BIG OAK FLAT
While prospecting the gulches between Deer and Moccasin creeks in 1849, James D. Savage and
his party camped one night on a wide flat beneath a large oak tree. The next morning’s panning
uncovered rich placers and the prospectors decided to stay. Savage employed a large number of
friendly Indians (he reportedly had several Indian wives) to work the streams and surrounding
gullies, paying them in merchandise from his trading post.
Within a few months, the place was crowded with miners and a new gold camp had been born,
appropriately named Savages Diggings. The miners found that the gold-bearing gravels in the area
were substantial, varying in depth from two to twenty feet, too rich to be worked out in a few
months and then abandoned for better diggings. As a result, permanent structures were built;
trading posts, hotels, saloons and gambling houses. Mail delivery began, brought in from Chinese
Camp on pack animals, and on June 21 of 1852, the camp’s own post office was established. The
town was thriving.
Savage didn’t stay around long enough to see the town boom; he left the area about a year
after his arrival, due to friction between the miners and his Indian wives. Shortly after his
departure, the town was renamed Big Oak Flat in honor of the big oak—Quercus lobata—which stood
on the only level part of the camp. Thought to be the largest oak in California, its diameter was
thirteen feet at the base, eleven feet at a man’s head.
During the mid-1850’s, the town enjoyed a renewed period of prosperity when a rich vein was
discovered between Big Oak Flat and Deer Flat. A ditch was later built to bring in the additional
water needed to work the mines and the area boomed again. The total placer and lode mining
production of the Big Oak Flat area is estimated at $25 million.
The mammoth oak, once the distinguishing feature of the area, suffered an untimely fate at
the hands of greedy gold-mongers. Even though the tree was protected by a town ordinance,
stealthy miners removed enough soil to pan from around its roots that it eventually died as a
result. The tree was further decimated in the great fire of 1863, which destroyed most of the
town and left the oak but a charred trunk of its former self. In 1869 the top fell off. Years
later, a camper sheltering at its base accidentally set fire to the remains and then fled in
terror at what he had done.
Big Oak Flat can be reached by turning east onto Hwy 120 from Hwy 49, just past the Moccasin
Creek Power Plant which supplies electricity to San Francisco. Prior to this point, Hwy 49
follows Moccasin Creek, so named by early miners who believed the stream’s numerous water snakes
to be poisonous water moccasins. This stretch of highway is remarkable for the piles and piles
and piles of stones seen along the banks which attest to the unbelievable amount of hand labor
expended recovering gold from the river gravels and bedrock. Look at all those rocks and
remember, each one had to be lifted from the river bed, carried away from any area that was to be
worked, and then piled into these vast expanses stretching literally for miles. And many of those
rocks are heavy. I know, I’ve tried moving them.
The old Priest Grade follows what was the original wagon path leading up the mountain from
Moccasin Creek to Priests Station, an early stage stop located on Rattlesnake Creek about a mile
from Big Oak Flat. Earlier known as the Grizzly Gulch Road, it is shorter, steeper, (climbing
some 1575 vertical feet in less than two miles) and scarier than Hwy 120, and if it’s open I
definitely recommend it. Back in the old days, stage passengers often had to get out and walk as
the grade was so steep the horses couldn’t pull a loaded stage up the road.
Big Oak Flat is located eight miles east of Hwy 49 via Hwy 120.
Visit Big Oak Flat's Historic Sites •