Out of the Rubble: The Rebirth of Prairie City
Dec 28, 2018 05:15PM
Long before Highway 50 ran through Rancho Cordova and Folsom, long before Intel, Kaiser, and the Folsom Premium Outlets, there was a bustling gold rush town by the name of Prairie City. Its streets were lined with houses, hotels, stores, saloons, and gambling halls. But, by the mid 1880s, all was gone except a heap of stones about three feet high that was part of the foundation of the Prairie City Hotel. At the turn of the century, even that reminder had crumbled. Today the town is memorialized by California Historical Landmark #464, located near Folsom High School at the intersection of Prairie City Road and Highway 50.
According to an account in the May 26, 1922, Sacramento Union, the town of Prairie City once boasted a population of 10,000 and was a “mecca for every type of humanity and the scene of many a killing.” It’s more likely there were no more than a couple thousand souls living there at any one time.
The town was located a few miles south of Folsom along the road to Michigan Bar and served as a central point for mining operations in the area. Miners scrambling up ravines and gulches in search of gold provisioned expeditions there. As the placer gold played out, miners moved on and the town eventually vanished.
Bucket-line dredging arrived in Folsom in 1898 bringing a resurgence of mining activity to the area. Massive dredging platforms, many operated by the Natomas Company, dredged from the town of Folsom along the south side of the American River to Fair Oaks, through the town of Natomas to Nimbus and west to present day Mather Air Force Base. The dredged area was about 10 miles long and up to seven miles wide. The total output in gold when operations ceased in 1962 was estimated at $125 million. Piles of cobble can still be seen around Lake Natoma and along Highway 50.
Deemed unsuitable for building, the tailing strewn area was purchased by Aerojet General Corporation in the early 1960s to test M-1 rocket engines—which were initially supposed to help astronauts get to the moon—for the U.S. Federal Government. Funding for that project dried up, but Aerojet continued to test and burn solid and liquid rocket fuels and other chemicals on the property. Hazardous waste from these operations can still be found in the soil and groundwater of Area 40, a 75-acre zone east of Prairie City Road, south of Highway 50 and north of White Rock Road. Removal of these toxic chemicals, funded by Aerojet, is scheduled for completion in 2022.
In 1972, Aerojet leased 435 acres to Roy and Mary McGill, and a motorcycle riding and competition facility, known as McGill’s Cycle Park, soon sprang up. The McGills sold the facility to Sacramento County in 1975, and another 401 acres was added to the park in 1976. The county managed the park until 1989 when it was turned over to the Off Highway Vehicle Division and became an official California State Park in 1990.
Today, Prairie City State Vehicular Recreation Area—sited 20 miles east of Downtown Sacramento and three miles south of Highway 50—has brought life back to the area once frequented by the gold seekers. Thousands of adventure seekers continue to embody the original spirit of the pioneers and miners seeking fortune. The park features trails and tracks for go-carts, motocross, ATVs, and 4x4s.
The park’s Environmental Training Center provides education on safe and environmentally responsible off-highway practices. Prairie City SVRA also hosts over 100 special events each year, including Hangtown, which is watched by people from all over the world. The Department of Parks and Recreation is working to protect and preserve many natural resources in the park, as well as keep opportunities available for off-highway use.
by Jerrie Beard
Sacramento Union, Volume 110, Number 137, 7 January 1906
Sacramento Union, Volume 226, Number 26003, 26 May 1922