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Sierra County Arts Council

History Spotlight

California Gold Rush History

"Writing from the heart of California's Gold Country, nationally published journalist Don Baumgart has created Becoming California. Join Rattlesnake Dick as he hunts for gold with a six gun. Pay $40 for a sardine, bread, and cheese breakfast in a mining camp. Follow the gold to the nation's capitol where a tea caddie full of nuggets caught the attention of the president and propelled California toward statehood."

Enjoy this series of short stories on the California Gold Rush

Sierra County History

Sierra is a county divided by the Pacific Crest. Both the east and west have a rich history. The county was once home to both the Maidu and Washoe Indians, but today’s history is tied to the Gold Rush. The discovery of gold resulted in some 16,000 miners settling the county between 1848 and 1860.

Dozens of communities with colorful names such as Brandy City, Poker Flat, Poverty Hill and Whiskey Diggins thrived. As the Gold Rush waned, the county’s population slowly diminished to its present 3,584.

Underground Gold Miners Museum
Photo displays, mining artifacts, history of town of Alleghany and mining, gift shop. Tours of Sixteen to One Mine by reservation, May 27 to September 3, Saturday and Sunday 1:00 p.m.
Hours: Memorial Day to Labor Day 1:00 - 5:00 p.m. on weekends. Weekdays by appointment.
Location: 356 Main, Alleghany; (530) 287-3330.

Kentucky Mine Museum
Gold mine built in 1853 and stamp mill built in 1863. Museum contains mining equipment, household items, photographs. Site is a Sierra County Historical Park with picnic area and barbecues. Hours: Open Memorial Day Weekend, through Labor Day weekend (close Sept. 2, 2012 this season).  Open Wed. through Sunday from 10 AM until 4 PM.  Closed Monday and Tuesday.  Tours are at 11AM and 2PM. Call to confirm times. Location: Hwy. 49, 1/4 mile from Sierra City; (530) 862-1310.

Downieville Museum
Dates back to 1852 when built as a store by Chinese emigrants. Today, contains informative collections that depict life from Gold Rush to present. Tours available.
Hours: Memorial Day weekend to second weekend in October 11:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. weekdays; open at 10:00 a.m. weekends. Mid-April to Memorial Day 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. weekends only, weather permitting.
Location: Main Street, Downieville; (530) 289-3423.

Loyalton Museum & Historical Park
Two hundred years of Sierra Valley history – logging, agriculture, Native American. Research center.
Hours: May through September 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Thursday through Monday.
Location: 105 Beckwith Rd., Loyalton; (530) 993-6754.

History of Downieville,Forest City, Alleghany and Goodyears Bar:

The Maidu and Washoe Indians are the first known residents of the Sierra Nevada. In the summers, they came into the mountains to hunt and fish. During the fall and winter, they returned to the foothills and valley below. When gold was discovered, emigration from around the world brought a new cultural era to the region. Mining camps and towns sprang up in Sierra County with each gold discovery. Some towns are memories, but many still exist today. Alleghany, Downieville, and Forest City remain as windows to our past.

Downieville, the county seat of Sierra County, is located on Highway 49 at the fork of the North Yuba and Downie rivers. Gold was discovered here in the summer of 1849. By May 1850, Downieville had 15 hotels and gambling houses, 4 bakeries, and 4 butcher shops. As the population of the area grew, Downieville served as a trading center for the Northern Mines. By the mid-1850s, Downieville was California’s fifth-largest town.

Alleghany developed into a town from the consolidation of several mining locations of the early 1850s. There were hydraulic mining operations here as well as drift tunnels that cut into the mountain’s ancient river beds. Alleghany is located next to the still-working Sixteen to One mine.

Forest City was established in 1852 and within two years had a population of over 1,000. The exceedingly rich and easily accessible claims continued to pay until the 1860s when much of the gold was worked out of the gravels. Like most early settlements, fires ravaged the town during its early years, but there are still many historic buildings and sites to see.

