Yuba County History
THE EARLY HISTORY OF THE YUBA RIVER VALLEY
by George Emmanuel Hanson
MINING CAMPS IN THE DOWNIEVILLE COUNTRY
The North Yuba has a network of forks and tributaries which reach through deep cañons upward into the higher altitudes of the Sierras. Few places in the State are more elevated or rugged and perhaps few are more wild and beautiful. From the topmost ridges are obtained some of the grandest panoramic views conceivable. At the lower altitudes of this Alpine country or even above the snow line 4,500 feet or more above sea level are numerous mining camps. Some of them still exist as substantial towns while most of them are inactive and quiet or as deserted villages in all stages of decay.
The chief center and metropolis of the North Yuba region was Downieville, which from an insignificant camp rapidly assumed the aspect of a city and became the center of trade for the mines in that country. Like Marysville and Nevada City it was made a county seat when the unwieldy region comprising Yuba County was later broken into three divisions.
As early as 1849 prospectors pushed their way into this high country following the streams from the lower courses first attacked. The two succeeding years witnessed a veritable stampede to it. Miners swarmed along all the streams which were rich in surface gold and yielded vast quantities of the precious metal. No part of the early mining history of the State has more romance and picturesqueness than that which belongs to those early diggings.
The Gold Discovery At Downieville - - Following the cañon of the North Yuba with pick, crevicing spoon, and pan miners seem to have found the Forks or the site of Downieville in the early summer of 1849, but appear not to have discovered the precious metal at that place until October when it was first unearthed by the William Downie party.
Major Downie a Scotchman arrived at San Francisco by sea in June 1849. Remaining there for a few days and growing tired of the allurements and excitements of the reckless city he resolved to go to the mines, whereupon boarding a schooner arrived after a slow, halting journey of eleven days at Sacramento. By assisting in rowing a launch up the Sacramento and Feather Rivers to Nye's Ranch - - the present Marysville - - and then offering to assist in driving a mule team from there into the mountains, he found himself in the midst of mining operations at Bullard's Bar. At this place he remained for some time busying himself both as a miner and as a store keeper but making a fortune in neither way. Meanwhile prospectors related to him fabulous stories of rich finds elsewhere but never disclosing the precise place where those deposits were hidden. He had already learnt that any inquiry relative to the diggings was to no avail; a friend had previously interrupted his amateurish interrogations with the following bits of information:
"Look here young fellow, if there is a thing a miner don't care to talk about, it is where he has been and you might say that it is just as good as law among prospectors that every man keeps mum. Let me give you a bit of advise: When you get to feel that way yourself - - that you have struck it rich in a new prospect - - don't you advertise your good luck and have a band playing outside your tent to celebrate, but after sundown when everything is settled in camp and your nearest neighbor is snoring loud enough to compete with a cathedral organ you just pack your traps on your back and skip out of camp; and if you should meet anybody on the road who should ask you where you are going, just tell him that you have had poor luck and are making back for town. But the next morning bright and early, or as soon as you can reach it, stick your pick into your new claim and work it for all it is worth before anybody else comes to interfere with your happiness."
Seeing some fine specimens of gold which miners had found up the stream Downie determined to seek the new fields nearer the summit of the Sierra, and closing his store subsequently, proceeded up the river to Foster's Bar. Unable, however, to find anyone willing to accompany him on the expedition he returned to the Bullard Bar settlement.
After many disappointments he met with some colored sailors, seven in number, and an Irish lad named Michael Duvarney who consented to brave with him the hardships of the unknown country above. Crossing the river on October 5, 1849, they advanced northward to Slate Range at which place they were joined by an Indian and a Kanaka known as Jim Crow. With this addition to their party they went to the camp of Cut Eye Foster, thence boldly mounted the hills northward. Near the Mountain House site the Downie party found trees blazed indicating the road to Goodyear's Bar; but they continued up the divide expecting to find the big pieces of gold on higher ground. At Secret Cañon they found the first gold since leaving Bullard's Bar. Thinking they had at least reached natures treasury they moved their camp across the stream and went prospecting up and down the river. In some places they found small quantities of the metal, but failed to discover the rich deposits afterwards brought to light there.
