Nevada County History, Museums and Historical Sites

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Our Gold Rush History
The calendar may say 21st Century, but all around the Gold Rush towns of Nevada County it looks, feels and even sounds like the 1850s.

A trend in historical tourism has brought more visitors to this history-rich region on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe.

Here, visitors will discover quaint villages with fine examples of restored Gold Rush architecture, museums filled with gold mining, railroad and Donner Party memorabilia, and living history demonstrations with costumed characters from the past.

Truckee’s Rich History
The Truckee-Donner Summit area is known as the site where the emigrant Donner Party was trapped beneath the snows of 1846; however Truckee’s era as a mountain community began a few years later.

Modern day Truckee originated in 1863 when a man named Gray built an outpost that would become known as Gray’s Station. The station was later purchased by a man named Coburn and became known as Coburn’s Station. During Coburn’s ownership, the growing community befriended a local Paiute Indian chief, whose name was pronounced “tro-kay,” meaning “all is well” in the Paiute language. The town of Truckee derives its name from this colorful individual who made himself known by his friendly assistance to thousands of westward-bound emigrants.

In the years to come, a lumber industry grew and the Central Pacific Railroad would come through town. The ice mills of the tiny community of Boca packed ice in sawdust and shipped it to San Francisco in the pre-refrigerator days.

The Great Republic of Rough & Ready
In the late 1840s, an estimated 3000 people lived in Rough & Ready. A Mining Tax on all gold mining claims had been imposed by the government, raising the hackles of the local populace.

On Apr. 7, 1850, the townspeople gathered in a mass meeting, shook their collective fists at the government, and on that day seceded from The Union and formed the Great Republic of Rough & Ready. It was named after 12th U.S. President Zachary Taylor, whose nickname was “Old Rough & Ready.”

But the new republic was short lived. Just three months later, on the Fourth of July, patriotic fervor spread, Old Glory went up the flagpole and the episode slipped into history.

The Little Town of Washington
In the fall of 1849, a company from Indiana arrived at a stretch of River and decided to remain through the winter to start a township. In July 1850, the name of Washington was adopted and soon after men stared working the gold rich South Yuba River. High amounts of gold were found in this area, which created and molded these hills into “The Little Town of Washington.” The Washington Mining District was always served by operators of small stage lines. A daily trip used to leave The National Hotel in Nevada City at 7 a.m. and arrive in Washington around noon. Located on Highway 20 between Washington and Nevada City was the Five Mile House. This was used to rest between trips or take shelter from the weather. Now the drive only takes 25 minutes by car.

China Town was located along the bank of the South Yuba River in Washington. The famous settlement played such an important role in the mining days in the Washington District. Hundreds of Chinese lived and worked in Washington. Their incredible dry stack stone building can still be seen around the area. A campground now sits on the site where the old China Town was located. 

Downtown Historic Districts

Preserved and restored Gold Rush buildings fill the historic district of each town.

Downtown Nevada City, with 93 buildings, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Horse-drawn carriage rides and railroad tours are available in Nevada City. The Nevada Theater, California’s oldest theater building, has featured celebrities such as Mark Twain, Jack London, and Emma Nevada on its stage

Downtown Grass Valley is bathed in a wondrous mix of cedar, pine and an assortment of deciduous trees that burst forth a multitude of fall colors as the cooler temperatures arrive, this circa 1800 Gold Rush era town offers a window into the past while providing the best the present has to offer.

Historic Downtown Truckee offers Old West mountain charm with unique shops, historic hotels and bed & breakfast inns, art galleries, wonderful restaurants and entertainment and year-round recreation and adventure. Truckee’s historic jail museum is one of only a few surviving 19th century jailhouses of its kind in the West and one of the few remaining original buildings in Downtown Truckee.

California State Parks

Donner Memorial State Park
Located in the beautiful Sierra Nevada, Donner Memorial State Park offers the summer vacationer opportunities for camping, picnicking, boating, fishing, water-skiing, and hiking. In winter, visitors can cross country ski and snowshoe on trails and enjoy the season’s beauty. The park encompasses Schallenberger Ridge to the south of Donner Lake. In and around the park you can see some of the Sierra Nevada’s geologic history. Visitors are welcome year round at the Emigrant Trail Museum and the Pioneer Monument, built to commemorate those who immigrated to California from the east in the mid-1800’s.

Empire Mine State Historic Park
The Empire Mine was the richest hard rock mine in the State of California, producing 5.8 million ounces of gold in its operating history of 106 years (1850-1956). The Park is noted for its historical tours of the Bourn Cottage, the mine yard and “living history” events. In addition, the Park museum has a scale model of the underground workings of the Empire/Star mine complex, a “gold room” which displays ore samples from local mines, an Assay Office and an extensive mineral collection. Each year a Springtime Open House is held on Mother’s Day Weekend, featuring “living history” programs, food service and entertainment. Stroll the lovely 13-acre grounds, considered a showplace in the mining world. Wedding and events facilities are available by reservation.

