The once important town of Mormon Island is almost forgotten and is now buried under Folsom Lake. Mormon Island was situated where the North and South Forks of the American River join on the route from Sutter's Fort to his sawmill at Coloma. It was one of the earliest mining camps set up after the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill. Six weeks after the initial discovery of gold a small group of Mormons, originally employed by Sutter to work his mill, was mining gold a Mormon Island.
By summer of 1848, the camp had over a hundred men. Samuel Brannan, the "Spiritual Guide and director for the Mormon population of New Helvetia and other districts of California" opened a store there. For quite some time, Brannan required the miners to tithe. That is, give one tenth of their earnings, to the Mormon Church. The camp was called Mormon Island because the early miners cut a channel across one edge of the gravel bar there, forming a small island. The town quickly outgrew the small gravel bar.
Because Mormon Island was a natural stopping point between Sutter's Fort and Coloma, there were two stage lines operating there by 1850. One ran from Sacramento to Coloma, stopping at Mormon Island. The other ran from Sacramento to Mormon Island and back. The town had become one of the main communities of the Mother Lode. In 1851, a post office was established at Mormon Island. By 1853, the population of the town was about 2,500, and by 1855, four hotels, seven saloons and about fifteen other businesses flourished.
In 1853, the first tent school was held in a grape patch on the Haxsel ranch, and the first teacher was Mrs. Sterling B.B. Clark. This school may have been the first in Gold Rush country. It was followed by a more substantial school building that was destroyed by fire around 1900. A second school was built in the Blue Ravine area opposite the Jim Hoke home. In about 1910 the school was moved, due to dredging activities, to property owned by the W.B. Plumb family.
The completion of the Sacramento Valley Railroad in 1856 to what was then Granite City and the subsequent establishment of the town of Folsom marked the beginning of a long decline for the once important town. Mormon Island gradually decreased in importance despite the construction of a very fine winery. By 1880, the population had dwindled to zero.
The final end of the town came seventy-five years later, when the water of Folsom Lake flooded the site. By this time, the town had nearly vanished, and a chicken ranch was located where the thriving town square had once been. Today, all that remains is a marker on Green Valley Road east of Folsom and the relocated Mormon Island cemetery.
Chinese Influence on Folsom
During the mid 1800's, many Chinese men left their homes and families to look for fortunes in other countries. When the Gold Rush hit California, there were a few Chinese already here. The news spread, and by 1852 thirty percent of the population in some mining areas was Chinese.
Chinese workers played an important part in early mining activities. They utilized their own knowledge for developing and refining gold as well as their won mine engineering techniques. Because of cultural differences, appearance, and speech; they were generally regarded with suspicion and resentment. The Chinese were sometimes employed by regular mining companies, but more often they formed companies of their own to work claims which the with miners did not consider worth the effort. Often, because of their diligence and patience these claims paid off. This, coupled with the fact that the Chinese were so "different," often sending money back to China rather than spending it in the community, was a source of resentment. In 1878, there were over 3,500 Chinese mining in and around Folsom.
When the gold began to run out, the Chinese worked at many other jobs, including such tasks as building the first Delta levees and constructing the transcontinental railroad. They also developed small businesses becoming laundrymen, cooks, storekeepers, farmers, and fishermen.
Few people are aware that Folsom once had a Chinese community numbering about 2,500 persons, complete with its own shops, churches and mayor. The first mayor was Oak Chan. He came to Folsom while in his teens, during the 1850's. First he worked in the gold fields, earning the sum of #3 per month, plus room and board. Later he became chief translator, labor agent, banker, scribe, and all around liaison between the Chinese and other cultures. For many years, he operated the Wing Sing Woo store at River Way and Reading Street. He was revered as a humanitarian among the Chinese community for his willingness to personally assist anyone medically w, with housing, financing or their burial arrangements.
Folsom's Chinese community once extended between Leidesdorff Street and the river, from just below the old powerhouse. Three major Chinese cemeteries, Benevolent Associations and Joss Houses were located on the river bluffs, and a small Buddhist shrine was built at one. The Chung Wah Cemetery is a national registered landmark and a state registered landmark. The Young Wo Cemetery is a state historical point of interest.
Chinese communities were also located at Alder Creek and Nimbus, with many of the inhabitants working in fruit packing sheds there.
Folsom's Chinese community prospered for almost half a century. Eventually many people moved away to other parts of California. However, some of Oak Chan's descendants still live in Folsom. They are 3rd and 4th generation Folsom residents. In 1989, the Folsom Cordova Board of Education named a new elementary school in honor of Oak Chan.
Posted by Adam Jacobs