I have fallen in love with American names,
The sharp names that never get fat,
The snakeskin-titles of mining-claims,
The plumed war-bonnet of Medicine Hat,
Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat.
~ Stephen Vincent Benet, 1927
I live in Sacramento, the city of the Sacrament, named by Catholic monks who valued the spiritual value of communion with God. It has never quite lived up to its name, trading agriculture for mining and then politics. It was the capital of the 1848 Gold Rush, where everyone raced for the rivers to pan, slough, excavate the rivers by any means –fair or unfair. Miners came from all over, trampling John Sutter’s agricultural paradise and stripping the land of its natural beauty. Few got rich on gold- the ones who made money were those who fed the miners and sold them shovels.
Next to us is Placerville, a town with a deceptive name. Placerville’s roots are anything but serene. Its real name was “Hangtown” – where they hung the murdering miners who drank too much and committed heinous crimes they never would have back home.
Whiskeytown was the name of a place close to what is now Redding, known for the lake next to it. While historians can’t agree on the origin of the Whiskeytown name, tradition tells a story of Billie Peterson, a miner with a mule who had a mishap in late Gold Rush years. While hauling supplies back to his mine, the pack on his mule's back came loose and a whiskey barrel went tumbling down the hillside, breaking on the rocks below and spilling its contents into the creek. Although he was one barrel of whiskey poorer, the miners in the settlement revered him as a local hero, telling the story of Peterson’s christening of Whiskey Creek over many a campfire. The small settlement next to the waterway would forever be known as Whiskeytown.
Years later, in 1960, the real gold that lay in Whiskeytown was finally dammed: one of California’s first tributes to water conservation. The Lake seemed to be the perfect place to build a dam for the irrigation of nearby farms and so it was decided that construction would begin. First, the site was cleared; then the construction of the spillway and outlet tunnels. By late 1961, over one-half of the dam embankment was complete. Finally, the dam was topped out on February 7, 1963, and the reservoir was allowed to begin filling.
On September 28, Whiskeytown Dam will celebrate its 50 year birthday. That date commemorates its dedication and second christening – this time by the President of the United States in a very rare visit to Northern California.
What’s remarkable is that the president at the time understood the need to preserve –not deplete – California’s natural resources. He even began his address with a joyous remark about Whiskeytown’s name –reading the Stephen Vincent Benet poem to a crowd of more than 10,000 people.
Just seven weeks and six days later President John F. Kennedy would be assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Whiskeytown Lake was the last he saw of California.