South Yuba River State Park
The South Yuba River State Park contains several parcels of land along the South Yuba River extending more than 22 miles from Point Defiance on Lake Englebright toward the town of Washington. The Park, state’s first river corridor park, was established in 1986 for its scenic, recreational, and historic values. It contains the Bridgeport Covered Bridge and Ranch, the Kneebone Pleasure Resort site, the Independence Trail, and historic river crossings at Highway 49 (1921), Hoits (Hoyt’s) Crossing (1856), Purdon Crossing (1853 and the extant 1895 half-through metal truss bridge), Edwards Crossing (early 1850s and the extant 1904 three-hinged metal arch bridge) and Illinois Crossing (1855). Roadway and bridge abutment remains can be found at all of these sites. Dedicated park professionals, docents and volunteers acting as park interpreters offer a variety of recreational activities; wildflower walks, hiking and biking trails, swimming, fishing bird watching, gold panning and more. The Visitors Center is rich with both cultural and natural history exhibits. The covered bridge built in 1862, at 251 feet, is the longest single span covered bridge in the United States. The newly refurbished historic barn is home to several conserved wagons that, along with interpretive panels, that tell the story of transportation during the gold rush era. Enjoy “living history” programs such as the “Ghosts of Bridgeport,” that tell the full story of the exciting history of the area.

Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park
Created in 1965, Malakoff Diggins preserves the exciting and controversial story of hydraulic gold mining during the California Gold Rush. Hydraulic miners at Malakoff Diggins blew away entire hillsides with highly-pressurized water in their quest for gold, leading to erosion and silt in Northern California Rivers and the state’s first environmental law. The park is the site of California’s largest “hydraulic” mining site. Visitors can see huge cliffs carved by mighty streams of water, results of the gold mining technique of washing away entire mountains to find the precious metal. The park also contains a 7,847-foot bedrock tunnel that served as a drain. The visitor center has exhibits on life in the old mining town of North Bloomfield. Enjoy the hiking trails and panoramic views. Guided Town Tours are offered. 

Local Museums, Historic Sites and Cultural Centers 

Firehouse Museum
Firehouse No. 1 is perhaps the most-photographed building in Nevada City. It was built in 1861 to house Nevada Hose Company No. 1 and has been a museum since 1947. The museum, operated by the Nevada County Historical Society, offers a limited look at mining and more extensive relics of the Donner Party, Nisenan and Maidu Indians, pioneer clothing and furnishings, and a complete altar from a Chinese Joss House (temple) that was at one time located in Grass Valley’s Chinatown.

Miners Foundry Cultural Center
The foundry dates to 1856 and for many years provided metal and steel fabrication for the local mines. The first Pelton Wheel, a Nevada County invention which revolutionized hydroelectric power production, was built at the foundry in 1879. In its earliest days, the foundry was known as the Nevada Iron and Brass Foundry and Machine Shop. It became known as Miners Foundry in 1907 and operated until 1965. From 1974 to 1989, the foundry was home to the American Victorian Museum. Guests may enjoy historic artifacts exhibited throughout the foundry. Many of the displays are described in a printed self-guided tour to the foundry available at the entry. Today, Miners Foundry Cultural Center is a community and performing arts center, hosting more than 200 events per year.

Saint Joseph’s Cultural Center
The history Saint Joseph’s began in the post-Gold Rush days with the arrival of Father Dalton in 1865. The construction of a church and a school, under his administration, began in 1858. The Private School opened in 1860. In 1862, at Father Dalton’s request, a group from the Sisters of Mercy order in San Francisco was invited to visit the area. Later in 1863, a permanent contingent from the Sisters of Mercy returned to take up residence and take over the administration of the school (one for boys and one for girls). In 1865, construction began on what was to become the Convent building. The Sisters occupied the Convent in early 1866 and accepted their first group of orphans a month later. The facility gained regional importance and expanded its influence on the region by developing three schools, the convent, St. Patrick’s church and assorted other buildings. The reputation was further enhanced by the founding of a “Select School” for young ladies in 1868, which provided advanced education for women in English, Literature, French, German, vocal and instrumental music. No small achievement for this locale only a few short years after the Civil War. So important it had become that for a time it was the home of the Bishop and center of Diocese. Today, the Cultural Center features the Grass Valley Museum, 13 artist’s studios and Menlo Macfarlane’s Art Gallery in the Bishop’s Room, the Moving Ground Dance Studio, John Olmstead’s Earth Planet Museum, and the Grass Valley Taiko Dojo.

