Updated: Jan 28
“Once seen, Altaville clings tenaciously to the memory. It haunts one like a dream; the grand scenery of the surrounding country leaves an impression on the mind which time will not efface.”
—A. J. Bledsoe
I heard about Altaville during my first visit to Del Norte County, California, in March of this year, 2021. Struck by Crescent City’s proximity to the mountains, I’d asked around on my first day in town to see if there’d been any mining activity up there. I found out that there had been some mining, but it had been mostly sporadic and unsuccessful. The closest mining district to Crescent City was Low Divide, I was told—the most significant site of mineral exploitation in the county. At one point, a small town, known as Altaville, had sprung up to provide the district’s miners with cabins, a few saloons, stores and a hotel. When I asked how to get there, I was told that it wasn’t worth the trouble, since hardly anything was left of the town today, and anyways, it was “inaccessible” at that time of year because the road was “bad.”
I was well aware that I was being warned to stay away from Altaville, but I couldn’t let it go. I spent the rest of that first day poking around online for more information, and after a surprising amount of difficulty finding the correct “Altaville”—there’s another one in Calaveras County; more on that later—I learned that there had, in fact, been a lot of mining activity at Low Divide in the 1860s; indeed, there’d been an all-out copper frenzy up there between 1860 and 1870. The town of Altaville was named for the “Alta” vein, the copper vein that had produced some couple thousand tons of ore averaging between 15 and 18 percent copper. Descriptions of the mining district made it seem like native copper was just falling down the mountainsides; I knew that had to be an exaggeration, but I was hooked—I had to see the area for myself.
Confident that my truck wouldn’t have any trouble getting to Altaville, I decided to brave the road. In the past, such confidence has come back around to nip me in the butt, but that time, I lucked out: the road was nicely graded and neatly blanketed with gravel all the way to the townsite. My truck did just fine. My mind, on the other hand…well, I’ll let you be the judge of that. What follows is the account of my strange experience at Altaville—the experience that got me inexplicably obsessed with the place.
I was less than a quarter-mile from the dropped-pin on my map when I saw the truck. I stepped on the brakes, pulling over to the left side of the road and coming to a stop behind a tall bush. I was a little surprised: I hadn’t seen anyone along the old Pioneer Road yet, but now that I’d made it to the edge of the wildlands that straddle the Oregon-California border, there was a truck. It didn’t make sense.
People only go out into the middle of nowhere for a handful of reasons, I thought, eyeing the truck uneasily. There’s no telling what they’ re up to. I killed the engine, but kept the keys in the ignition.
Peeking between the branches, I surveyed the scene. The truck was a forest-green second-generation Tacoma—a two-seater, and both seats were empty. It was parked on a very exposed ridge, near the ruins of a dilapidated wooden structure.
A jolt of adrenaline pierced my stomach when I realized that the wooden structure was probably a remnant of Altaville. If that truck doesn’t leave, I thought, I might need to think about turning around. It’s probably not a good idea to go snooping around near an abandoned vehicle.
Immediately, I berated myself. “It’s just a truck,” I scoffed aloud. “Just someone else enjoying the scenery, probably. What’s your deal?” But somehow, the ridicule felt just as unfounded as my apprehension. These days I try to trust my gut more than I used to, so, I decided to give my feelings the benefit of the doubt.
I trained my attention on the sparse vegetation surrounding the truck. How long I sat there, watching, I couldn’t say, but when I realized that not only was there no visible trace of human movement but also no birds, insects, or other wildlife, I decided to roll down my window to see if I could hear anything. Perhaps, I reasoned, I might hear conversation. That would be a more surefire way to discern whether there were one person, two people, or a whole satanic cult down in the ravine. And so, I aimed my ear out the window, listening to the mountain air.
Gunshots were certainly not what I’d expected to hear. I’m not sure why I didn’t expect it—it’s perfectly reasonable to hear gunshots in the middle of nowhere, people hunt and do target practice—but for whatever reason, it caught me completely off-guard. The round started right when I rolled down the window, sending me into deer-in-the-headlights mode for a moment as my brain blubbered, Are they firing at me? But as the echo of the final crack trailed off and all of my windows remained intact, I came to my senses. “Nobody’s firing at you,” I said aloud, feeling foolish. I almost chuckled, adding, “and if they are, they’re an absolutely horrendous shot.”
