Several years ago, reader Ken Moore of Ripon called suggesting that I do a column on Lost City.
Lost City? Yeah, I'd heard of it, but I'd never been there.
It's a collection of old stone buildings — or ruins of old stone buildings — north of Copperopolis near Salt Springs Reservoir. Moore used to go there in the 1960s and 1970s to pan for gold in Bear Creek.
Within an hour's drive of Modesto, you'll find scores of old settlements, ruins and historic sites that aren't part of the California State Parks system. With a bit of curiosity and a dab of imagination, you can take yourself and your children back to the Gold Rush days just by wondering what life must have been like without all-wheel drive crossover SUVs, iPhones, the Internet or microwave ovens.
The problem is that the majority of these places are on private land, which makes them off-limits to anyone but trespassers and vandals.
Lost City is such a place. So it sat on my list of column ideas for six years, always something I wanted to look into, but never much of a priority. Every so often, Moore would check in, wondering if I'd ever get around to it because, if so, he wanted to go along.
One of these days, I'd tell him.
Finally, we went to Lost City. Not that it was ever lost. Abandoned, certainly. Crumbling describes it pretty well, too. It never really became a city. Call it a settlement at best.
Turns out Lost City, or at least part of it, once belonged to entrepreneur Irwin Steinpress, known throughout the valley for developing a number of Del Taco restaurants. He amassed a 6,800-acre ranch in the Salt Springs area before he began selling off portions of it a few years ago. Included in one sale were some of the stone buildings that have been there since the 1870s. He took us on a grand tour.
Here's a brief history, deciphered from a number of sources:
A Frenchman named Eugene Barbe homesteaded 160 acres in 1877 and, over the next two decades, used the flat rock abundant in the area to construct about 10 stone buildings in rugged, rocky and hilly country along Bear Creek. Rattlesnakes probably outnumbered the residents by 70 to 1.
Eccentric by virtually all accounts, Barbe would live in one building, then build another and live in that one. It appears he started several others he didn't finish. He built some of them on his property and others just across his property line, meaning that Lost City rests on two parcels belonging to different owners.
Several other men, all French, lived in the settlement and helped Barbe erect the buildings and mine the area. They grew fruits and vegetables and raised livestock. But a city? Hardly. It had no streets or amenities. And until a newspaper reporter embellished it by calling it Lost City in a 1930s article, the settlement was known simply as the Stone Houses of Salt Springs Valley.
The Lost City moniker gave the place — or at least the story — more intrigue.
A rock bridge crossed the creek near the biggest house, a two-story building nicknamed "The Chalet." In fact, before construction of the first dam at Salt Springs in the late 1850s, along with smaller reservoirs upstream, the creek ran year-round.
"There was more water then," said Judith Marvin, a Calaveras County historian who co-wrote a pictorial history of Angels Camp and Copperopolis as part of the "Images of America" series. "They had salmon up there."
Grape vines still grow wild around the site.
"I've always wondered if he brought those grapes from France," Marvin said.
Some believe Barbe might have built Lost City as a commune. Local historians suggest no more than a half-dozen people — all men — ever lived there at any one time. One of his cohorts, Emil Legrande, ultimately lived there longer than any of them.
One storyteller said legend suggests they were all escaped French convicts hiding out in the area, since others living in around Salt Springs knew of them but rarely saw them. Barbe usually was the only one who would venture into Milton, Copperopolis or up to Altaville.
"Barbe was an unkempt individual with long hair and a full beard, but very jovial and friendly," according to an interview with two longtime Salt Springs Valley residents conducted in 1966. "He had an open vat of homemade wine complete with an assortment of spiders, twigs, leaves and dead flies to which he invited visitors to partake."
In one instance, Barbe survived a head-first fall into his mine shaft and a rattlesnake bite.
Then, in June 1895, he hitched his horse to his wagon and presumably headed out to get supplies. He stopped at a ranch along the way to water the horse. Something spooked the animal and it bolted. The wagon ran over Barbe, killing him.
By 1896, the others all left the settlement with Legrande being the last to go. A wildfire in 1914 raged through the area, burning away what remained of the pine shake roofs. Over the years, vandals and scavengers carried off anything of value left behind.
Now, Lost City consists of little more than rock walls that crumble a bit more each year.
But there's still enough to make you wonder what Barbe envisioned, how hard he and his friends worked to build it, and how it must have been to live there during that time.
For me? It became a great field trip, a history lesson, and another column idea scratched off my list.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or firstname.lastname@example.org