Unsatisfied with the prospects, Downie with a few of the company decided to break camp and press on to the Forks, while the others of the party wanted to give up the northern venture and go back. By some feat of diplomacy and persuasion, however, they came to an agreement and the entire band clambered over the ridge to the North Yuba and followed it to the present site of Downieville.
After their arrival at this place they met with diverse experiences. At the lower end of Zumwalt Flat was a small bar on which, finding rich prospects, they remained as long as the diggings continued to produce. They did not stop at a point in the neighborhood which proved to yield one dollar to the pan, but wandering about found gold all along the banks of the Forks, sometimes several hundred dollars within the short space of a few hours, and using only such implements as shovels, butcher knives, tin pans, and crowbars. The season being far advanced the company went in search of a bar where plenty of dirt could be easily obtained. Finding on the South Fork of the North Fork of the Yuba about a half mile above the present town of Downieville a favorable prospect they settled for the winter. Their provisions, however, began to fail and eight men including Jim Crow started below for new supplies. They promised to return after a few days; but nothing more was seen of them until the next spring when Jim was accidentally encountered with a large number of followers on his way to the new diggings in Jim Crow Cañon. The party that had remained through the winter experienced great hardships and privations both from the weather and the scarcity of food.
Many of those who prospected along the North Yuba in the fall of 1849 returned to the lower camps in the winter and told glowing tales of the fortunes to be made there. In the spring, consequently, hundreds of miners poured into this region. Settlements started and the immediate neighborhood of the North Yuba soon became the scene of many populous camps. Among the known prospectors at the Forks closely following the gold discovery by the Downie party were Philo A. Haven and Francis Anderson.
Arriving at the Big Rich Bar a half mile below the Forks early in September 1850 Haver found posted at that place notices of seven different claims. A few days afterwards he was joined by Francis Anderson who later in September found some very remunerative diggings above the site of the present Jersey Bridge at Downieville.
Mr. Anderson's first strike was small, valued at about four dollars, but proceeding further up the stream he found a gravel deposit which proved to be exceedingly rich. Everywhere about him were traces of Indians and having no assurance that the tribes were friendly, it was not without some fear that he continued alone with his prospecting. He worked for some time standing in the water and taking out from ten to twenty dollars to a pan when suddenly he was startled by loud noises from the adjacent hillside. Looking around he saw a party of men dressed in various bright colors descending toward him. As they clambered down the steep descent they whooped and yelled as if thirsting for his gore. Grasping his knife he resolved to sell his life dearly, but was soon pleased to find that there was no cause for fear as they proved to be the Jim Kane party. Without paying any attention to Anderson they began at once to wash gravel with their rocker. Nor were they unfortunate in the selection of their location, for during the rest of the day they cleared three hundred dollars to a pan. In the evening Anderson hastened back to Mr. Haven told him of the fabulous sums which he might obtain with the aid of a rocker on the following day, consequently, a small party beaming with expectation hurried to the promising site. They did not gain what their wild fancy pictured, but for several days their work netted them very generous rewards.
As prospectors worked in every direction a number of new discoveries were made and new camps established. Settlements sprang up at Snake, Cox, and Steamboat bars and the flats of O'Donnell, Charcoal, and Kanaka as well as other places in the neighborhood of Downieville. But the miners who came to these diggings were but the advance guard of the army of gold seekers who rushed into the mountains that spring roused by the stories of the rich and mysterious Gold Lake.
The Gold Lake Excitement - - This Lake where it was supposed fabulous treasures lay embedded and exposed to view was believed to be situated somewhere above the North Fork of the Yuba between Downieville and Sierra Valley. The present Gold Lake is situated where this mysterious sheet of water was thought to be.
It was in the summer of 1849 that the first expeditions penetrated the upper wilds to search for the supposed riches. A similar movement transpired in the spring of 1850 based, no doubt, on the rumors that gave rise to the original expedition of the preceeding year. The files of Marysville Herald, The Sacramento Placer Times, and the Alta California for month of June 1850 speak of the stir incited at that time by Stoddard, and contain long accounts of the excitement and exodus of miners.
