HOME OF THE MINING BIG SHOTS
Elevation: 2,525 feet
WHAT TO DO IN NEVADA CITY
Some Favorites From Our Expeditions
Experience San Francisco as a mountain town, strolling downtown to look at the grand Victorian houses.
Look for the Indian Medicine Stone on Pine Street and imagine the Indians sunning themselves.
Find the Buddha shrine on Commercial Street that informs about opium dens in the Sierra during the Gold Rush.
Get a visual on how badly mining abused the Sierra landscape with a side trip to Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park.
Gold Country Ritziness
The era of hard-rock mining that began in Grass Valley also built nearby Nevada City, with the sister cities representing diverging classes. The mine workers and other regular Joes settled in Grass Valley to give it more of a blue-collar identity, while Nevada City drew wealthy mine owners and other members of the upper crust. Many of the homes Nevada City’s more affluent residents built are classic Victorians just like San Francisco’s most famous style of design, while ornate iron balconies on others bring to mind New Orleans.
Fancy Gold Rush Architecture
The difference is still visible today. Both Grass Valley and Nevada City are extremely well-preserved from an architectural standpoint, seemingly put on pause in the Gold Rush. All of Nevada City’s downtown is a national historical landmark — more than 90 buildings. Standouts include:
The National Hotel
The hotel opened in 1856 under the name National Exchange Hotel and has maintained the same stately exterior appearance ever since. Rooms are outfitted with Gold Rush-era antiques, and the back bar in the saloon was originally built for the grand Spreckles mansion in San Francisco. Outside, an E Clampus Vitus plaque on a rock in the parking lot gives a shout-out to Gold Rush prostitutes, noting the contributions of the area’s “ladies of the evening.”
Ott’s Assay Office
Assay offices were where miners took the ore specimens they found to be tested, and Ott’s earned its place in history when one from the Comstock Lode was brought here and identified as pure silver. The news would launch a second wave for the Gold Rush on the Sierra’s East Side at a time when — with the exception of the more complex mining operations around Grass Valley — the western foothills were considered played out.
Firehouse No. 1
Nevada City’s most photographed building was built in 1861 and originally was a much simpler structure. The Victorian-style gingerbread front that makes it so eye-catching today was part of a later renovation in the early 1900s. It’s now the Nevada County Historical Society’s museum.
The Sierra’s Carnegie Libraries
The Doris Foley Library for Historical Research is one of more than 1,600 grand-looking Carnegie libraries around the United States. All were built with funds from wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie or his Carnegie Foundation, both committed to the idea that libraries were an important resource that should be accessible to the wealthy and less privileged alike. His way of thinking was shaped from his own humble childhood and an early experience with Colonel James Anderson, a philanthropist who shared his personal library of books with young boys who had been forced into the workforce early but still wanted to read and learn. Carnegie was one of them.
There are nearly 150 Carnegie libraries in California, but only three in all of Gold Country. Interestingly, one of them is just miles away in Grass Valley (the Royce Library). The other is in Auburn.
The Scary-Looking Building
Nevada City’s historic buildings lend the town a great deal of charm, but another of its longstanding structures is downright spooky. On the outskirts of town lies the Health Education and Welfare building, which has been empty since 2006, with the windows boarded up.
It had been a hospital for many years but was later put to other uses. In 2001 it housed a mental-health clinic that became the site of tragedy. A man who had received treatment there came inside and shot several people (killing two) before going on to a nearby restaurant to kill one more and wound others. In recent years, the building has been in an extended limbo as the county has considered various plans, including redeveloping it as a residential complex.
An Enclave for The Beat Generation & Hippies
After the mining industry wound down, Nevada City would be revived by a different sort of settler. In the 1960s and ‘70s, creatives and flower children flocked here for the opportunity to live a simpler life closer to nature.
This was also an important principle for the Beat Generation, and two of its most famous figures came here for the same reason. Poet and mountain man Gary Snyder (also the real-life inspiration for Japhy Ryder in Jack Kerouc’s The Dharma Bums) would become a long-time resident after arriving in the mid-sixties. He bought some 100 acres just outside Nevada City with two friends — one being fellow Beat Allen Ginsberg.
