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Notes on the Geography of The Western United States: Grass Valley, Nevada City, and Downieville

A quick look at three towns born in California's Gold Rush and not yet done with it, though the gold now lies in tourists, not in the ground.

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The Western United States: Grass Valley, Nevada City, and Downieville picture 1

The 100% corner of Grass valley: Mill St at Main. This is Mill, about as massive as Grass Valley gets. There are 10,000 people in town now--far more than in Nevada City, let alone Downieville--and there's a Safeway and a Best Western. Sadly, Lola Montez's house came down a few years ago. Still, the old business district is still physically intact.

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And here's South Main, from the same corner.

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The biggest building on South Main is the Holbrooke Hotel, which opened in 1851 and has seen four presidents (Grant, Harrison, Garfield, and Cleveland), as well as Mark Twain and Bret Harte. It's still open but now offers WiFi, along with history.

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Off those commercial streets, there are plenty of impressive old Victorians.

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Gold operations continued until the 1950s, so this Deco theater's name wasn't just nostalgic.

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Gold production started out with surface diggings north of town but soon turned to deep mining. Here: an over-the-fence peek at a miner's mansion: the Bourne Mansion of 1897. Designed by Willis Polk, it was built with waste rock from the nearby Empire Mine. The mine, which operated from 1850 until 1956 (barring a government-ordered closure during World War II), produced about 32,000 tons of gold--enough to form a cube about 7 feet square, and the Bourne family owned it from 1869 until 1929. Bourne senior, who died in 1876, was a San Francisco capitalist of the first order--owner of the Spring Valley Water Company and San Francisco Gas Company. It was his son, Bourne junior, who made the mine a world-class producer, with tunnels reaching a mile below the surface. Still, the stamp mill was so noisy that even Bourne didn't like living here and spent most of his time at Filoli, a mansion at the south end of the Crystal Springs lakes, south of San Francisco. Filoli was sold in 1936 to William Roth of the Matson Lines and in 1975 became a National Trust site. Meanwhile, between 1929 and 1956 the Empire mine belonged to Newmont Mining, today the world's biggest gold producer. The Empire was Newmont's first producing mine.

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Between the Gold Rush and 1883, a lot of gold was produced by blasting hillsides with high-pressure water streams. Here in Nevada City, four miles north of Grass Valley, is one of the old nozzles or "monitors." Hydraulic mining came to a court-ordered halt across the state because, along with gold, it produced huge amounts of sediment that washed downstream, destroying farmland.

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Also on display: a 15-ton, 12-foot Pelton Wheel that produced 18,000 horsepower and was used at Drum Power House from 1929 to 1986. The Pelton Wheel, with its distinctive split cup, was invented in nearby Camptonville by Lester Pelton. He patented it in 1880, and the wheel went into production in 1887.

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The miners developed an extensive network of water-supply canals. Here: the headquarters from 1857 to 1880 of the South Yuba Canal Company, whose properties were eventually sold to Pacific Gas and Electric.

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Nevada City's Broad Street has two hotels. This one, the National, from 1856, consists of three common-walled but separate buildings.

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From the same year: the Kidd and Knox Building, also on Broad.

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Apartments and offices are still available. The lure of downtown living, however, isn't especially compelling in a town of only 4,000 people.

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Nevada City also had two firehouses. Here's one of them: Pennsylvania Engine Co. No 2, from 1861.

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The Nevada Theater, which claims to be the oldest in California, opened in 1865, closed in 1957, but reopened in 1968. Mark Twain appeared here.

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The town went through a Deco phase, for example updating its old city hall.

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The Nevada County courthouse is similarly from the '30s.

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Like Grass Valley, Nevada City too has old Victorians. This one belonged to three generations of assayers. Late in 2005, it was offered for sale at $1,195,000--with four upstairs bedrooms sharing a single bath.

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And now Downieville, county seat of Sierra County. We're 48 twisting miles from Nevada City--a remote part of the state by California standards. The whole county has only a bit over 3,000 people, and Downieville has only a tenth of them. Here's the Hirschfeldter Building, built in the early 1850s as a hardware store but operating as a grocery since 1900.

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And here's downtown's Craycroft Building, built after an 1852 fire that leveled the whole town. Sierra County was carved out of Yuba County in that same year, however, and Downieville immediately became the county seat. The Craycroft Building has served as courthouse, Masonic lodge, newspaper office, restaurant, and jail. The town's gold-producing history was short, however, and by 1860 many of the miners had left for Virginia City. Notice the bridge at the far right.

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The view upstream from that bridge: this is the ambitiously named Downie River. A few hundred yards behind the camera, it joins the North Yuba.

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Perhaps because no other economy replaced the miners, Downieville can claim that it is the most intact of all California's Gold Rush towns.

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The town's recently become a mountain-bike Mecca.

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On display: a tiny Pelton wheel. Before rural electrification in the 1930s, many Downieville residents had their own household generators, driven by such wheels.

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We're moving east, up and over Yuba Pass. Here, on a fine day, the startlingly rugged Sierra Buttes.

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And here, from the summit, distant Sierra Valley.

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Down in Sierra Valley, the Sattley Cash Store was for sale in 2005.

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The valley's forests were cleared in the 1850s by ranchers selling not only to California miners but to those in the booming silver mines of Virginia City, Nevada.

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There are still active ranches here, just far enough away from civilization (Truckee's 30 miles to the south) that they have escaped the crowding so typical of California.


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