California’s Shasta City and Dam: The Northern Gold Rush and the Enduring Wealth of Water
By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: This article about Shasta 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.)
Though the California Gold Rush occurred mainly in the foothills east of Sacramento, one intriguing northerly strike happened west of the present-day city of Redding. Pierson B. Reading discovered gold along Clear Creek in 1848, setting off a rush centered on the small town of Shasta, now a state historic park.
However, true wealth in California was not primarily to be found in precious metal. The enduring wealth was in agriculture—especially if a stable water supply could be arranged. Consequently, the building of Shasta Dam (1938-1945) could be said to be the defining economic event on the 20th century in Northern California.
It’s as fascinating today to tour the dam as it is to poke around the historic town of Shasta.
The Historic Story
The historic story begins with the various Native American groups, the Wintu, Yana, Achomawi, and Atsugewi tribes. They lived comfortably, nurtured by the legendary runs of salmon in the rivers, supplies of acorns harvested on the hillsides, and the abundance of deer and elk in the grasslands.
In the 1820s mountain men like Jedediah Smith and Peter Skene Ogden led fur trappers into the region.
As you approach the region, the town of Red Bluff has two interesting historic houses to visit. First, a mile north of town, is at the William B. Ide Adobe State Historic Park (21659 Adobe Rd.; 530/529-8599; https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=458). This house interprets the pioneer and later Victorian era in the region, with rangers in period costume. Ide had been president of the aborted California Republic, a brief political hiccup of 1846 (mentioned in the Sonoma chapter).
Similarly, another historic abode is the Kelly Griggs House Museum (311 Washington St.; 530-527-1129; http://www.visitredding.com/kelly-griggs-house-museum). This mansion is a Victorian showplace built in the 1880s by sheepman Sidney Allen Griggs. His edifice sold to the Kelly family in the 1930s. Garbed mannequins live among the antique furnishings and paintings. One room is devoted to Ishi, the last of the Yahi Indians (discussed in the Lassen chapter).
Once you reach Redding and Shasta Lake, a tour of Shasta Dam entices. Moreover, water recreation, especially houseboating, allures. The building of Shasta Dam tamed three major rivers, the Pit, McCloud, and Sacramento, creating California’s largest man-made reservoir. The dam accomplished three things. Firstly, it reduced flooding. Secondly, it provided assured water for agriculture. And thirdly, it created 370 miles of wooded shoreline for recreation. Shasta Dam is the second largest concrete structure in the United States (after Grand Coulee on the Columbia River.)
Free Tours of Shasta Dam
Free tours of the dam are informative and interesting. To arrange a tour, contact the Visitor Center at 16349 Shasta Dam Blvd., Shasta Lake, CA 96019; 530/275-4463; https://www.usbr.gov/mp/ncao/docs/shasta-tour.pdf). A dozen competent providers of houseboats provide rentals around the lake.
Beyond the lake, make the drive west from Redding on Highway 299 and then north on Highway 3. Above all, this road presents one of the most scenic and historic backcountry trips possible in Northern California.
First stop on this drive is Shasta City. The red brick facades of Shasta State Historic Park show the huge prosperity that a gold strike brought to this remote region. Shasta City and the nearby town of Jacksonville, near Ashland, in Oregon, were the prominent northern gold discovery sites. Shasta was the “Queen City” of the northern mines in the 1850s. Be sure to see the museum in the Courthouse (530/243-8194), with its strong collections of California landscape art and Pit River Indian basketry. Across the street, the Litsch General Store approximates its original appearance.
Weaverville Joss House
Beyond Shasta City on Highway 299 is Weaverville, where the special resource is the Weaverville Joss House State Historic Park (530/623-5284; https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=457). About 2,500 Chinese men sought gold along the Trinity River in 1852. The Joss House was their place of Taoist worship. Moreover, the role of the Chinese was tragically difficult in early California. They were not allowed to form families or bring their women and children from China. They were discriminated against even when they became prosperous.
Driving north on Highway 3, you experience some fascinating backcountry ranches, abandoned gold dredges along the rivers, old stagecoach stops, and small museums. For example, the Fort Jones Museum (11913 Main St., Fort Jones; 530/468-5568; http://www.fortjonesmuseum.com) houses an elaborate Native American collection of basketry, ceremonial rocks, mortars, and pestles. The Scott Museum of Trinity Center (100 Airport Rd., Trinity Center; 530/266-3378; http://www.northtrinitylake.com/scottmuseum/) gathers many pioneer artifacts saved by native son Edwin Scott.
At some point in this circular trip you will pass through Redding, which has the most developed hotel and restaurant services in the area. Moreover, Redding also boasts an interesting interpretive site, where the wise use of the 375-mile Sacramento River is the theme. Be sure to stop at this Turtle Bay Exploration Park and Museum (844 Sundial Bridge Dr., 530/243-8850; https://www.turtlebay.org) to absorb this modern vision of a sustainable stewardship of the river.
The Interstate 5 corridor north from the Bay Area is the access route. At Redding, the side roads of Highway 299 and Highway 3 to the west complete the trip.
Be Sure to See
The two historic houses in Red Bluff will acquaint you with the pioneer period. A tour of Shasta Dam tells the tale of the economic powerhouse of modern California agriculture. Next, the drive west and north, where Highways 29 and 3, take you to Shasta City and the historic small towns of Weaverville and Fort Jones. Finally, the Turtle Bay Museum in Redding presents a future-looking vision for managing the great Sacramento River resource.
Best Time of Year
This is a particularly good summertime drive. The weather is sunny and warm. In fact, the temperature can sometimes be hot. Expect rain and snow in winter. Redding has the liveliest festivals in the region, including the Hot Cars and Kool April Nites. Also, in June, the town hosts the Sundial Music Festival. Red Bluff mounts one of the west’s biggest rodeos each April.
Vintage railroad cabooses have been gathered in Dunsmuir to make a one-of-a-kind lodging known as Railroad Park Resort (100 Railroad Park Rd., Dunsmuir; 530/235-4440 or 800/974-7245; https://rrpark.com). Fans of rail Americana will enjoy this lodging opportunity.
A restaurant, in two historic rail dining cars, is another part of the tour de force known as Railroad Park, suggested above for lodging. Café Maddalena (5801 Sacramento Ave., Dunsmuir; 530/235-2725; http://www.cafemaddalena.com) gets high praise from the locals as “the best restaurant north of Sacramento.”
For Further Information
For free brochures and visitor information from the Redding Convention and Visitors Bureau, visit the Turtle Bay Store & Coffee Bar at Turtle Bay Exploration Park, adjacent to the Sundial Bridge, 844 Sundial Bridge Drive, Redding, CA 96001.
To talk to Visitors Bureau specialists and get information, call 530/225-4100, 800/874-7562, or 530/242-3102. Alternately, go online (https://www.visitredding.com).
All the state historic parks have web pages at https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=25543