Sly Park Recreation Area
● By Wendy Sipple
Photo by Dante Fontana
Jenkinson Lake in the Sly Park Recreation Area covers a rich meadow where bands of Maidu and Miwok Indians once forged for food.
Women ground acorns from the black oaks that grew in abundance there. When water levels become low, large outcroppings of grinding rocks can be seen along the shore. Additionally, ruts from wagon wheels can be seen in the granite rocks along Camp Creek marking the trail of thousands of trial-weary emigrants who found respite there after their treacherous journey over Carson Pass. Gone are the days when thousands of cattle grazed the lush grasses, and sawmills buzzed an abundance of timber. But, as they did in years past, visitors still stop at the place the early emigrants called “the most romantic place in the world.”
James Marshall’s discovery of gold brought thousands of fortune seekers along the route known as the Mormon Emigrant Trail in 1849 and 1850. When they arrived at Sly Park, the 49ers could cut hay for their livestock for free. By 1850, however, a settlement had been established on the south side of the lush meadow called “The Mountain House,” and the enterprising owners mowed all the hay to sell it for $500 per ton. Sly Park’s two earliest known settlers, Hiram O. Bryant and William Stonebreaker ran the Mountain House, which sat on land just east of the present main dam. Stonebreaker and Bryant also built the first sawmill at Sly Park and operated it until 1853.
Even in the early years, miners recognized the value of Sly Park as a reservoir. They found that perennial streams were integral to the operation of the placers. In 1851, the Park Canal and Mining Company built one of the first extensive ditch systems in the area. The Bradley Ditch took water from Sly Park and Camp Creeks and distributed it to Diamond and Mud Springs (El Dorado).
In 1877, the company, then owned by J.M. Crawford, built a larger and more efficient system, which played a significant part in the development of the Sly Park watershed. The High Camp Ditch increased the amount of gold found in area mines, provided irrigation water for lower elevation farms, and enhanced area logging operations.
The onset of the Depression halted attempts to build a dam at Hazel Creek in 1828. By the mid-1940s, however, the demand of a growing population in the Placerville area fast exceeded the water supply. In 1944, El Dorado Irrigation Manager Walter Jenkinson asked the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to study the district’s critical and seemingly unsolvable financial difficulties in building a dam at Sly Park.
Ultimately, the Bureau appropriated the $7.5 million needed for the project, and in 1951, construction of the dam began. In the summer of 1955, the first water from the reservoir named Jenkinson Lake was delivered to the District. With the completion of the project, Sly Park moved out of the past and toward the future.