Friday, November 6, 2020


As the Gold Rush ground on, statehood for California was achieved, and people started to put down roots in what was formerly frontier towns. On the other side of the country, several southern states attempted to secede and create their own, slave owner friendly nation.

In California, people were choosing sides.

The Knights of the Golden Circle were a citizen-formed militia up in the town of Volcano that was aligned with the rebels of the Confederacy. A smaller group, the Volcano Blues, were their rivals supporting the Union.

As it became known that the rebel group we're making plans to steal the locally produced gold to send it to the south, the Blues sought a way to stop them and sent word to the Presidio in San Francisco to send troops for backup. None were available but the army sent word that a spare cannon was on the docks if they'd like to pick it up.

Arrangements were made to hide the cannon in a casket and haul it up the the Blues militia in Volcano. A local blacksmith built a carriage for it. One day soon after the cannon was delivered the Knights massed to face off with the Blues in the middle of town.

Crying out to the Blues to give up because they were outnumbered, the Knights made a formidable line. The Blues, however, had a ace up their sleeve...their ranks parted, revealing a grinning miner with a flame ready to light the fuse of the cannon, whose business end was pointed squarely at the Knights.

Luckily, the Knights quickly dispersed and the cannon was not fired that day. Later, an artillery expert came up from the Presidio to unload the cannon...the miners didn't know how to do this...and it was discovered that triple the amount of gunpowder was in the cannon. The ensuing explosion would have decimated the militia and anybody else that was around.

Now trained on proper use of the cannon...given the name "Old Abe"...the Blues would load it with a double blank charge and set it off upon word of a Union victory. Allies of the Blues would be warned to open their windows before the blast while the Knights and their confederates would be in the dark and have their window panes shattered.

Today, Volcano is a sleepy little former mining town of 115 souls, down from about 5,000 in the Rush, sitting on the banks of the gold-rich Sutter Creek. Looking a few feet up Consolation Street ,off of the corner of Charleston Street, a small wooden shed sits. Inside the chain link covered doors, you can gaze upon Old Abe, still sitting in a place of honor in downtown Volcano.

Name for the crater-shaped depression the town sits in, Volcano isn't' actually a volcano. The name was simply a geologic mistake by early settlers. Tiny even by Amador County standards, the town is situated well off the beaten path. Either you drive the 11 miles of bumpy Sutter Creek-Volcano Road from highway 49 in Sutter Creek or the 3 miles of smoother Pine Grove-Volcano Road from highway 88 in Pine Grove. The second option also takes you by Grinding Rock State Park, a very worthy stop where ancient Americans ground acorns and drew petroglyphs in the giant rock that is still pockmarked by hundreds of depressions used for that purpose.

Find a spot to park, mostly limited street parking although there's a vacant lot behind the post office that no one minds if you park in, and start exploring. The town is tiny, just two blocks of what can generously be called a downtown, bookended by two hotels...the St. George to the south and the Union Inn to the north.

The Union Inn, owned by Mark and Tracy Berkner of Taste Restaurant in nearby Plymouth, is the fancier of the two. 

Accessible via a ramp in the garden, the menu here is a little more "pub" friendly compared to the flagship Taste restaurant, which is consistently rated one of the best restaurants in the state.

Anchoring the other end of town, the St. George is accessible from a bumpy, slab sidewalk out front. Like many buildings here in the Motherlode, the old split doors can be opened fully upon request to allow chairs to go through. The St. George also has the distinction of having the only accessible accommodations in town.

In between, you can get snacks and burgers at the general store, which has been in operation continuously (and looks like it) since the Gold Rush. Only the store is accessible as there are a few steps down into the dining area.

Next door, Kneading Dough Bakery has some delicious sweets (old double door, too...ask them to open it) in a small space.

Across the street is the Volcano Theatre Company which mounts very good stage productions during the warmer months in their outdoor amphitheater.

Around the corner, you'll be back at Old Abe's barn and the Union Inn.

Volcano is a tiny, peaceful place. It's good for a day visit while you're up in the area or even an overnight. The town is little changed from the days miners pulled out hundreds of millions of dollars worth of gold from the ground and access can sometimes be a challenge but it's a cute place and you'll be able to see the good stuff from your chair.

Darryl Musick
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