Goodyears Bar was named for two brothers by the names of Miles and Andrew, who came looking for gold in 1849. In 1862, there were 3,000 to 5,000 people, and 51 businesses in town, with gold being the main economy. The town burned in 1864 and was never rebuilt, except for the post office which is still in operation. Historic buildings remaining include the Helms’ St. Charles Inn, a B&B, and the School House, now a community center that serves as a church on Sundays.

History of the Valley:

The Sierra Valley ranches were settled in the 1850s. The ranches provided dairy products, hay, and cattle for Truckee and the western Sierra County mines and also to the Comstock Mines in the 1860s. By the 1880s it was one of the finest agricultural regions of California. Since 1853, much of the population has been devoted to cattle-raising and farming and many of the existing ranches and barns were built in the 19th century. The lumber industry was also part of this healthy agricultural economy. Sierra Valley timber supplied the Comstock mines, Central Pacific Railroad, and California fruit industry from the1860s to the turn of the century. The early 1900s marked a decline in the timber demands with the closing of mines in California, but the Sierra Valley lumber industry continued to be an important aspect of the economy and culture until the late 20th century.

Tucked at the base of the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada lie the communities of Sattley, Sierraville, and Calpine. Sattley offers remnants of both early ranching and logging. Calpine was built as a company-owned sawmill town for the Davies-Johnson Lumber Company and its 500 workers.

Loyalton was originally known as Smith’s Neck. The sentiment of loyalty to the Union Cause during the civil war in 1863, led to changing the name to Loyalton. In 1901, Loyalton was incorporated as a dry town, the size was set at 50.6 square miles. At that time, it was California’s second largest city after Los Angeles. Today, Loyalton is the only city in Sierra County.

The Maidu and Washoe Indians were the first residents of this area of the Sierra Nevada. During summers they came into the mountains to hunt and fish. During the fall and winter, they returned to the foothills and valleys below. Artifacts such as spears and arrowheads, beads, mortars, pestles and grinding rocks have been found, particularly along Henness Pass Road. John Marshall's discovery of the yellow metal at Coloma signaled the ending of their peaceful way of life.

Gold in the mountains and valleys slashed by the forks of the North and Middle Yuba Rivers and their tributaries was so plentiful that by April 1852 the area was teeming with people. Sierra County was formed from the then-much larger Yuba County.

Another reason for the separation from Yuba County was the distance from Marysville; with the result that the only government officers to visit were the tax collectors. With no  courts, matters were often decided by ``Judge Lynch." One such case involved a young lady named Juanita, who was hung from a bridge in Downieville on July 5, 1851. She was the only woman to ever be lynched in California.

By the mid-1850s, Downieville, the county seat, was one of the largest towns in California--surpassed only by San Francisco, Sacramento, Grass Valley, and Nevada City. It missed becoming the state capital by only one vote!

Until 1860, all supplies were brought in by mule trains, which sometimes included 75 animals, as there were no roads wide enough for wagons. Downieville and Sierra City and points east were reached from Nevada City by way of Alleghany--there was no Highway 49 back then.

Sierra County is comprised of two very different regions. On the west side of the crest of the Sierra it is mountainous and heavily forested, therefore supporting miners and loggers. On the east side is the 5,000-foot-high Sierra Valley, which is said to have been an ancient lake bed that was once part of the great inland ocean of Lake Lahontan. It is one of the largest alpine valleys in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

James Beckwourth, the famous mountain man, discovered the valley in 1851 and settled there; by the 1860's it was one of the finest agricultural regions in California. Its population has been devloted to cattle-raising and farming since 1853.

Today, Loyalton is the largest town in the county, and the only incorporated one. Other towns in the valley include Sierraville, Sattley and Calpine.

Midway between lies the area known as the "Lakes Basin," a collection of some fifty lakes cradled on the southwest by the towering Sierra Buttes. The largest of them, Gold Lake, was named in 1850 when a miner claimed he had found a lake whose shores were studded with gold nuggets. He enlisted a small crew to re-find the lake; word spread and a major exodus of argonauts from the hill ensued. Of course, no such lake existed; but the largest of the candidates acquired the name by default. Today, the area is instead studded with resorts and campgrounds amidst glaciated granite and alpine flora.

