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Angels Camp: Mark Twain and the Jumping Frogs of Calaveras County

A famous ‘jumping frog’ figurine

I found Simon Wheeler dozing comfortably by the bar-room stove of the old, dilapidated tavern in the ancient mining camp of Angel’s… He roused up and gave me good-day.
-Mark Twain, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County

Our adventure into Sierra gold country continued following our crossing over the Sonora Pass. After about a three-hour drive on highways 108 and 49, we approached the city of Angels Camp, the only incorporated city in Calaveras County, California.

Calaveras County has an interesting place in California’s gold country. It is one of the 27 original counties that was in existence when California gained statehood in 1850. While it is not very populated- Calaveras ranks 44 out of 58 in terms of population size- there is so much to do and see in this part of the Sierras.

The first point of interest we came across while on our drive was the Mark Twain Cabin, at the top of Jackass Hill off CA-49. This cabin is a replica of the one he stayed in with the Gillis brothers during the winter of 1864-65, and is a registered California Historic Landmark. It was on this trip that budding journalist and American humorist, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, visited a saloon in Angels Camp and heard a tale of a notorious jumping frog called Dan’l Webster. He recounted the tale, likely with some filling-in, and this publication put Angels Camp and Calaveras County on the map and launched the famed writer’s career.

After arriving in Angels Camp, and checking into the Wyndham, we settled in and began exploring the area. We found that the city is huge on frogs. Street signs and storefronts feature jumping frogs, and Calaveras County hosts an annual jumping frog festival every May. Being a frog fanatic- I’m a science teacher after all- and one who grew up with the works of Mark Twain, I was looking forward to visiting the historical museum.

To my chagrin, however, I learned that Sami had no idea who Mark Twain was. Having read a number of his essays and other works thanks both to my dad and my own California public education, I took for granted that Sami would know at least The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I mean, there was a whole Simpsons episode based on Tom Sawyer. But she had little interest in visiting old haunts of a prominent 19th century writer. Nevertheless, we were going to have a time of some learning, as well as rest and relaxation at the Wyndham resort.

There are a number of trails and small parks in Angels Camp. The relatively close proximity of Utica Park and Tryon Park made for idyllic walks as evening approached while we were there. Utica Park features a picnic pavilion, fun play structure, and of course, a statue of Mark Twain. I had hoped to be able to check out the farmer’s market at Utica Park; unfortunately though, the farmer’s markets are on Fridays throughout the summer. We would be at Yosemite by the upcoming Friday.

Tryon Park is right along Angels Creek, and was quiet and pleasant in the early evening. As dusk approached on the day of my walk over, there were still a few kids fishing in the creek. The vegetation surrounding the creek was green and lush, and while I’m not sure whether the kids caught any fish, it seemed like a fun way to spend a hot summer’s day.

Big Beth outside of Angels Camp Museum and Calaveras County Visitor Center

But the highlight of our visit to Angels Camp, in my opinion anyway, was a trip to the Angels Camp Museum and Visitor Center. At this combination museum, gift shop, and visitors bureau, one can learn about the history of Angels Camp and how the California Gold Rush was an integral part of the city’s development, purchase frog-themed souvenirs, and of course, find out more about Mark Twain.

My kid was rather embarrassed over my enthusiasm for a museum visit. To be honest, I was a bit surprised at how eager I was to learn more about California history, especially after already visiting Bodie State Historic Park. I’m not sure if getting older is what’s causing me to appreciate times past and understanding how far we’ve come as a state, but I thought the museum was pretty cool. It boasts the largest collection of old carriages in the country, and offers an in-depth look at California’s Gold Rush.

On the grounds there was a picnic area, gold panning station, and a collection of old vehicles. Since I was visiting on a hot summer Tuesday, there were few visitors to the museum. I walked around the outside, checking out the rusting collection, which included a horse-drawn road grater, an air compressor, and a liberty truck, a heavy duty truck that was produced during World War I. While the exhibit was pretty neat, it was becoming a hot day, so I was glad to get out of the sun and check out the three climate-controlled buildings.

I wandered into the building containing exhibits on the history of mining and ranching in Calaveras County along with the Gold Rush. I particularly enjoyed looking the at the sampling of rocks and minerals in the building, and reading about the discovery of gold in the area of Calaveras County. Gold had been discovered in a tributary of the nearby Stanislaus River back in 1849, and in the years that followed, a variety of methods were implemented to mine for gold, including hydraulic mining.

After checking out the History of Mining and Ranching, I headed over to the Carriage House. Inside the air conditioned building, there was indeed a large collection of wagons and carriages from the 1800s to the early 20th century. There were carriages that served a variety of purposes, from every day deliveries and transportation to funeral coaches. There was even a popcorn truck that would make the rounds back in the day.

In the Carriage House, there was also a stained glass window from the historic St. Patrick’s Church.

The final building was actually the first building I visited. The visitor center contained the gift shop, from where I purchased Phil the Frog, a small figurine that now sits on my dashboard as a portable souvenir. Here is where one can find out more on the significance of the jumping frogs, as well as Mark Twain’s contribution to Calaveras County.

I thought the afternoon was a fun time of learning about the interesting history of an area that I admittedly had not thought of visiting before. I knew of Angels Camp thanks to the Wyndham member directory and my high school English teacher talking about Mark Twain’s visit to California as a young writer, but it was never on my top ten list. Truth be told, I would now love to vacation in Calaveras County again. The resort was very nice, especially as we were upgraded so that Sami and Toby the plushie dog, got their own suite. But even more compelling are the many other places to explore in and around Angels Camp. There are a number of hiking trails and natural areas, along with historic sites that are significant to California history. And for the wine connoisseur- or someone like me who unpretentiously just likes wine- there are over 35 wineries and tasting rooms one can enjoy. I was pleased as punch- or rather fermented grape juice- to receive a bottle of Zinfandel from Ironstone Vineyards, and it was quite delicious. I totally recommend a trek out to Calaveras County, be it on a happy nature trail or one of the wine trails. And as Mark Twain famously said in The Innocents Abroad, “Travel is fatal to prejudice.” Cheers!

To plan your visit, check out:
Calaveras Visitors Bureau
Calaveras Wines

References:
“Mark Twain Cabin (No. 138 California Historical Landmark).” Sierra Nevada Geotourism, 2022, https://sierranevadageotourism.org/entries/mark-twain-cabin-no-138-california-historical-landmark/a3fe203f-8d45-417c-a3ad-d33fa39069e0.

Twain, Mark. The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. Oxford University Press, 1996.

Clemens, Samuel Langhorne. The Innocents Abroad. Collins, 1959.

*Correction: Turns out, Sami remembered reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer back in fourth grade. She just didn’t remember who the author was. Phew!

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