La Panza, SLO County's lost boomtown

Posted by David Middlecamp on November 27, 2013 

Grass pokes through the tumbled rocks that mark the early placer diggings near the lost community of La Panza. ©The Tribune/Wayne Nicholls

WAYNE NICHOLLS

The Golden State was built on mining the precious mineral.

However, when riches were distributed in California, San Luis Obispo County got precious little.

Mining towns in the gold country built elaborate courthouses, but in the early years of San Luis Obispo hearings were held in a modest adobe.

The most lucrative mining operations in San Luis Obispo County were mostly mercury and chrome. The diggings boomed during wartime for munitions manufacturing, and mercury was also used in the refining process for gold.

One meager gold strike was in the rugged hills between Pozo and California Valley.

According to the Heritage Shared website the La Panza gold rush began when Epifanio Trujillo spotted gold glinting in the sands of Placer Creek in 1878. As many as 600 people rushed to the Placer and Navajo Creek area. For reference, San Luis Obispo's population in 1880 was about 2,200.

According to the book "1500 California Place Names" by William Bright, La Panza translates from Spanish as "the paunch." It refers to the practice of using beef stomach as bait for catching bears.

Tough town.

On May 5, 1973, Telegram-Tribune reporter Mark Gladstone wrote about the lost lore of La Panza:

La Panza — a town that never was

All that remains of the La Panza mines is a simple stone marking the burial plot of John C. Hoagland and three of his children.

The plot is surrounded by a weathered wood and barbed wire fence. It lies on a grassy slope at the eastern end of narrow Placer Canyon and about 50 yards above Placer Creek. In 1878 gold was found in the creek and for the next 20 years a small settlement grew beside the stream. Mining claims stretched along tree miles of the creek, now several miles off the Pozo Road 20 miles east of Pozo.

When Hoagland died in a barroom brawl in McKittrick in 1905, most of the 300 miners had already left for new strikes or died and were buried in the small cemetery. As a boy, Othor MacLean became fascinated by stories of the La Panza mines and the "town" which developed nearby.

MacLean, now 64, remembers fortune hunters and sightseers coming to his father's ranch and asking about the lost town of De La Guerra Canyon with its saloons and dance halls. The retired rancher has spent much of his time in recent years researching the area's history with the help of notes left by his mother, Esther Still.

He has determined that no such boom-town existed. Instead of a bustling community, all that stood were a few saloons, a dance hall and scattered miner's shacks — no organized town center or government.

MacLean says there was a post office and general store which also served residents of the Carrisa Plains.

The post office was run by MacLan's maternal grandfather, Dr. Thomas E. Still, who settled in La Panza in 1879.

MacLean, a contributor to western history magazines, now lives in Paso Robles with his brother Mentley. But he recently went back to Placer Creek, which is now on private property now owned by his brother-in-law John Bowman.

With his faded blue jeans and workshirt, MacLean himself could pass for an old prospector. His blue eyes are shaded by a battered hat. Its brim is curled with age, and sweat soaks through its crown. The hat appears moulded to fit MacLean's head like a piece of sculpture.

"At this late a date," he says, "it would be hard to give even a rough estimate of the number of persons buried in the graveyard...There were other graves in the La Panza Mountains, some of them marked at one time, others not marked. Some possibly the victims of murder, others probably from natural causes."

MacLean says some of those buried in the graveyard were "conscienceless rogues," possibly including a comrade of highwayman Joaquin Murrieta, Joaquin Valenzuela, who was hung in 1858 by vigilantes in San Luis Obispo.

Two desperados not to be found in the cemetery are Frank and Jesse James. The brothers spent approximately one year working on the La Panza ranch, owned by a relative, shortly after the Civil War, according to MacLean.

The Hoagland plot was marked and fenced off by Hoagland's son. The family had lived in nearby Navajo Canyon. The three offspring all died as small children.

MacLean says several prospectors were buried there as late as 1916 and in the 1920s the grave yard was still surrounded with picket fences. A subsequent brush fire and vandalism all but destroyed the remains of the graveyard.

MacLeans says about $60,000 worth of gold was extracted on the individual claims but more might have been mined and just not recorded.

The prospects were predominantly of Mexican heritage and some were Chinese.

Within a few years of its discovery by Epifanio Trujillo, the mines had petered out.

But MacLean contends traces of gold can still be found.

MacLean is not sure whether he's have enjoyed living at the height of the mining fever.

"In some ways people got along but it was pretty rough," he says.

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