The person who more than any other contributed towards the sensation caused by the rumors of the Gold Lake diggings was Thomas R. Stoddard. He reported that in the course of a prospecting trip in the mountains between the North Fork of the Yuba and a branch of the Feather River he found a lake the banks of which were literally covered with gold. The locality of it was at that time a remote spot and difficult of access, but its wealth was supposed to be beyond question; at any rate few of those who heard about it were disposed to be critical or skeptical. Under the circumstances a large crowd followed Stoddard when he offered to lead them to the golden shores.
The news of this expedition spread like wild-fire among the mines of the Yuba and Feather Rivers. Many who had before heard of the mysterious lake and many others who now learned of it for the first time rushed off in the direction the searchers had gone. All the floating population of the mines imbibed the fever and many also who had good claims abandoned them to go in quest of the place where gold could be picked up in chunks and they were willing to abandon everything to seek the charmed spot. The infection extended to the American River and the southern mines and many started from there to follow in the wake of the others.
Needless to say no El Dorado of the kind they had visioned was found. Such being plainly the case the disappointed treasure-seekers proposed to hang Stoddard, but a very short investigation convinced them that the man was mentally unbalanced and that instead of being deceived by him they had duped themselves. Partly for the purpose of protecting him Major Downie took him into his company. The Major tells us that when his party found diggings particularly rich Stoddard would often remark, "At Gold Lake we would not consider this worth picking up."
North Side of North Yuba - - The Gold Lake excitement and the general tendency of the miners to push deeper into the mountains soon led to the discovery of many rich deposits of gold high up on the forks in every direction of the Yuba, even along its most remote branches.
On the north side of the North Yuba ran Cañon Creek with Poker and Craig's Flats and Slate Creek with a number of tributary diggings. In this region some twelve or fifteen miles northwest of Downieville a number of camps sprang rapidly into existence.
A place of interest was Sears Ridge which took its name from an old sea captain who in the spring of 1850 while traveling over the divide between the North Fork of the Yuba and the South Fork of the Feather River was overtaken by night and compelled to camp on a kind of flat through which ran a ravine. The next morning he noticed indications of gold on the spot where he had staked his mule and on investigation, found good prospects. The diggings about this place were the first to be worked in this portion of Sierra County.
St. Louis - - In the neighborhood of Sears was a place which rapidly became a lively mining camp. On its site a town was laid out in the fall of 1852 by a number of Missourians who conferred upon it the title of St. Louis. For a number of years it continued to grow, and cast at the presidential election in 1856 a total of 398 votes. But in the following year a disasterous fire broke out in the town and from that event the place gradually declined. In the early sixties it revived somewhat and before the end of a decade was quite an active center of hydraulic mining.
Howland Flat located two miles and a half from St. Louis was situated about six thousand feet above the sea on the north side of Table mountain where snow in the winter time often lay at a depth of ten to fifteen feet on the level. Like Sears Diggings it was a place to which miners were accidentally directed when the Gold Lake excitement ended in a fiasco. From a small mining camp it grew to be quite a town. Though partially destroyed by fire in the fall of 1862 it was soon rebuilt and in a better and more substantial way than before. In 1869 Howland Flat was considered the most populous mining camp in the Sierra.
Pine Grove a mile below Howland Flat was a very flourishing village prior to 1862, but in that year the latter town began a new and vigorous growth while the former started a sure and gradual decline.
Gibsonville - - A man named Gibson in prospecting for gold came upon a deposit of the metal on a hill overlooking Little Slate Creek. It proved to be exceedingly rich. Without saying anything to anybody he established his individual camp on the new ridge at the place which later became known as Gibsonville. For a time it was a thriving village with well filled stores of merchandise, hotels, and saloons where all the alluring games of chance were played and tempting heaps of gold dust lost and won. In 1870 much of its former glory was gone but it still existed as a bustling hamlet. The ancient river channel on which it was situated was mined by tunneling and by drifting.
Brandy City - - The Brandy City mining district is located twelve miles by trail west of Downieville. This region we are told comprises the auriferous gravels of the west fork of the Neocene channel of the North Yuba river which have been worked for gold since the early fifties. Brandy City is situated at an elevation of about 3,700 feet on the southwest end of a gentle sloping ridge. It was regarded in 1869 as the principal hydraulic camp of Sierra County.
