By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: This article is about California’s Gold Rush Country east of Sacramento. This is also an updated chapter for the next edition of my book Northern California History Weekends. When all the 52 chapters are revised, a new edition of the book will appear.)
You’ll enjoy California’s Gold Country if you’re anything like the early gold miners. The gold miner was an explorer, willing to go off the beaten path, alert for information but also following a hunch, knowing that there are many treasures to be found. The travel treasures of the Gold Country are the nuggets of today.
The Historic Story
Here are a few of the places and legends that a traveler with an interest in history will savor in the Gold Country, rambling up and down CA Highway 49.
Placerville was a major supply site for the miners. Several famous captains of industry had humble beginnings here. Railroad magnate Mark Hopkins sold vegetables. Philip Armour ran a butcher shop. John Studebaker owned a wheelbarrow shop, amassing capital for larger ventures. Collis P. Huntington, later a rail tycoon, managed a store here.
Nevada City is another pleasant Gold Country town to explore. As a sample of the serendipity here, you’ll stumble across the Nevada City Winery (321 Spring St.; 530/265-9463; https://www.ncwinery.com/), which is known for its Zinfandel. Next door is the Miner’s Foundry Cultural Center, a museum with foundry equipment, but now transformed into a performing arts venue. Details: 523 Spring St.; 530/265-5040; https://minersfoundry.org/.
On Main Street, you’ll happen on the Firehouse No. 1, a red brick building from 1861, and now a museum (214 Main St.; 530/265-3937; https://www.nevadacountyhistory.org/firehouse-no.-1-museum2.html). So numerous and fearful were fires that fire prevention societies became a leading social force in the early gold-mining era.
Nevada City Anglers
Down the street is Nevada City Anglers (417 Broad St.; 530/478-9302; http://www.flyfishing-shops.com/shops/nevada-city-anglers/), a heaven for the trout fisher. Here they offer guide service, flies, and all sorts of fly-fishing paraphernalia.
At the end of Main Street is the historic National Hotel and Bar, the longest continuously operating hotel in California. You might stop for a drink at this dark wood bar and admire its collection of mixed drink shakers. Contact: 211 Broad St.; 530/265-4551; http://thenationalhotel.com/?reqp=1&reqr.
Nevada City is also known for its Victorian mansions, such as the Ott House, 450 Broad Street. The town prides itself on what its historic district lacks—no stoplights, no neon. Streetlamps are still actual gas lamps.
Antique hunters will delight in the numerous stores selling varied wares throughout the area. Jackson, for instance, has several antiques stores. Because of the patronage from travelers, many artists located to the Gold Country and sell directly to visitors.
Victorian architecture in churches and residences could be another focus of a Gold Country excursion. The red St. James Episcopal Church (1859) in Sonora and the Bradford Place Inn nearby are both fine examples of Gold Rush architecture.
Sonora residents organized a Sonora Heritage Home Tour. Brochures and maps are available locally. For more details, you can also visit or call the City of Sonora Special Programs Department at 94 N. Washington St.; 209/532-7725.
Take a self-guided walking tour of Grass Valley to see the Victorian architecture. As you stroll downtown, stop in at the historic Holbrooke Hotel, 212 W. Main Street, whose wooden bar is inviting and whose dining room is notable. One of the loveliest Victorian houses is the Frank Beatty residence, 403 Neal Street.
Gold Rush Personalities
Personalities played a major role in the legend of the Gold Country. Aside from Mark Twain, two of the most colorful were entertainer Lola Montez and stagecoach robber Black Bart.
Lola Montez, who flourished in Grass Valley, arrived from Europe, where she had been the mistress of Ludwig of Bavaria, among others. Her “salon” in Grass Valley was the place to enjoy polite company. It is said that Lola kept grizzly cubs as pets.
She intrigued miners with her noted Spider Dance, during which fake spiders (made of cork) were shaken from her dress. She was famous as a beauty and as a singer. While walking Grass Valley, be sure to see the Lola Montez House, 248 Mill Street. It’s not open to the public, but you can see it from the street and take photos.
Black Bart, aka respectable San Francisco citizen Charles E. Bolton, became a Robin Hood folk figure in California. Bart politely carried off 28 robberies before tripping up. His mode of operation was always the same. He waited alone, without even a getaway horse, along the road at an uphill spot where the horses slowed. He covered his face with a cloth flour sack that had holes cut for his eyes.
Bart carried a blanket roll with an ax in it. With a shotgun (which he never fired and which was later found to be empty), Bart quietly asked the stage driver, “Would you throw down your treasure box, sir?” Bart never disturbed the passengers, except that he collected all their firearms. His argument was only with Wells Fargo, a company that he taunted with doggerel. With the ax, Bart would then cut open the box, remove the loot, and somehow disappear on foot in the woods.
On his 29th robbery attempt, a passenger, who had been let off the stage to do some hunting, surprised Bart as he opened the treasure box. Bart disappeared, but dropped a handkerchief with his identifying laundry mark that traced him to a San Francisco laundry.
The Gold Country stretches all along Highway 49. Valuable travel nuggets exist everywhere.
Be Sure to See
Any of the subjects mentioned above would be intriguing to explore.
Best Time of Year
Autumn is a particularly congenial time to explore the Gold Country because the crowds have thinned and the leaves turn color.
Each town up and down the Gold Country has its interesting hotel. The St. George Hotel, 16104 Main Street, in Volcano, is a handsome three-story brick structure from 1862 with wooden balconies and an abundant collection of historic items. Contact: 209/296-4458; https://www.stgeorgevolcano.com/.
The St. George in Volcano operates a fine dining room and also has a lively bar. The St. George is a B&B, so a gratis breakfast is assured.
For Further Information
For info on Nevada City, contact the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce (132 Main St.; 530/265-2692; https://www.nevadacitychamber.com/). For info on Grass Valley, contact Greater Grass Valley Chamber of Commerce (530/273-4667; https://grassvalleychamber.com/).