Sheepishly, I restarted my engine and pulled out of the bushes, back onto the road. I kept the windows down and turned up my music in hope that the gunperson might understand that they had company.
When I reached the dropped-pin on my map—a huge, ridgetop pullout that lay conveniently between the two historically most-productive mines in that district: the Union and the Alta California—I saw another truck, a white Chevy, idling at the far edge of the lot. Instinctively, I slammed on my brakes again. The truck’s doors were wide open and I couldn’t see anyone nearby. My mind went wild with worst-case-scenario thoughts: Is it a trick? Are the doors open to trick me into getting out of the car to see if they need help? If I get out, they’ll abduct me, right? Isn’t that how it works?
And then I saw that there actually was someone in the passenger seat, and there was a man coming out of the adjacent patch of trees, zipping up his pants.
“Good Lord, Xannie,” I said to myself as I immediately yanked the wheel all the way to the left to make a dramatic U-turn, “get a grip.”
I had seen a small pullout maybe thirty yards back; I decided to just park there, since I clearly wasn’t in a good mental space for interacting with other humans.
As I turned off the engine, I was still feeling unsettled. Attributing this sensation to the presence of other people in what was basically wilderness, I tried to use pandemic-induced sociophobia as justification, reminding myself that I did just spend the chief of last year locked up in a house with only three (and eventually two) other people. But there was a glaring hole in that explanation: I’d been doing just fine surrounded by people in Crescent City.
I just listen to too many podcasts about bad things happening to people alone in the woods, I thought as I opened the door and hopped out of the driver’s seat.
I switched out my Birkenstocks for mining boots, grabbed my backpack from the back seat, closed all the doors to the truck, hitting the lock button on the fob, and then paused to check my GPS. The old townsite was just east of where I was parked, as expected. I zoomed out so that I could see my location relative to the Union and Alta Mines. The Union was directly north of the townsite, the Alta directly south. With a twinge of dismay, I realized that the green Tacoma was parked near the Union, and the Chevy was right next to the Alta.
“Dammit,” I hissed.
To further compound my dismay, I vaguely remembered seeing, during my cursory search in Google Maps, that both the Altaville townsite and the Alta Mine—and possibly the Union as well; I wasn’t sure—were on private property. This realization was followed by a flurry of disjointed thoughts: What kind of private property is it? It’s legal to walk around on a mining claim, so long as I don’t show up with a backhoe, right? Maybe the two people in that truck are the property owners. What if they live on the land, what if there’s a cabin that I couldn’t see? What if they’re armed? Maybe those gunshots weren’t from whoever drives the other truck; maybe—
I shook myself, attempting to halt the stream of anxious nonsense blaring through my brain. Clearly, I wasn’t a fan of the two trucks and the gunshots—I concluded that I should steer clear of the Alta and the Union for now, regardless of whether or not they were on private property. Better to be safe than sorry, I thought. Then, taking a deep breath, I looked at the GPS again. I had placed a pin just up the mountain from where I was standing. I tapped the pin to see what it was, but it was unlabeled; apparently, the data didn’t sync properly, or I’d forgotten to write the description. I knew I’d only put pins in the map where I was either sure there was an old mine, or where satellite imagery showed what could be a tailings pile. The fact that this particular pin was accessed by what looked to be an old mine road leading directly from where I’d just parked was encouraging. So, I decided to hike up to the pin.
I only made it about fifty yards before I heard an engine. I turned around just in time to see the white Chevy come barreling past, engine rumbling alienly through the trees, sending clouds of red dirt billowing into my eyes. Blinking and spitting out the dirt, I barely had time to recover before the Tacoma came blasting by in much the same manner. This time, I managed to close my eyes to avoid the dirt-shower. Coughing the dirt from my lungs, I squinted after the trucks, watching them zigzag up the old road’s sharp switchbacks, disappearing around one corner and reappearing on the next straightaway, until they finally went around the last visible corner and disappeared from my view.