This Nevada City spread is also the place where another Beat seemingly met a tragic end. Lew Welch had been a college roommate of Snyder’s and later a poet as well. He would also suffer from mental demons. In the early seventies, while visiting Synder in Nevada City, he would leave a suicide note and then wander away into the woods (apparently with gun in tow) never to be seen again.
Nature-Lovers & Bioregionalism
A back-to-the-land spirit would come to dominate Nevada City after the arrival of these peaceful, nature-oriented residents. Years later, the bioregionalism movement would take root here. To put it very simply, the concept involves forging a closer connection to where you live with environmental stewardship, often referring to specific ecological zones like watersheds or mountain ranges.
In 1990, Snyder and other Nevada City-area neighbors founded the Yuba Watershed Institute, a non-profit with a mission to protect forestland and other natural resources in their area — one badly damaged by hydraulic mining.
The Damage Mining Left Behind: Ravaged Sierra Landscapes
Environmentalism was obviously in no way top of mind when the forty-niners were in Gold Country, and the consequences would be both dire and enduring.
- Miners dug with abandon (making fears about cave-ins a lingering modern concern in communities with hundreds of miles of abandoned tunnels below them).
- They redirected streams and rivers so that the water would erode new surface areas and possibly expose more gold.
- They used polluting mercury to help separate gold from sediment.
- And they wiped out forests for timber to shore up underground shafts and build towns around them.
Malakoff Diggins: The Worst of the Worst
But most destructive of all was hydraulic mining, and the Yuba River Basin was where it was born in 1852. Malakoff Diggins would go on to be, for a time, the largest hydraulic mine in the world. The excavation there created a pit that was five miles long, two miles wide and 535 feet deep.
Placer gold was discovered here earlier that year and — as had been the case so many times in Gold Country — miners quickly came with their pans. Once the easiest nuggets and flakes had been extracted the old-fashioned way, sieve-like sluice boxes were utilized. They allowed miners to process more material (sometimes aided by mercury), but still required the labor of shoveling it into the sluices.
Two different Yuba River miners then dreamed up innovations to speed up the work and make it less back-breaking. First Anthony Chabot thought to loosen up the river bank with water from a canvas hose. Edward Matteson would soon take the idea to the next level, intensifying the water pressure and pointing the nozzle at hillsides to blast free the ore. Hydraulic mining had come to the Sierra.
In 1866, the ground was laid for a major hydraulic mining operation on the Yuba River. Several abandoned claims were bought and combined, and investors were brought in for what would be North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company. It would feature multiple dams, a massive flume and a growing system of canals and ditches to carry water that would be blasted into the surrounding hills and mountains from larger-scale water canons called monitors.
The work was brisk and prosperous, but there was a major problem: hydraulic mining created a massive amount of waste. The leftover dirt and gravel was left to drift into the river where it would make the water murky and be carried further downstream. Some made it all the way to the San Francisco Bay, but some would come to rest in the Central Valley where it would clog the river and cause major flooding that devastated the surrounding farmland. One of the most severe floods was in Marysville in 1875. The town was surrounded by levees, but the water swept over them, resulting in deaths and tremendous damage.
Until then, many had turned a blind eye to damage caused by mining because it was the major economic driver in Gold Country and beyond. But the severity of the Marysville flood changed that. Calls arose for regulation of the mining industry, and they would eventually result in the first environmental law in the United States: the Sawyer Decision of 1884. Ironically, it didn’t mandate that hydraulic mining stop, but it did prohibit the dumping of tailings in the Yuba River. That was enough to end things at Malakoff Diggins because the restrictions severely hampered the possibility of profitability.
And so Gold Country would gain another ghost town — until the area was designated as Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park in 1965. It seems an interesting choice for a state park; the idea of preserved land conjures some pristine natural setting in need of protection. But this area was already devastated. Years of scouring the hills with jets of powerful water had left behind a vast pit surrounded by multi-colored, gouged cliffs that look like some sort of natural wonder, but are in fact man-made. The area clearly has historical importance, though, and provides a remarkable visual picture of how the Sierra was traumatized by mining.
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