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The Steam Donkey at Camp John Mensinger
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In the Stanislaus river drainage just north of Beardsley Reservoir, lies Camp John Mensinger which is owned and operated by The Boy Scouts of America. Originally a gift of about 160 acres from the Pickering Lumber Company in 1969, Camp Mensinger has provided wilderness experiences for thousands of scouts over more than forty years. An unusual historic artifact at Camp Mensinger is The Steam Donkey.

 At this point most people ask “What the heck is a steam donkey?”  Good question. A steam donkey is a giant steam engine very much like the old steam railroad locomotives, except that a steam donkey has wooden skids underneath instead of wheels.  It also has a huge cable spool attached to a iron flywheel On the spool is steel cable that is run out & attached to a large tree, the steam engine then powers the spool and pulls itself on the skids through the forest. Also attached to the spool is a massive saw blade that is used to cut lumber into timbers and boards.

 In short, a steam donkey is a mobile sawmill that propels itself through the forest. 

At one point in history, there were steam donkeys all over the intermountain West including Utah, Idaho, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and California. Now, they are just interesting rusty relics that few people even know about.  They are massive iron reminders of our frontier history.

North of Truckee is Plumas-Eureka State Park, which is centered around a preserved old gold mining town, called Johnsville. Prior to its being acquired by the state, our family visited there to experience some of the Gold Rush history.  In the old firehouse was a horse drawn fire engine. We pushed open the doors and rolled the old fire engine out into the sunlight & my brother, sister & I posed for a photo with the old relic before we wheeled it back inside & closed the doors. Unfortunately kids today can’t experience that thrill.

The amount of historical knowledge one can gain while exploring in the intermountain west is astounding. I learned about old bottle making processes from antique bottles found along the South Fork of the Merced River. I still have an old soda bottle from the San Francisco Soda Works that had a rubber and wire stopper instead of today’s modern bottle caps. I learned some basic hydraulics when my father and I found a hydraulic ram used to lift water for mining and irrigation purposes. I‘ve picked up a lot of knowledge about Indians by finding arrowheads, beads, and mortars and pestles. 


It took me years to figure out the difference between historic and prehistoric. Did you ever think about it? The difference is writing. If something happened before there was the ability to write about it, then it is pre-historic. It’s pretty simple when you finally figure it out. The outdoors enthusiast can also learn prehistory in wandering throughout the West. Indian Grinding Rock State Park is located in the Mother Lode country of California east of the little foothill town of Volcano. According to their website there are 1,185 bedrock mortars located there that were created by California Indians before Columbus ever reached the new world.

 Once, when tracking a bear, near Yosemite National Park, I stumbled across a bedrock mortar that may have been the equal of the state park. It looked as though there were thousands of mortar holes ground into the granite. There were stone pestles still lying in the mortar holes and it was almost as if someone called a lunch break in 100 B.C and the Indians walked off the job never to return. 

 Since bedrock mortars are fixed in the rock and immobile they obviously can’t be moved. However in the Great Basin, in Nevada you can sometimes find similar tools that are mobile, called a Mano and Metate. The Metate is generally a flat stone while the Mano is held by hand and used to crush acorns or other seeds against the Metate.  Artifacts discovered in the famous Lovelock Caves have been dated at over 10,000 years old!

Learning about history and prehistory are a great bonus to hunting, fishing, & otherwise exploring the great outdoors. Get out there and give it a try. You’ll be surprised at what you might learn!


Until Next Time


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