May 2000 Volume 22 Number 2

Nevada City

by Camilla VanVooren

In the era of a booming economy, when more and more individuals are rushing to invest in the stock market in hopes of getting their share of company profits, what better time for WAAC to hold our Annual Meeting in the heart of Gold Rush Country, Nevada City, California? Nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, west of Lake Tahoe, Nevada City is one of the most charming Gold Rush mining towns still in existence. Its beginnings can be traced to the morning of January 24, 1848 when James Marshall, while working at John Sutter's mill, found a glimmering pea-sized nugget in the American River. This humble event ushered in an era that would change history: the California Gold Rush. The American River was one of a number of rivers which played an important role in the mining efforts along the legendary Mother Lode, California's principal gold quartz belt and the geographic center of the Gold Rush.

Initially, the principal type of mining was the panning of gold from placers: gold-containing gravel deposits eroded from the lode and washed downstream from the mountain. 90% of gold mined during the Gold Rush years was from placers. Prospectors along Deer Creek off the Yuba River struck two such placers in the fall of 1849. Like a hot stock tip on the trading floor, news of these rich deposits drew hordes of "49ers" to the mining camp, Dry Creek Gold Diggins. When storekeeper A.B. Caldwell opened Caldwell's Upper Store, the camp got its first mailing address and became a town, Nevada City, a year before California achieved statehood. Emigration to the region was also the beginning of the multicultural profile of California's population, as people from all over the world left their homes and flocked to California in hopes of making their fortunes.

During that first winter of '49/'50 hundreds worked claims in the icy streams of Deer Creek and near-by Bear Creek, the site of the camp that would become Grass Valley, Nevada City's neighbor four miles to the north. These were the principal mining areas of the Northern Mines of the Mother Lode. The payoff was a paltry one for most, and the work was sheer drudgery. Much of the gold settled in dry ravines so the miners had to haul dirt on mules or carts to the creek beds to be washed. In addition to panning, other methods for extracting gold nuggets from the gravel developed including the rocker, the sluice box, the Long Tom and finally, hydraulic mining which used canvas hoses and nozzles fabricated out of sheet metal to spew 30,000 gallons of water per minute. This approach proved to be inefficient because the use of high pressure resulted in the loss of much gold. It also had a devastating effect on the environment, washing away whole mountainsides.

Already in the mid-19th century, water was the hot commodity in California as all of these methods for extracting gold were highly dependent on water flow. Ditches were dug to encourage water flow through dry deposits, and ancient underground streambeds were mapped. Tracing deposits into the banks of the ravines, the miners sunk shafts into the bedrock of rich veins. Such burrowing honeycombed the hillside with pits resembling coyote holes, which is how this method earned its name of "Coyoteing."

Advances in mining technology drew companies to invest in ditches to connect streams higher in the Sierra's thereby encouraging more coyoteing. This practice gave rise to another mining camp in the area, Coyoteville. The June 1850 discovery of gold, embedded in quartz veins in Grass Valley, quickly changed technology and the nature of gold mining. Many failed schemes for crushing and separating the quartz to retrieve the gold, bankrupted individuals and even toppled the administration of Nevada City at one point.

Among those who did strike it rich during these early years were the merchants who brought wagonloads of provisions to the camps and, due to the scarcity of goods, could charge exorbitant prices. Many of the miners could only pan enough gold to pay for their own keep. The early entrepreneurs included: Levi Strauss whose sturdy canvas pants were an instant hit with the miners; Henry Wells and William Fargo who provided safekeeping of the miners' wealth through banking; and a butcher from New York, Phillip Armour who provided convenient tins of meat.

With young, single male adventurers dominating the camps, the miners were known for a raucous lifestyle. Gambling was the major source of recreation, and prostitution was common. A popular spectator sport was bear and bull matches in which a grizzly, tied to a post or to the leg of a bull fought to the finish. Horace Greely, after witnessing a bear and bull match, coined the terms to describe stock traders on New York's Wall Street.

Gambling saloons were the most stable establishments in the town. Eleanor Dumont, a.k.a. "Madame Moustache," managed one of the most renowned gambling halls in Nevada City. Two legendary female performers were of Irish decent. Lola Montez was well known among the miners for her racy "Tarantula Dance." Her protege, Lotta Crabtree, allegedly dressed like a Leprechaun and sang Irish ballads. Lotta had a far more successful career than her mentor, leaving "lotta" in her estate at her death: 4 million dollars! Other female entrepreneurs were able to put their domestic skills to profit; some consider these pioneer women to be the founders of the Women's Movement.

In the rowdy atmosphere of the mining towns, outlaws and gangs of highway robbers and stagecoach bandits as well as lawmakers and vigilantes were legendary. In the "miners' court" judgement was swift and punishment severe. Hanging, flogging, branding (i.e."HR" for horse thief), and ear cropping were frequent. San Quentin alumni made up the infamous Bell gang including Rattlesnake Dick, Monte Jack, and English Bob. Rattlesnake Dick was known for having escaped the newly built Nevada City Jail by tunneling out. Black Bart (Charles E. Boles), one of the most notorious stagecoach robbers, was also a poet.

Bret Hart and Mark Twain were the most famous writers who were inspired by California's Gold Rush. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) once visited a mining camp where a miner who was formerly a Mississippi River pilot told a tale about a frog jumping contest, the story inspired his famous, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavaras County."

Today, Nevada City and its environs retain much of the evidence of their illustrious past. The entire town district is a National Historic Landmark. The region boasts the last known single span covered bridge in California. The structure was built in 1862 and is located in Bridgeport. At Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park site, one can see a good example of hydraulic mining. The charm of Nevada City attracts artists and writers and is a wealth of cultural attractions. The Nevada City Chamber of Commerce (132 Main Street, Nevada City, CA 95959, 916/265-2692) will provide a self-guided walking tour of historic sites.

On a driving tour, California Highway 49 transverses the Mother Lode through the wooded mountains, lakes, streams, and meadows. You can take 49 north through the Sierras, go over Yuba Pass, and follow Highway 89 and the Truckee River down into Lake Tahoe. Or you can meander south and end up at Yosemite.

You will have the opportunity to visit numerous, old west mining towns and ghost towns in both the Southern and Northern Mine regions, with names like Fiddletown, Copperopolis and Angels Camp. These towns have fine examples of 19th-century architecture of the gold rush days.

Vineyards are also abundant. At the Ironstone Vineyard Museum and Gallery, you can see the world's largest crystalline gold nugget weighing in at 44-lbs. Spelunkers will enjoy the gorgeous formations at Moaning Cavern in Columbia, as well as caverns near Murphys and San Andreas. (Cave City Expeditions offers a 5-hour guided tour: P.O. Box 78, Vallecito, CA 95251.)

And, you know even today, there may be GOLD IN THEM THAR HILLS!!! So if your portfolio hasn't been performing as well as you would like of late, consider a visit to Nevada City, where, with a pan and a little luck, your friends will have to start calling you "Lotta"!


For more historical and/or touring information refer to:

Boessenecker, John, Gold Dust and Gunsmoke, Tales of Gold Rush Outlaws, Gunfighters, Lawmen, and Vigilantes. New York, 1999.

Braasch, Barbara, California's Gold Rush Country. Medina, Washington, 1996.

Holliday, J.S., Rush for Riches, Gold Fever and the Making of California. Los Angeles, 1999.

Mann, Ralph. After the Gold Rush. Stanford, 1982.

Wrisley, Kristin and Moore, Charles (photographer) The Mother Lode, A Celebration of California's Gold Country. San Francisco, 1983,1988, 1999.

On-line : http://www.ncgold.com

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