"Over North," difficult to explore unless equipped with four-wheel drive, once was sprinkled with numerous communities, including one immortalized in Bret Harte's story, ``The Outcasts of Poker Flat." This area, which once included the town of La Porte (now annexed to Plumas County) saw the first organized ski tournament in the world, in February 1867. It wasn't until ten years later that Norway held a tournament, followed by the eastern United States during the 1880s. Speed records were established back then that were not surpassed by modern skiers until 1952. These were on the fabled ``longboards"--skis approximately 12 feet long!

Along the southern border lie the towns of Alleghany, Pike City and Forest City, and the richest gold-bearing ore in the county. It has been estimated that the county as a whole produced some two hundred million dollars worth of gold. Of that, ninety million came from the Alleghany area. The fabulous Original 16-to-1 Mine, a latecomer dating from 1902, alone produced an estimated 35 million dollars in gold. (This mine is now back in actual production, and underground tours are available.) The C.L. Best Collection of gold nuggets, now on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, was taken from the Ruby Mine during the 1930s. An exact replica of this collection is on display at rotating locations within Sierra County. (About 40 of the original nuggets are part of the Gold Discovery Sesquicentennial Exhibit at the Oakland Museum during 1998. For a detailed story on this exhibit, click here .)

The settlers who remained after the euphoria of the Gold Rush era was over were a hardy and independent breed. Periodically, winter storms have left as much as thirty feet of snow, blocking roads and passes. Today, Sierra County is home to slightly over 3,300 souls--no less fiercely independent--who cherish a land of incomparable beauty.

History of Sierra City:

Development of communities and recreation in Sierra County was the direct result of the discovery and search for gold in California. As the roads were improved, travelers began to stop and enjoy the beauty and wildlife. Californians in the late 1800s were very interested in primitive environments for the purposes of recreation and relaxation. Wilderness camping and mountain climbing were important aspects of this movement with a special appeal to city people as a temporary relief from the frantic pace of urban life. A form of medical treatment known as the “wilderness cure” enjoyed considerable popularity in California during the late nineteenth century and brought many recreationists to Sierra County. By 1926, the Lakes Basin area boasted a number of popular resorts with fishing, swimming, boating, and lodging available.

Sierra City was established as a mining town in 1850. By 1852, miners were retrieving gold from several tunnels in the nearby Sierra Buttes. At this time Sierra City had two large buildings, a bakery shop, and several gambling houses and saloons. The buildings were crushed under an avalanche of snow in the winter of 1853, forcing the inhabitants to rebuild at the present lower elevation.

Cultural Attractions in Downieville

The Downieville Museum dates back to 1852 when it was built as a store by Chinese emigrants. Today it contains informative collections that depict life here from gold rush days to the present. For guided tours call 530-289-3423. The Foundry building in Downieville was built in 1855. Tours are offered by reservation only 530-289-1020. It features a detailed model of turn-of-the-century Downieville as well as logging and mining exhibits.

The Yuba Theater was built in 1940 as a movie theater. Today it has 188 seats and is the only fixed-seat theater in Sierra County. It is the home of Sierra Turnpike Players and also houses the business office of Sierra County Arts Council. Year round entertainment at the theater includes music, theater, dance, school plays, and film. The Banff Mountain Film Festival has two showings in April. 530-289-YUBA.

Historic Sites:
Main Street in Downieville is narrow, full of character, and lined with trees, wooden boardwalks, and historic buildings. Downieville is considered the least changed of all the gold rush towns in California. The Gallows in Downieville was only used once but it remains today as a reminder of justice in the gold rush era. The Goodyear’s Bar Schoolhouse was built in approximately 1872, and is still used as a church meeting house and community gathering place. This historic town dates back to the 1850s.

Self-Guided Tours:
Downieville, Sierra City, and Forest City offer self-guided walking tour brochures that detail their history and sites.