Shaking my head in annoyance, I began again to hike up the mountain. After a moment, it dawned on me that I could’ve checked out the old townsite and its adjacent mines, since both vehicles were now gone, but I was still unsure about the private property situation. I couldn’t shake the idea that if anyone lived over there, I had no way to know for sure that they had left in one of those two trucks. Also, by law, private property should be clearly labeled, of course; but in the boonies, that doesn’t always happen—I learned that the hard way in Montana, and I’d heard horror stories from fellow rockhounds about being held at gunpoint when caught walking—legally—across a mining claim. The gunshots I’d heard told me these people had guns, so I didn’t want to take any chances. And, on top of everything, my gut was still telling me to stay away.
Despite heeding its warning about Altaville and the mines, my gut wasn’t satisfied. It seemed that the further I went up that mine road, the more uneasy I felt. I couldn’t get my head around it—I was surrounded by wilderness, the trucks were gone, it was a gorgeous day—I had no reason to be spooked. And yet, there I was, turning circles as I crept up the mountain, peering through the trees, jumping at every sound, fingers gripping the hilt of the knife on my belt.
At last, the mine road leveled out and the vegetation on its flanks thinned, giving way to a small clearing. A creek ran down the left flank of the road, and when I stepped into the middle of the clearing, the calming babble of its waters making their way down the mountain suddenly cut in, as if it had been muted until that moment. I became aware, then, that throughout the hike to the clearing, I’d heard the usual rustle of leaves and branches in the breeze, but absolutely nothing else—no birds, no more engines, no insects, not even that creek, even though it appeared to follow the road all the way down. This perturbed me, and I spun in a slow circle to get a panoramic view of my surroundings.
Beyond the clearing, the mine road continued up the mountain over a huge slab of shimmering rock, which seemed to have been a part of the road since its creation. The creek seemed to come from wherever the road was going, and thus, right where the road disappeared around a bend into the shade of a young pine forest, the creek emerged from the pine forest’s underbrush: a red-green tangle of Darlingtonia californica (at least, along the banks of the stream), ferns, and manzanita.
The road within the clearing was riddled with small boulders, which appeared to have tumbled down the mountain. I traced the route of their fall with my eyes and, sure enough, a small quarry was cut into the mountainside on my right—probably the mine I’d come looking for. Up the mountain from the quarry were mounds of dirt and rock that had been clearly pushed around and piled by humans, extending up through the trees as far as I could see.
To complete my observatory circle, I turned to look back down the old mine road. As soon as my back was to the upper part of the mountain, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I froze, and my ears bent back like a cat’s—some primal reflex, I guess. Someone’s watching me, I thought. Someone’s behind me right now, watching me. The sensation was so strong that a vision came to mind: two pupilless eyes, peering out from behind the foliage, boring holes into my shoulder blades. Heart pounding in my ears, knuckles white from clenching the hilt of the knife in its sheath, I whipped around. Of course, nothing was there. I scanned the trees on the other side of the creek, but again, saw nothing that could’ve been responsible for that feeling on the back of my neck. I stared into the depths of the forest, knife still at the ready, until the dappled sun on the shifting manzanita leaves of the forest’s understory created a dizzying illusion that I was looking not at a forest—with breadth, height, and depth—but rather, a two-dimensional canvas spattered with paint, each droplet of which had been blended at the edges for a “blurry” effect. I blinked and looked away. Sound came flooding back to my senses—again, the air had grown still and quiet without my noticing—and I turned to look at the old quarry.
“Stop it,” I said aloud. “You’re getting all up in a tizzy about nothing.”
I wasn’t convinced it was “nothing” anymore, but I implored myself to go take a look at the geology of the manscaped mountainside, since rocks have always been a great distraction when my mind spirals out. So I tossed my backpack on the ground next to the creek and tromped into the quarry.
The walls of the quarry shone in the sun, just like the slab that crossed the old road. Up close, I could see why: the rock had a slickenside texture—a grooved, lineated appearance that results when a rock is rubbed smooth by tectonic movement in a fault zone. I studied the glistening surface, marveling at how much that rock had been through before being hacked to pieces by men. I ran my fingers along the quarry wall, noting the familiar waxen feel. The oily surface, combined with its blue-green color and slickensides told me that the rock was serpentine. It didn’t surprise me at all—serpentine is all over the California coast, and occurs in huge swathes throughout the Coastal Ranges, which run most of the length of the West Coast. (Below are a few photos and a video of serpentine, for your reference.)