Poverty Hill, Portwine, and Poker Flat neighboring one or the other of the aforenamed towns were for some time thriving mining camps. In fact the northern region proved so rich that almost every part of it wherever the gravel could be reached yielded large sums.
South Side of North Yuba - - One of the first placer regions to be worked in California was the Alleghany district south of Downieville located between the North and Middle forks of the Yuba. The river canyons are here deep and precipitious but are generally separated by areas only gently rolling. A tributary of the far-famed ancient river channel runs through Minnesota, Alleghany, Chips Flat, and Forest City noted mining camps of the district.
The presence and richness of the Neocene gravel beds invited early exploitation by the processes of hydraulic and drift mining and so it was that hydraulicking and drifting began here in the fifties and early developed a large scale of operation.
Forest City - - One of the liveliest mining camps of the Sierras in former days was Forest City pleasantly situated at the junction of north and south forks of Oregon Creek about eight miles south of Downieville. Gold seems to have been discovered at this place by a company of sailors in the summer of 1852. When shortly afterwards Michael Redding settled here it quickly became known as a mining locality designated as the "Forks of Oregon Creek". The early miners found the site of the town covered with a dense growth of oaks interspersed with pines, and surrounding it a magnificent forest of conifers. Here a store and a rum shop were established by Redding and Tom Taylor. From this start the place began to look like a town and rapidly grew to respectable proportions. For a while the camp was known as Bronsville then as Elizaville and for shorter periods of time was designated by still other names. When it became necessary in time to adopt a permanent name for the town the question was submitted to popular vote and in 1854 the place was formally christened with the appellation it still bears. At this time Forest City with its rich diggings, its flourishing stores, hotels, and saloons was the most promising village in the district. It rapidly developed and prospered until 1856 when it declined with almost the same rapidity owing to the failure of mining around it and the formidable rivalry of Alleghany which drew the population away to the other side of the hill. Forest City then remained an insignificant camp until awakened in 1870 from her Rip Van Winkle sleep by the rich gravel discoveries in the Bold Mountain claim heralding a new era of prosperity. For some time thereafter it continued to be quite a flourishing mining town.
Alleghany - - Two miles south of Forest City over the ridge whose summit affords a beautiful panoramic view of the valley and mountains situated at Kanaka Creek is the present live mining camp of Alleghany. From 1852 when diggings were first located at this place it steadily grew in importance. Although at first eclipsed by the more flourishing camp, Forest City, it superseded the latter in importance after 1856 and attracted much of its population. A post office was established in 1857. During the following six years the town flourished exceedingly - - it was the flush time in the early mining history. By drifting and other processes the mines then produced between three and four hundred thousand dollars. In 1858 there were eighteen tunnel companies at Alleghany, all paying. It was possible at one time to leave Alleghany and walk directly to Forest City by a tunnel through the mountain. Alleghany is today a very active quartz mining camp.
Chipps Flat - - On a slope of the canyon of Kanaka Creek opposite from that of Alleghany situated on the main Blue lead is Chipps Flat, which although quite an active camp in the early days was in 1870 comparatively still.
Minnesota a short distance south of Chipps Flat is located near Wolf Creek a tributary of the Middle Yuba. The Blue lead was discovered here in 1853 by some surface miners who followed up a rich deposit in Taylor's ravine till it ran out, whence they hunted along the side till they found the place where the lead went into the hill. It was very rich, and for a time Minnesota had some of the best drift diggings in the State. Four hundred miners making an average of twelve to fifteen dollars per day were employed there in 1853. Only four claims were worked in 1859.
Camptonville - - South of Brandy City and west about twelve miles from Alleghany is the old mining town of Camptonville. It is situated nearly midway between Nevada City and Downieville approximately twenty miles from each, while from Marysville its distance is double that number of miles. This once beautiful and prosperous mining town had its rise with the opening of hill mining in 1852. It speedily became the scene of large hydraulic mining operations and in the vicinity mines were opened which in the fifties were among the best in the State. In consequence of its productive mines the place rapidly assumed the appearance of a little city. Some twenty or thirty stores retailing goods of every description prospered there in 1856, while hotels and billiard saloons fixed up in fine style did a very profitable business. Camptonville which then had a population of fifteen hundred was connected with neighboring towns by three daily stages, two from Marysville and one from Nevada City. In the late sixties the town still produced a great deal of gold, the annual shipment amounting to about $500,000. For a number of years it was a lively town and only gradually shrank to the respective size of village and hamlet.