North Columbia Schoolhouse Cultural Center
The North Columbia Schoolhouse Cultural Center gives the rural San Juan Ridge community a local place to meet, to share its creativity, and to participate in a wide variety of enriching activities. Located 20 miles north of Nevada City, the Schoolhouse was built by the mining community in 1875, and has a long tradition of serving the community as a school and public meeting hall. In 1979, it was forced to shut down as a school by legislation requiring earthquake-proof construction. It reopened as a community Cultural Center in 1980 after extensive restoration undertaken by two local architects, with the help of dedicated volunteers. Over the years, the Cultural Center has hosted hundreds of unique cultural events with artists, musicians, and writers from all over the world. The Center also hosts film screenings, community forums, classes, festivals, and the nationally renowned Sierra Storytelling Festival.

The Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum
Located in Nevada City, California, the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum is dedicated to the preservation of local transportation history and artifacts from the narrow gauge railroad era. In addition to the railroad, this Sierra foothills county boasted such turn-of-the 20th century transportation as an electric streetcar line, a steam powered automobile, and the first commercial airport in the United States. Visitors are offered a docent-led historical tour of the museum, rail yard, and restoration shop. Exhibited in the main gallery is Engine 5, an 1875 Baldwin that began service hauling lumber, then passengers and freight for the NCNGRR, and finally as a movie engine at Universal Studios in Hollywood. The rail yard houses a collection of wooden rail cars, some restored, others awaiting their turn in the restoration shop. The shop is usually a busy place with volunteers doing rolling stock maintenance and other restoration projects. The museum’s Gift Shop offers visitors a choice of many railroad-related items. www.ncngrrmuseum.or

The North Star Mining Museum
Operated by the Nevada County Historical Society, this museum (California Historic Landmark No. 843) has been recognized as the most complete hard rock mining museum in California. The museum is located in an 1895 stone building, once the powerhouse for the North Star Mine. Outside is a small creek side park for picnics and relaxation. Attractions include a 30-foot Pelton Wheel, the world’s largest, built by A.D. Foote in 1895, a Man Skip that carried miners down into the mines and a Cornish Pump that was used to remove water from mine shafts. An assay room, blacksmith shop, stamp mill and dynamite-packing machine are among the numerous exhibits. The museum is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 1 through Oct. 15 and by special appointment. There is no admission charge; donations are welcome.

The Truckee Railroad Museum
The Truckee Railroad Museum is located next to the historic railroad station in downtown Truckee. This adds historical significance to the area, as the caboose is from the Southern Pacific Railroad and was used in the area. Paint for the caboose matches the original SP paint scheme. Inside the museum are stories, pictures, recreations, and railroad artifacts depicting the impact of railroads in the formation and development of Truckee. The First Transcontinental Railroad, Logging Railroads, and Tourism by Rail all played an important part in Truckee’s history.

Nevada Theatre
Established in 1865, The Nevada Theatre is California’s oldest original-use theater. It is located downtown in the picturesque gold mining town of Nevada City. The building, California Historic Landmark No. 863, has seen thousands of presentations over its near-150 year history including performances from Mark Twain and Emma Nevada to Mötley Crüe and The Second City comedy troupe. Today it is a vital part of the community and is used for live theatre, movies, and special events.

Nevada County Folklore & How to Pan for Gold

The State Next Door Took Our Name
In the Gold Rush, the city that is now Nevada City had adopted its name “Nevada,” in Spanish meaning snow covered. In 1851, the newly-formed surrounding county took on the name as well.

A decade later, in 1861, a territory to the east took our name and became the State of Nevada. To set ourselves apart, we became Nevada City and Nevada County.
Some say that Nevada County’s geographical shape – like a Derringer pistol

The Great Republic of Rough & Ready
In the late 1840s, an estimated 3000 people lived in Rough & Ready. A Mining Tax on all gold mining claims had been imposed by the government, raising the hackles of the local populace.
On Apr. 7, 1950, the townspeople gathered in a mass meeting, shook their collective fists at the government, and on that day seceded from The Union and formed the Great Republic of Rough & Ready. It was named after 12th U.S. President Zachary Taylor, whose nickname was “Old Rough & Ready.”
But the new republic was short lived. Just three months later, on the Fourth of July, patriotic fervor spread, Old Glory went up the flagpole and the episode slipped into history.

Gov. Brown on the Ridge
While in office as the 34th Governor of California (1975-83), Jerry Brown owned a large parcel of land on Nevada County’s San Juan Ridge. During that time, rumors were rife in the local area that “Gov. Moonbeam” was our most famous pot grower…rumors, of course, but a lot of attention for rural Nevada County.

