight. There is very little left — only some level pieces of ground where cabins once stood, a lone piece of timber or two, and some interesting rock-work.
Oh yes, and Winnie’s grave. I’ll get back to that.
We backpacked this area when I was a boy, and I remember searching for ruins with my Dad. We never found anything. My future brother-in-law, Tom, found a rusted hammer, but who knows its origins.
Then, in 1999, a man named Roy Acker wrote a history of Summit City. Acker’s own grandmother lived there, and he was able to reconstruct many long-forgotten details by speaking with descendants of Summit City residents. Winnie, in fact, was Acker’s great-aunt.
Acker took his father and grandmother back to the town to learn more about it. He went so far as to inspect records at the Alpine County recorder’s office, with which he was able to draw a map depicting where various people lived in Summit City and what they did with their land.
So, while a person unaware of the area’s history would stroll right through the “city,” with Acker’s book it is possible to identify with relative precision where the butcher shop was, where the corral was, and yes, even where the two-story hotel was.
Last summer, Dad and I returned to Summit City Canyon one more time, armed with Acker’s book. We found the town site. We examined each of the plots. We stood among the evergreens and walked through the emerald meadows, and marveled that this was once a bustling community with hundreds of residents. Now all you hear is the wind in the trees.
While Dad rested, I wandered a little farther up the old wagon road (it has long been decommissioned as any official route — Summit City is only accessible via a seldom-used trial from Blue Lakes) in search of Winnie’s grave.
Acker’s book contains two black and white photos — one taken in the 1920s, another taken in 1990. The photos showed a large tree that appeared to have been struck by lightning, and scarred at the base.
I was stunned to find the tree. I was even more stunned to find Winnie’s grave marked and carefully preserved. The family must visit the area occasionally to maintain the site.
Winnie’s story, according to Acker’s book: She married Beauford Pleasant at the age of 13. Letters to her family in Railroad Flat suggest she became ill not long after her marriage — she speaks of a “very severe headache” that laid her up for days. Yet in the same letter, she expresses excitement about a ball she plans to attend in West Point. “All the boys are going,” she writes. “I am going to wear a white dress trimmed in pink fluted silver and white.”
No one knows exactly how Winnie died. According to Acker, some speculate she died in childbirth. A doctor quoted in his book thinks there might have been parasites in the water supply.
But die Winnie did, on July 20, 1865. She is the only person known to have died and been buried at Summit City.
I stood near her grave for some time, admiring the wildflowers. This is one grave that needs no additional adornment.
What a peaceful place to rest, I thought. Personally, I’d prefer none other.
Winnie has the whole canyon to herself. Acker speculates that the Summit City silver miners left virtually overnight, in 1867, after an article appeared in a newspaper about a strike at White Pine, Nevada. “It seems logical that ‘White Pine fever’ affected the miners in Summit City and led to its demise,” Acker says.
Years later, a large flood might well have decimated most of the abandoned structures and washed away any historic relics, he says. And of course, the forest has been hard at work over the past 150 years, attempting to eliminate any evidence that civilization existed here.
I’m fine with that. Let nature have her way, though I have a hard time understanding man’s efforts to speed up the process by removing historic structures such as Monty Wolfe’s cabin, just a few miles downstream.
I love the fact that places like Summit City exist. And I’ll be back again, soon.
You can visit, too, if you like. It’s a reasonably short and easy day hike from Blue Lakes. Or you can backpack in from the Round Top Basin. You might even be able to pick up a copy of Acker’s book at the Pine Grove ranger station on your way up the hill; it will prove invaluable in your archaeological sleuthing.
Here’s a map with my best approximation of the location of Winnie’s grave. It’s hard to read — email me for a better version. This goes without saying, of course, but please treat the site with respect.
Historic sites like these abound throughout the Sierras. Each involved real people with real stories, even if the people are long dead and their stories are forgotten.
But I’m thankful for places like Summit City. And thanks to Acker, this is one story — almost 150 years later — that has not been forgotten. And won’t be.