Camps On The North Yuba - - With the advent of the gold discovery at Downieville miners streamed to the bars in the vicinity and incited by the Gold Lake rumors and the insatiable quest for better diggings spread to every locality of the North Yuba. Of the numerous camps that here sprang into existence a number of the more prominent have been mentioned. But among the most important were three situated at the very brink of the North Yuba, all of which grew to be exceedingly active towns.
Goodyears Bar picturesquely situated on the North Yuba four miles below Downieville was one of the first mining camps established in Sierra County. It was occupied by diligent miners months before William Downie started for the Forks. The first settlers who came to the bar in the summer of 1849 were Miles Goodyear, Andrew Goodyear, Dr. Vaugn, and Mr. Morrison. Rich gold deposits were discovered. When the news spread to the lower diggings a number of miners proceeded to Goodyear's Bar while others passed through the settlement following up the stream for possible greater riches.
Great hardships were experienced at Goodyear's Bar during the winter of 1849. Rations were very scarce, and the prospect of famine drove many pioneers to the lower country to obtain the necessities of existence. Downie who set out from his camp at the Forks late in November, to procure provisions at this place found "men ekeing out an existence by subsisting upon a beef they had found lying upon the bar." The conditions seem to have been hardly better here than at the Forks. As the Major describes them the situations at both places were similar in some respects to those experienced by the Donner Party.
With the return of spring new crowds of eager gold seekers made their appearance, and the bar was soon dotted with huts, cabins, and canvas dwellings. Stores and hotels too were started as necessary adjuncts of the mining camp. Many of the hotels were nothing but canvas houses. The front parts of these tents constituted the bar-rooms, the back divisions were the dining rooms. Additions made alongside of the bar-rooms served as the sleeping apartments. These rude houses were, of course, supplanted in time by better buildings.
Goodyear's Bar must have been a wild, rollicking camp in 1852, with no less than a half dozen well-patronized saloons, with gambling tables in full blast flourishing there. In that year extensive fluming operations were carried on between Goodyear's Bar and Downieville. With but short breaks the river was conducted from the latter place to Goodyear's Bar on flumes. In this way miners got access to the river bed which for thousands of years had gathered the gold sands. But heavy rains fell in November of 1852 raising the stream to a volume greater than the flumes could carry and the disastrous result was that all were swept out.
In 1858 mining interests at the bar were characterized by general prosperity. Miners were engaged in the river diggings doing remarkably well. At that time numerous gardens and orchards flourished at Goodyear's. On the shores of the Yuba, fruits and flowers of almost every variety and description flourished.
The following year a road was completed connecting Downieville with Goodyear's Bar and Camptonville. This was an event of great rejoicing in the mountains for it meant the abandonment of the time-honored pack-mule and the establishment of a closer communication with the outside world by wheeled conveyances.
A ruinous fire consumed the business portion of the town in the fall of 1864. From this blow Goodyear's Bar speedily declined. The diggings that had yielded profitably for a number of years began to show signs of exhaustion and consequently business men found little incentive for rebuilding their fallen establishments. The town in 1880 was but a shadow of its former self, having but one store and one hotel.
Downieville situated at the Forks of the North Yuba is the seat of Sierra County and was first settled in 1849. During the spring of 1850 crowds of miners streamed in without cessation to its diggings, the town growing up in consequence as if by magic. It was the depot for the supplies of a very large mining population. All the miners for miles around depended on Downieville for their provisions, and the streets were consequently always a scene of bustle and activity, being crowded with trains of pack-mules and their Mexican drivers. Myriads of tents covered the flats. Many of them were stores and saloons, the proprietors having no time to erect more substantial buildings. A less primitive scene, however, marked the site of Downieville a year or two afterwards.
The diggings at Downieville were very extensive, for many miles above it on each fork there were numbers of miners working in the bed and the banks of the river. The aggregate yield of the river beds, canyons, and flats at this place was enormous. On Durgan Flat, above, was extracted more than eight million dollars while Jersey Flat also yielded very bountifully.
