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The Natural Bridges Of Calaveras

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THESE bridges are situated on Cayote Creek on the Stanislaus River, and the entire water of Cayote Creek runs beneath them. The bold, rocky, and precipitous banks of the stream, both above and below the bridges, present a counterpart of wild scenery, in perfect keeping with the strange beauty and picturesque grandeur of their interior formation.

Approaching the upper bridge from the east, along the stream, the entrance beneath presents the appearance of a noble Gothic arch of massive stone-work, thirty-two feet in height, above the water, and twenty-five feet in width at the abutments; while the rock and earth above, supported by the arch, are thirty or more feet in thickness, and overgrown to some extent with trees and shrubbery.

Passing under the arch, along the border of the creek, the walls extend upward to an almost perfectly formed and pointed arch, and maintaining their width and elevation; but with here and there an irregularity, serving, however, to heighten the interest of the beautiful scene presented. Along the roof, or arch, hang innumerable stalactites, like opaque icicles, but solid as the limestone, or marble, of which they are formed.

As we advance, the width of the arch increases to nearly forty feet, and in its height to fifty feet; and here it really seems as though nature, in her playful moments, determined for once, in her own rude way, to mock the more elaborately-worked objects of art. Yet, as more in accordance with reality, we think that from such fine natural formation, the noble Gothic order of architecture was first suggested.

Here the spacious roof (with a little aid from the imagination) is made to resemble an immense cathedral, with its vaulted arches supported by innumerable columns along the sides, with here and there a jutting portion, as though an attempt had been made to rough-hew an altar, and corridor with massive steps thereto; while stalag-mites, springing from the bottom and sides, would appear like waxen candles, ready to be lighted, but for the muddy sediment which has formed upon them.

Nor is this all, for near the foot of the altar is a natural basin of pure water, clear as crystal, as though purposely for a baptismal font.

Numerous other formations, some of them peculiarly grotesque, and others beautiful, adorn the sides and roof of this truly magnificent subterranean temple; one of these, the "rock cascade," is a beautiful feature, as it bears a striking resemblance to that which would result from the instantaneous freezing, to perfect solidity, of a stream of water rolling down the rocky sides of the cavernous formation. Others resemble urns and basins; all formed from the action of, and ever filled to their brims with, clear cold water, as it trickles from the rocks above.

Approaching the lower section of this immense arch, its form becomes materially changed, increasing in width, while the roof, becoming more flattened, is brought down to within five feet of the water of the creek. The entire distance through or under this vast natural bridge is about ninety-five yards.

Nearly half a mile down the creek from the bridge de-scribed is another, with its arched entrance differing but little from the one already described, in size, but the form of the arch is quite different, being more flattened and broader at the top. Advancing beneath its wide-spreading arch, and passing another beautiful fount of water, issuing from a low, broad basin, wrought by nature's own hand, we arrive at a point where a roof and supporting walls present the appearance of a magnificent rotunda, or arched dome, sixty feet in width, but with a height of only fifteen feet.

Here, too, are numberless stalactites, hanging like opaque icicles from above, while the rocky floor, where the creek does not receive the trickling water from above, is studded thick with stalagmites of curious and beautiful forms. The length of this arch is about seventy yards.

These natural bridges give to the locality an interest exceeded by few in the State; they form the most remark-able natural tunnels known in the world, serving as they do for the passage of a considerable stream through them.

The entire rock formation of the vicinity is limestone, and various are the conjectures relative to the first formation of these natural bridges or tunnels; some believing them to have been formed by the rocky deposit contained in, and precipitated by, the water of countless springs issuing from the banks of the creek, that, gradually accumulating and projecting, at length united the two sides, forming these great arched passages. Others believe that, as these bridges are covered many feet in depth with rock and earth, these natural tunnels were but so many subterranean passages or caverns, formed, we will not attempt to say how, but as other caverns are, or have been, in nearly all limestone formations; for were these subterranean passages to exist in the adjoining hills or mountains, with either one or two arches of entrance, they would be called caverns. But, by whatever freak of nature formed, they are objects of peculiar interest, and will repay the summer rambler, among the mines and mountains, the trouble of visiting them.

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