I made my way to the edge of the quarry and clambered up to stand above it. I watched the serpentine glimmer as I walked around the quarry rim. At the opposite end, I stopped and looked up the mountain. As I’d seen from below, the area had been severely rearranged by humans at some point. Judging by the trees growing out of some of the dump piles, I estimated that the alterations must’ve been done around the time mining activity began, so, the late 1850s, early 1860s.
Alas, even looking at rocks wasn’t enough to entirely ease my nerves. While poking around in the dump piles above the quarry, I got the sensation that someone or something was watching me at least three more times—from the same direction I’d initially felt it. It dawned on me that getting a “funny feeling” about something more than twice was highly unlikely to be a coincidence, and finally, I stood up, hand on my knife. The air was quiet again, except for the breeze. The air around me felt electrically charged, and when I looked down at my arms, my hair stood straight up on end. Something isn’t right, I thought.
Cautiously, I made my way back to the rim of the quarry and climbed down the way I’d gone up. Looking around nervously as I stepped into the road, I saw something in the manzanitas on the other side of the creek that caught my eye. It looked to be two “somethings,” actually, both clearly manmade: one was white and billowy like fabric, the other brown and softly corrugated, like cardboard; it appeared to be a large piece of fabric sticking out of a carboard box.
The fear crystallized in my veins, cementing me in place as I contemplated the reason why a cardboard box containing fabric would be sitting in the middle of nowhere. People only go out into the middle of nowhere for a handful of reasons, my mind whispered.
The fabric rustled, shifting in the breeze.
Morbid curiosity took hold—I had to know what was in that box. But I stayed rooted to the spot, afraid of what I might find.
The fear won. I shook myself, hard, dropping my gaze to the ground. I just need to leave, I thought to myself. I just need to walk back down that road and get out of here. I took a deep breath and marched out onto the road, keeping my eyes cast down until I reached the spot where I’d dropped my backpack. I snatched it up, fully intending to keep right on going down the hill, but as I straightened up from grabbing the backpack, I saw the stream, and, on the opposite bank, a game trail leading into the forest. From there, my gaze inevitably traveled to the left, and there was that damned fabric, shuffling softly amidst the manzanita branches. I could see, now that I was a little closer, that there were two types of fabric, tangled together, in the cardboard box. From the way the fabrics flowed over the sides of the box, I knew they weren’t its “main” contents—they were only there to provide cushioning, protection, for something else. But what?
What if it’s a murder weapon, or a body part? Somebody’s loved ones might be seeking closure—what if this is it? Can you live with just walking away?
I knew I couldn’t just walk away. If I didn’t check, I’d wonder for the rest of my life.
Crossing the creek was the easy part. On the other side, I was accosted by manzanitas, their leafless branches clawing at my pantlegs with surprising strength, and I nearly tumbled into the creek a few times. It was as if they didn’t want me to satisfy my curiosity.
The closer I got, the more certain I became that I was approaching some portion of a human corpse, or a weapon caked with blood. I could smell it. I just needed to document it so that I could show the police later.
When I reached the box and fabrics, I stepped onto a boulder beside them and squatted down to get a better look. The box was tipped onto its side. The fabrics, indeed, flowed out of the box, but were tightly packed against its interior—as one would do with packaging material in, say, a moving box containing fragile objects. One of the fabrics, I noted, was severely discolored in places and appeared to be made of burlap. The other one, which was much larger, might have been woven plastic, but looked splintery—from serious weathering, it seemed. The cardboard box also appeared to have been exposed to several wet-dry cycles, and had been bleached by the sun.
Perplexed, I pulled out my phone and took a few photos of the strange scene. Then, swiping my phone into video mode, I began filming. I made sure to get a good 360 on the items, and then I grabbed a stick and began carefully separating the fabrics. As I did, the wind shifted and my nostrils were blasted with the unmistakable smell of rotting meat and I dropped the stick, drawing my forearm across my nose to keep from gagging. The wind shifted again, and I took a few breaths of fresh air, steeling myself for whatever gruesome thing awaited. Then I picked up my stick, and resumed my careful prying. At last, I managed to tip the box upright so that the fabrics lay draped over its sides, its contents open to the sky above; I peered into the box and saw…nothing.