Downieville, foremost among the towns of the North Yuba, still retains as county seat something of her old honored position.
Sierra City - - A traveler of the early eighties has left the following description of a journey from Downieville to Sierra City:
"From Downieville the rockaway turned toward Sierra City, twelve miles distant. Along the entire twelve-mile route following the river there were no towns or villages; only rude mining settlements, where the Chinese worked at river-sluicing or derrick mining, living in brush huts and subsisting on their usual meager rations.
"The scenery was every hour growing more rugged and beautiful. Now and then came glimpses of the Sierra Buttes - - the bare, craggy peaks whither the travelers were going. Here and there along the massive ribbed sides were small patches of snow which summer suns had failed to melt, and which cowered in the ravines as though fearful of detection.
"Nearing Sierra City, the Sierra Buttes loomed up in grand relief, not dim and hazy now, but sublimely distinct. Down through a purple, shady vista, where the sunset shadows sleep, rolls the Yuba - - the very same Yuba whose thick muddy waters are so repugnant to lowlanders, but which here sparkle over the rocks as clear as its pebbly bottom. On one side, where a small stretch of meadow land lies, nestles Sierra City."
Sierra City is picturesquely located in the valley of the South Fork of the North Yuba, situated at the southern base of the Sierra Buttes mountain whose lofty summit reaches an elevation of 8,600 feet. The Yuba courses in a general east and west direction through the southern limits of the village, and just across, the region rises abruptly from the river to a flat topped ridge two thousand feet or more above the stream.
The village owes its origin in a large measure to the proximity of the great Sierra Buttes mine which for many years was the most notable quartz mine in the county or even the State. To this locality some miners found their way in the spring of 1850. These early gold-seekers among whom were Philo Haven and Joseph Zumwalt found signs of Indians plentiful along the river, but nowhere any indications that crevicing or prospecting for gold had previously been done. Later in the year the Sierra Buttes quartz ledge was discovered and settlement was started where the village now stands.
When the Independence lode which adjoins the Sierra Buttes on the west was located in 1851, considerable quartz was soon worked by arrastras. During the following year twenty arrastras run by mules were operating in the neighborhood. To obtain the quartz, tunnels were constructed into the hills, and thus a large number of men were employed.
Sierra City was even at this early date quite a mining place. Besides a baker shop and one or two other buildings of considerable size numerous gambling houses and saloons were opened to afford the miners the usual comforts and excitements of the camp.
But this early prosperity was of short duration. During the succeeding winter food became exceedingly scarce. Snow fell in great quantities crushing the buildings and causing avalanches which killed two miners and endangered the lives of others. The embryo village, in consequence, was soon deserted.
For a few years there was little promise for a revival of the settlement. But with the discovery of the rich diggings on the flat a large number of people rushed to the spot and by 1858 the village had gained a new and sure foothold. During this and the preceeding year stamp mills were erected at the Sierra Buttes, Independence, Keystone, Chipp's, and Primrose mines and operations in each were soon at full blast. As the mines prospered, the town grew. Before 1870 Sierra City had a post office, public school, and an express office, together with numerous stores, hotels, and saloons.
During the next two decades Sierra City was one of the prominent mining towns of the State, having at one time a population of two thousand. Men were employed by the hundreds at the several mines in the neighborhood, chief of which was the Sierra Buttes. Ditches were constructed and running streams were used for water power, and for generating electricity. There were lumber camps in the surrounding mountains and saw-mills on the streams all flush with business. The town itself took on the appearance of a little city. Substantial brick buildings went up, shops multiplied in number and no less than twenty-six saloons seemed adequate to quench the insatiable thirst of its miners. A good wagon road passed through town from Downieville to Sierraville and telegraphic communication with certain neighboring towns existed.
Sierra City does not now present the activity and bustle which characterized its condition at an earlier day. But it is not a completely deserted village, nor for the present one where wealth accumulates nor where men decay for that matter. Because of the natural scenery of the swift-flowing streams, deep gorges, lofty peaks, besides the innumerable geological curiosities on all sides it will live and becoming better known as a resort may grow in favor with those interested in the grand and the beautiful.
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