The Never Come, Never Go
Travel aboard the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad (NCNGRR), the old “Never Come, Never Go,” was once part of life in Nevada City, Grass Valley and Colfax. The railroad hauled thousands of passengers and more than $200 million in gold from 1876 to 1942.
The NCNGRR route boasted the highest railroad bridge in California for its time (the 1908 Bear River Bridge), and was the first railroad in the U.S. to have a woman president (Sarah Kidder, 1901-1913). Today, visitors enjoy the railroad’s history, and the restored old Engine No. 5 at the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum in Nevada City.

First Ski Rope Tow?
Old newspaper accounts indicate that the state’s first ski rope tow may have been built near Nevada City in the early 1930s. It was at the Central House, nine miles east of Nevada City, so named because the site is halfway to the Town of Washington. Central House and surrounding 140 acres became home of the Nevada City-Grass Valley Ski Club, which eventually grew to 500 members. The site included a ski jump, toboggan run and ice skating pond.

Cornish Heritage
At one time, 75 percent of Grass Valley residents were of Cornish heritage. Today, there are four and five generations of Cornish families living here. Cornish miners followed mining opportunities from Cornwall, England to Grass Valley, with the biggest influx in1860- 1895.

Cousin Jack/Cousin Jenny
Introduced by Cornish miners, these terms have become part of the local lexicon. Helping others find jobs, Cornish miners introduced them as “my Cousin Jack.” The female “Cousin Jenny” soon became part of the tradition.

This term was used to describe the illegal taking of gold for personal use by hardrock miners. Highgrading was difficult because miners showered after taking off their “diggers” and putting on their street clothes. Personal belongings and lunch buckets were frequently searched by mine watchmen.

This traditional Cornish food item is still a luncheon favorite at several specialty shops in the Grass Valley-Nevada City area. Original Cornish pasties were made of beef and potatoes. Today’s pies include a broad range of ingredients.

According to the lore and superstitions of Cornish miners, Tommyknockers are little characters who live deep in the mines. They have been said to make funny noises as a way to protect miners from impending dangers.

Truckee Folklore

How Truckee Got its Name-1844
A friendly Paiute Indian chief assisted thousands of emigrants in their migration west across the Humboldt Sink through forty mile desert. The Indian’s name sounded like ‘Tro-kay’ to the white men, who dubbed him ‘Truckee.’ Guided by mountain man Caleb Greenwood the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy Party (sometimes called just the Stephens Party) became the first Emigrant wagon train that successfully crossed the Sierra. Elisha Stephens called the small lake beneath the pass Mountain Lake. A year later it was also known as Truckee Lake.

The Famed Donner Party-1846
The Donner Party followed the Truckee Route to the California Trail, a branch of the Emigrant Trail, to attempt a crossing of Donner Pass. Arriving in late October, heavy snows had already begun creating harsh conditions for their journey. The party was said to have resorted to cannibalism to survive the winter. 47 of the 87 men, women and children perished. More can be learned of their fascinating story at Donner Memorial State Park where you can visit the museum and Pioneer Monument.

The Railroad Comes to Truckee-1867
In spite of severe winter storms, San Mateo – a 40-ton locomotive – was hauled in pieces on sleighs by George Schaffer and assembled east of the site of today’s downtown. It was the first excursion train to near the summit. Up to 12,000 workers, including 10,000 Chinese worked on grading roadbed, blasting tunnels, and laying tracks over the Sierra Nevada. It was the country’s greatest achievement of the 19th century.

Chinese Boycott- 1836
After many years of racial tension, the white citizens of Truckee drove out the entire Chinese population (who had been instrumental in the building of the railroad) by forming a general boycott and refusing to buy or sell with Chinese residents. The Chinese contributed years of hard labor in the railroad, lumber, ice and other industries. Economic hard times led to a reduction of employment, which caused the citizens to boycott the Chinese.

Try Your Luck: How to Pan for Gold

If you know where to look, it’s not hard to find gold in Nevada County rivers.
Some of the most accessible gold panning locations are on the South Yuba River at Bridgeport, Edwards Crossing and Washington; and on the Middle Yuba River at Oregon Creek. These are public stretches of river so you don’t have to worry about claim jumping.
You’ll need a 12-inch or 18-inch gold pan (available at local shops), a small shovel, bucket, spoon, pocketknife and a small vial for your gold flakes.
Dig in old mine tailings, at turns in the river, around tree roots and at the upstream ends of gravel bars where heavy gold may settle.
Swirl water, sand and gravel in a tilted gold pan, slowly washing materials
Swirl water, sand and gravel in a tilted gold pan, slowly washing materials over the edge. Be patient, take your time and keep at it until you are down to black sand and, hopefully, gold.
Gold has a color all its own. You will be able to tell it from the brassier-looking pyrite, or Fool’s Gold. Mica is another common substance which has some glitter but breaks down upon touch.