I dropped the stick again, staring into the clean, white bottom of the box in utter disbelief. Not only was there nothing in there, but the smell of rot had completely vanished, as if it had never been there. Simultaneous with the disappearance of that smell, the sounds of the forest reemerged and the icy fear that had possessed me throughout this adventure seized my middle in a vice, and I realized that, not only had the forest sounds again been muted without my noticing, but I’d forgotten my fear. Indeed—I’d wandered out into the open to see what was under those damned fabrics, convinced that I would find some grisly evidence of foul play, without an ounce of concern for what might be crouching out of sight, waiting for a clear shot.
I had to get out of there. I nearly fell off the boulder as I scrambled away from the box and those godforsaken fabrics, my eyes wildly scanning the trees for either man or beast as I stumbled frantically through the manzanitas, across the creek, and back onto the mine road. I ran, tripping on boulders, all the way back down to the car, continually looking back to ensure that nothing was following me. Finally arriving at the driver’s side door, I tried the handle—like a fool; I knew it was locked—and then hurled my backpack to the ground, unzipping the top pocket with my eyes on the old mine road, expecting, at any moment, some creep to come hurtling down the mountain. I found the keys and yanked them out, hand shaking so badly that I could barely grip the fob, jabbing the button uncoordinatedly until I heard that familiar chirp that meant the doors were unlocked. With a final glance up the mountain, I pulled open the driver door and tossed my backpack through to the passenger seat, gripped the handle on the doorframe and hauled myself into the driver's seat, slammed the door, shoved the keys into the ignition, and started the engine. As soon as the engine was rumbling, the child lock engaged with a little click, and I cherished that sound for the first time in my life. I was safe.
Instead of going straight back to my Airbnb, I drove to Hiouchi and stopped at the ranger station. I was dazed, still shaky, and feeling relatively disconnected from reality. I don’t know why I went to the ranger station; perhaps I just needed to talk to someone, since the first thing I did when I arrived was approach the ranger behind the counter and blurt out, “What’s up with Low Divide?”
The guy looked at me with one eyebrow raised and said he didn’t know what I meant.
“Have you ever heard of people having weird experiences up there?” I asked. “Or, have you had any weird experiences up there? Like, sensory experiences?”
His expression changed then. Maybe he saw something in my eyes that spoke of my unexplainable experience, I don’t know, but he said, “I don’t go up there alone anymore. I used to go up there to camp by myself and late at night, I’d hear these noises.”
I asked him what kind of noises, but he beat around the bush, and then, conveniently, a couple walked into the ranger station asking about the best hikes nearby, as if I weren’t even there. He turned his attention to them, and I, still reeling, slipped out the back door and returned to my car.
When I got back to the Airbnb, I couldn’t stop thinking about that stupid cardboard box. I opened my photos and started to scroll through the ones I took at the quarry. I was hoping to watch the video that I took while pilfering through the fabrics, but I couldn’t find it. I checked everywhere on my phone that I could think of, but it was just gone. I wondered, briefly, if whatever unruly entity I encountered at Low Divide was responsible, or if it was something simpler—maybe, somehow, I hadn’t actually hit the “record” button—but it’s gone, without a trace, and I have no explanation why.
That was my first experience at Low Divide. Someone in their right mind would probably try to forget about something like that. But for me, that was only the beginning. I became obsessed with Altaville; I needed to understand its history, I thought, in order to take a stab at understanding what happened to me up there. And yet, after poring over hundreds of conflicting resources, I am no closer to answers than I was when I stood over that empty cardboard box in the manzanitas.
In my next Del Norte article, I will do my best to recount the history of copper mining in the 1860s at Low Divide, since Altaville owes its brief existence to that period, but consider yourself warned: it’s patchy, at best, and does nothing to explain my experience there. However, it is a fascinating bit of history that has all but been forgotten. Besides, being a writer and amateur historian, I feel that it is my duty to tell its story—it’s the least I can do—before it fades into oblivion.