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Hills house more than gold

The Gold Country is known for, well, gold.

So it may be a surprise to learn that from 1880 to 1886, iron mining boomed northeast of Auburn at a long-gone town named Hotaling.



Working day and night, Chinese laborers clear-cut oak trees that were turned into charcoal in 26 beehive-shaped kilns built along the Bear River. The charcoal powered a blast furnace used to turn iron ore from nearby “Iron Mountain” into tons and tons of pig iron. It was shipped to San Francisco and made into steel train wheels and axles.




All that history is explained in an exhibit at the Placer Nature Center, a cluster of environmental education buildings near the site of what was once Hotaling.

The center is open to the public; you can bring your kids there on weekdays to look around (though you should call first). That’s so there’s no conflict with field trips the center gives to about 6,000 pre-school to 12th graders each year.

Regarding the iron mine, here’s where the environmental education kicks in: the whole operation shut down after all the oaks were clear-cut and they couldn’t make any more charcoal.

“They cut down 35 square miles of virgin oak forest, Chinese laborers (working) 24 hours a day,” said Leslie Warren, the center’s development director.

The center hopes to discourage that kind of behavior in future generations. Its stated mission is “Inspiring stewardship through environmental education.”

Teaching takes place in a variety of ways.

Murals lining the main exhibit halls’ walls show how Placer County looked through the ages, from 70 million years ago when it was a flat swamp crawling with dinosaurs; to 15,000 years ago when the Imperial Mammoth, saber tooth cat and ground sloth roamed; to about 150 years ago, when Nisenan Indians lived in harmony with nature.

Step outside, walk down a path, and there’s a replica Nisenan village, complete with “hus” – teepee-shaped huts made of cedar.

Nearby, the nature center also has a circular garden divided into pie-shaped wedges representing Placer County’s ethnic history. One wedge is an American Indian garden; another is an Asian garden; there’s a European immigrant garden; and a modern-day garden of drought tolerant plants.

The center also has a science lab, complete with a beehive with a window that allows you to watch the bees.

And it’s constructing a new, watershed education building which includes a scale model showing the north and middle forks of the American River. Also, students will be able to track a drop of water (a blue marble) as it travels through a simulated watershed.

The new building only cost about $20,000. It’s built of salvage lumber milled by prisoners at the Growlersburg Conservation Camp in El Dorado County.

The center is resourceful when it comes to stretching its annual budget of about $140,000, which comes from membership fees and grants.

“This has been a 10-year labor of love,” Warren said.

— To get to the Placer Nature Center from Grass Valley, take Highway 49 south to Dry Creek Road, which is at the corner of the Taco Tree restaurant (if only tacos grew on trees).

Hang a left and go to the first stop light, which is Christian Valley Road. Hang a left on it and drive about four miles until the road ends. Follow the signs to the nature center parking lot. For more information, call the Placer Nature Center at 878-6053.


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