Sunday, January 23, 2011



MY SIMPLE GOAL was to revisit the old site of Helltown in Butte Creek Canyon east of Chico. Decades had passed since my last visit to the little cemetery of six graves up that way; and nearly a whole lifetime had passed since Dad introduced it to me back in the early 60s. I liked the spot because, as a nine-year-old, I could now get away with saying “Hell,” but only in the proper context. My idea was to scout the area so I could share it with a following generation of grandchildren – Gracie, Abby and Mia. Perhaps, one of them would catch the magic and fifty years from now share it with some subsequent generation. Not to do this risks little pockets of history – and the lessons attached thereto – being lost for all time.

This first really temperate January day prompted me to grind the BMW to life and head north. Heated grips kept pliable all but the middle fingers on either hand and a cup of coffee at the Cornucopia in Oroville was all that was needed to thaw them out.

BUTTE CREEK’S COVERED BRIDGE was built in 1894. It served as a crossing until the early 70s when the south end (out of this shot) was destroyed by a young man (unlicensed) who barreled down the Honey Run from Paradise and crashed into the bridge in his dad's pick-up. Coincidentally, the kid was a neighbor through the orchards in back of our house.

It was rebuilt thereafter but the county had installed a more stable concrete structure up stream. Now the bridge stands as the only remaining three-tiered covered bridge in the United States. I believe that means that the bridge has three different roof elevations.

Currently, the bridge is open for foot traffic only and fenced at the south end. The site is used for weddings and picnics and glances backward into a simpler past.

THE OLD CENTERVILLE SCHOOLHOUSE is the centerpiece of the Lois Colman Museum. Four miles further up Centerville Road, the museum is totally administered by volunteers. The refurbished schoolhouse, gaily painted yellow, also harkens back to times when children walked seven miles to school (up hill both ways) and teachers adhered to extremely conservative rules for their personal behavior.

A cinderblock building has been constructed nearby where artifacts from the canyon’s early mining and farming are on display. Behind the Centerville School is an old PG&E ditch, a remnant from when water provided power, first to miners then to farms in the Butte Creek Canyon. Children were reminded to stay clear of the ditch because water could be released without prior notice. Late in the school's life – or so the story goes – one didn't...

Walking the grounds, I returned to my bike to find an area resident parked in the road ogling it from his vintage Chrysler big-car. “How old’s that one?” is how the conversation began. It ended with an admonishment that the Helltown site was behind a locked gate and that it was in opinion of several locals that there might be illicit medicinal herbs being propagated in the area. “Wouldn’t want you to stumble into anything…”

THE ROAD TO HELLTOWN may not be paved with good intentions. Indeed it is blocked just a few yards south of the creek. I saw fewer "Do Not Pass" signs at Checkpoint Charley in 1979 before the wall came down. The historic Helltown cemetery is north of the creek and inaccessible by those who wish to see a few tomorrows. Helltown, as a destination, therefore is a bust. Perhaps “busts” are common aspects of off-the-grid life in the remote reaches of Butte Creek Canyon. I dismounted the motorcycle but decided against snapping any photographs of the pastureland down sloping toward the creek. The multiple "No Trespassing" signs and the collection of derelict automobiles and tin and plywood shanties was a foreboding far cry from my memories of fifty years prior.

IF ONE HAS TO SPEND ETERNITY somewhere, the Centerville Cemetery might be the place. Only canyon landowners and their immediate kin may be interred here. A plaque at the main entrance lists early-day miners who were buried in unmarked graves. Markers from as early as 1870 up and through those lost in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf are present.

A classic white fence keeps those who have passed on from wandering out into traffic along the Centerville Road. Behind it, the oaks are huge. The Vinca Minor proliferates. The air clear and cool. Nice place for a picnic or a very long nap.

Time and elements break down the oldest of the markers. I remember one of about this age over at the Helltown Cemetery back when you could safely get up there. The stone was cracked in half and laying on the ground with grasses climbing through the fissure. Engraved under the deceased's name was "Lost on the steamer Golden Gate." Hell of a romantic way to be remembered.

A newer stone indicates that the wife buried here, and the husband who will follow, had a deep appreciation for the beautiful environment in which they lived. And a sense of humor that we should all enjoy.

THE FIRST EXTENSIVE RIDE of 2011 brought me to this view of the Butte Creek Canyon. Looking westward down the stream course that irrigated the area farms and runs under the historic Covered Bridge, I resolve that I must take the grandkids up here for a little look back at history - even if we can't make it to Helltown.


The Lois Colman Museum -

McGie, Joseph F.  History of Butte County 1840-1919 and History of Butte County 1820-1980, Butte County Office of Education © 1982

© 2011
Church of the Open Road Press

Helltown, CA Cemetery - circa 1975.  Courtesy Patricia Boek


  1. PA: I never heard of this place before....thanks!

  2. Always makes me wonder what places I have yet to stumble across - or worse - the places I'll miss in the short time available.

  3. Loved your blog about Butte Creek Canyon. I am a board member of the Honey Run Covered Bridge Assoc. which is a total volunteer organization that dedicates itself to restore, preserve and maintain the bridge and park for future generations of the public. Your blog mentions our National Historical status referencing to the roof line...but, we are the only three span, Pratt truss constructed bridge remaining in the U.S. and possibly the world, as well as the three tier roof construction. The three spans are 80 feet, 128 feet and 30 feet, respectively. A good time to bring the grandchildren would be the first Sunday in June. The Sheriff comes out and cooks a fantastic Pancake Breakfast from 7:00a.m. to 11:00 a.m. They could explore the bridge and trails and "eat on the bridge". Then the Museum has a 49er Fair from 9:00 4:00 p.m. There is gold panning, music from locals and a craft fair. They also have other activities from the old days and a lunch BBQ. Sometimes there are tours of the PG&E Power House across the road. One year they even had a tour of Hell Town.Not sure if that will happen again as Hell Town property is owned privately. But, it is a fun day and helps both organizations pay the bills to keep the Museum and Bridge & Park open. Glad you had a nice day.Bridge email is:

  4. Thanks for providing details about this remarkable structure; and thank you and the Association for your continued work to preserve the bridge, the canyon and the look back.

    In my travels I find that too many place names are lost to us, and with those losses are the dramas, loves, lives and histories that make California such an interesting tapestry.

    Those who forget history may be doomed to repeat it - but we'll also be unable to replicate the good times, pleasantry and (perhaps) civility of earlier days. Your efforts in June will keep the memories, history and canyon heritage alive.

    Thanks for reading the blog. I hope you will look at other posts related to the wonderful little spots of interest I've been fortunate enough to visit. (Many of them are labeled "Motorcycle Day Trip" or something of that nature.)

    Continued success to you.

  5. PB: I remember when we hiked into Helltown in the early 70's. I still have some photos.

  6. I remember the trip, but have long lost the photos. If you have copies...

  7. This was very informative for my trip. Thanks for posting this

  8. If my memory serves right the original settlers of Helltown were the Nichols family, cattle ranchers. Their family homestead was across Butte Creek and about a quarter up the overgrown road. There was a bridge for crossing but long since washed away. The only was to cross was on foot on a swinging cable bridge, unless you were brave and a good swimmer. The Butte County Historical Society of Paradise took members by school bus to the historic site 2 maybe 3 times. My mother and I were on the first bus trip to Helltown in the early 60's. Later trips for a picnic under the big oak tree were just as memorable as the first.