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Media Life: Auburn’s top 10 weird wonders

By: Gus Thomson, Reporter/Media Life columnist
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AUBURN CA - Auburn’s random acts of weirdness are many. Here’s a Top 10 list that serves as a good starting point for delving into the “far side” of Auburn that helps give the area a certain degree of bizarre gravitas.

  1. It Came From Outer Space. The Auburn-area’s own community spacecraft is tethered in Ophir. But don’t expect to book a flight any time soon. The children on the Ophir School playground it’s firmly entrenched in are having too much fun with their own unusual link to the Gemini space program of the early 1960s. At 3,000 pounds, the space capsule was secured from NASA in 1969 by a former principal with some connections and is tucked away behind the monkey bars.
  2. Tributes to Some Very Bad Men. On the face of it, Auburn would probably want to forget about stage robber and presumed murderer Richard Barter and quadruple killer Adolph Weber. Instead, Barter – better known as Wild West outlaw “Rattlesnake” – and Weber, who was hanged for killing his mother, father, sister and brother in a murderous 1904 Old Town Auburn rampage, have monuments. Barter’s life and death are enshrined on an Auburn Cemetery tombstone and at a park named for the posse member who was also killed in the 1859 shootout in what is now Downtown Auburn. A piece of Weber’s noose and other artifacts are displayed at a local bank. 
  3. Memorial to a Dead Stage Horse. Auburn can’t claim this one, although the horse – Old Joe – hailed from the town now known as the Endurance Capital of the World. The marker, complete with a wagon wheel, can be seen on the side of Foresthill Road. It commemorates a fateful day in 1901 when Old Joe’s stage was robbed. The outlaw performing the heist was having a hard time convincing the stage driver to take him seriously. The crime progressed in quick time after he leveled a single blast at the faithful and popular wheel horse.
  4. Land of the Giants. What list of the weird and wonderful would be complete without mention of the famed Dr. Kenneth Fox statues? Amazonian maidens 30 feet high chucking spears and bowing arrows spurred school bus routes to be changed and have amazed visitors since the early 1970s. The mammoth Chinese worker statue in Downtown Auburn and the concrete Gold Panner colossus in Old Town add to the wonderment.
  5. Bridge Over the Lake That Isn’t There. Auburn dam politics aside, the Foresthill Bridge didn’t get to be 730 feet high and the highest bridge in California by accident. It was designed to cross over a reservoir that would have risen to the top of its concrete pillars. Instead, it’s another Auburn oddity.
  6. The Mysterious Tunnel. Tucked off the Union Pacific railroad track and a portal into Placer County’s railroading past, the 711-foot-long Tunnel Zero is one of those rural wonders that doesn’t get a lot of sightings but deserves a listing in the Pantheon of the Peculiar. Constructed in 1873 after a trestle nearby was judged too fragile for freight trains, the tunnel was bored through a hillside between Clipper Gap and Applegate. But it was too narrow for World War II PT boats to fit through, the story goes. Over the years since then, the closed tunnel has been used as a potential fallout shelter for neighbors and as a mushroom farm.
  7. Statue to a Shady Politico. That would be the bronze monument gracing Colfax’s downtown honoring the man the community got its name from – President Ulysses S. Grant’s veep Schuyler Colfax. He’s regularly on “worst vice-presidents ever” lists for his connections to the Credit Mobilier scandal and allegations of taking bribes.
  8. The Movie with a Meal Experience (But There’s No Movie) Diners at the Carl’s Jr. on Lincoln Way get to experience a rare optical illusion if they sit at the window seats fronting the street. Because of the spacing of the fence bars, the wheels of vehicles appear to be rolling backward as they drive by. It’s similar to the direction wheels take in non-digital motion pictures.
  9. Gravestone Garishness. Take a trek to Auburn Cemetery and you’re bound to be impressed with the size of the biggest grave marker in the yard. It’s memorializing Griffith Griffith, but at the time he died, it was also good advertising. Griffith was the owner of the quarry in Penryn that supplied much of the stone used in area graves.
  10. Media Life will leave deciding No. 10 on the list to you, faithful (or not so faithful) readers of this column. And we’ll unveil the answer at noon on Friday, Nov. 16, when Media Life presents a talk on “Weird Auburn” at the Friends of the Auburn Library’s Noon Program. It's at the Auburn Library's Beecher Room. The presentation is free to the public and should last about an hour.

Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com. Also hear Thomson most Fridays at 6 p.m. on Dave Rosenthal’s drive-time radio show on KAHI 950 AM. He’s also a regular guest on Capital Public Radio’s “Insight.” And you can catch up with Thomson on Twitter at AJ_Media_Life.