Cultural Attractions in Alleghany

The Underground Gold Miners Museum offers tours of the famous Sixteen to One Mine which has been in operation for over 100 years. Tours are by reservation only. 530-287-3330 or visit Gold, specimen, and jewelry sales are offered by the Sixteen to One by appointment only, weekdays. 530-287-3540. or

Cultural Attractions in Forest City

The tiny town of Forest City is it’s own museum. Most buildings date from the 1800s. To arrange a tour of the museum, call 530-287-3413. Also, pick up a walking tour map at the mail box in front of the Forest City Dance Hall.

The Forest City Homecoming in July features a parade, dance, and lots of family fun. Downieville 4th of July Celebration includes a parade, street dance, craft fair, fireman’s muster, food, and games for all ages. In September and October, watch for fall colors and attend the Quilt Show and the Antique Bottle Show. Holiday on Main Street in December features great food, arts and crafts, and Santa and Mrs. Claus who ride through Downieville on a vintage fire truck.

Cultural Attractions in Sierra City

The Kentucky Mine, Stampmill and Museum are located just east of Sierra City on Highway 49. The museum offers guided tours into the underground mine and also into California’s only remaining workable gold ore stamp mill. The museum depicts the gold rush era of Sierra County, life in a mining camp, and the local American Indian culture. For tour information and operating hours call the Sierra County Historical Society at 530-277-5446.

Historic Sites:
Main Street in Sierra City is charmingly narrow and lined with many turn-of-the-century structures, complete with wooden boardwalks. The Masonic Hall, built in 1864, is the oldest building in town. As the “Gateway to the Lakes Basin,” Sierra City also provides dramatic views of the Sierra Buttes. The newly renovated Wells Fargo building typifies 1870s Federalist Style architecture. This brick two-story structure was historically used as a mercantile store and Wells Fargo Express & Company stage coach stop in the 1870s.

Music and Dance:
The Kentucky Mine Entertainment Series plays weekend evenings between the 4th of July and Labor Day. Enjoy bluegrass, classical, country, and comedy under the mountain pines and stars. Kentucky Mine Amphitheater, Sierra City 530-862-1310 or 862-1300.

Sierra Buttes Snowbuster Snowmobile Club hosts numerous events through the winter season including dinner rides, lunch rides, poker runs, an ice fishing derby, and a St. Patrick’s Day Rally. 530-862-1000. E-mail:

Oktoberfest. 2nd Saturday of October. Contact 530-862-9009

Cultural Attractions in the Lakes Basin

The lodge at Sardine Lake was first constructed in 1941 and 6 guest cabins were added in 1945-46. Packer Lake was on an early mule-pack trail and, in 1926, a lodge was built, along with platform tents and log cabins. Shortly after the mid 1850s, a recreation lodge was also built at Gold Lake. Gold Lake Road was constructed in 1913 providing easier access to the resorts. Bassett’s Station, at the intersection of Highway 49 and Gold Lake Road, began as a way station over 125 years ago. It continues to provide a rest stop and supply point for travelers.

Cultural Attractions in the Valley

The Loyalton Museum is located in Loyalton at the city park. This historic building features displays on logging, agriculture, the Washoe Indians, and fraternal organizations including the Rebekah Lodge. Outdoor exhibits include logging wagons, a donkey engine, and farm equipment 530-993-6754.

Historic Sites:
The Brick Store in Loyalton was built around the turn of the 20th century and is currently used as a gift and antique shop. This building, along with the grocery store in Sierraville, are two of the few remaining buildings constructed of Sierra Valley brick. The Sierra Valley Lodge in Calpine, was built as a recreation hall for the once-thriving mill town. Today it is a restaurant and cocktail lounge with lodging accommodations. Numerous historic barns and farm houses throughout Sierra Valley date back to the 19th century. Many are still in use.

The “Where’s the Fire House?” Ski Tour in February offers a 7- or 14-mile, mostly-downhill trip, from Yuba Pass to the town of Calpine. In June, the Old West is brought to life at the Sierraville Junior Rodeo. Young cowboys competing in Jackpot Team Roping and the wild Sierraville Rodeo. A country and western dance adds to the excitement. The Loyalton 4th of July Celebration features a parade, street dance, crafts, food, and games for all ages.

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