In September 2013, I took a mini road trip through California’s Gold Country through Smartsville, Bridgeport, French Corral, North San Juan, North Columbia, Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, North Bloomfield, and Nevada City. What follows are some photos and some historical information about each site. Why? Because I’m a history nerd, that’s why.
Stop 1: Smartsville, Yuba County (Nisenan territory)
In 1856, James Smart established a hotel in the area. Soon after, a saloon and a store opened up. A year later Smart sold to L.B. Clark who turned the hotel into a store. As the mines got more active, the town grew. Four years before Smart even built his hotel, the Church of the Immaculate Conception was founded, albeit in Rose’s Bar. The church got a permanent structure in 1861.
Stop 2: Bridgeport Covered Bridge, Nevada County (Nisenan territory)
The first Bridgeport bridge was built in 1861, but was lost in a series of floods the following year. David Isaac John Wood rebuilt it as 249 feet long in 1862 using lumber from his own mill in Forest City. Those who wanted to cross had to pay a toll, and in 1863 alone he raked in nearly $21,000. Much of the Douglas fir used in construction is still holding up the bridge.
Stop 3: French Corral, Nevada County (Nisenan territory)
As the story goes, in 1849 an unnamed French immigrant built a corral for his mules, thus the town found its name. The nearby placer mines were booming and French Corral was an active stop on what is now Highway 20. The town boasted 300-400 people, making it a veritable metropolis in the Sierra foothills. But it was constatly beset by devasting fires. In 1877, the Ridge Telephone Company installed one of the first long-distance telephone lines in the country; it ran for 58 miles and ran from French Corral to French Lake and was operated by the Milton Mining Company.
Stop 4: North San Juan, Nevada County (Nisenan territory)
Jeremiah Tucker and Christian Kientz, two men who owned the Gold Cut mining claim nearby, founded North San Juan in 1853. Supposedly Kientz named the town after San Juan de Ulúa, a castle in Veracruz, Mexico – the “North” was added because there was already a town in San Benito County with the name “San Juan.”
Stop 5: North Columbia, Nevada County (Nisenan territory)
North Columbia, also known as Columbia Hill, was founded in the early 1850s, but not in its present location. When gold deposits were found under the site, the whole town was moved to its current location. “North” was added to the name in 1860 because there was already a Columbia in Tuolumne County. Two of earliest known miners in the area were the Tisdale brothers in 1853. Nearly $3 million worth of gold was pulled out of the placers during the mining era.
Stop 6: Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, Nevada County (Nisenan territory)
When gold was found on Humbug River in 1852, a camp of miners panning for gold sprang up. The town of Humbug formed around them, later renamed North Bloomfield. After hydraulic mining was effectively crushed by a permanent injunction, many miners left the area. During World War I, many structures were destroyed and used for lumber. Later, Prohibition and the Great Depression reduced the population even further when the saloons closed up and jobs disappeared. As people left the tiny mountain town for work in the cities and to fight in World War II, the town dwindled to less than 20. The land was gifted to the state as a park in 1965.
Stop 7: North Bloomfield landscape, Nevada County (Nisenan territory)
Hydraulic mining caused some of the worst ecological damage of the mining era. It all began in 1852 with French Canadian miner Anthony Chabot and his partner Edward Mattison. They pointed a canvas hose at the ore supply and, with high water pressure, blasted the hillsides. The practice took off and soon the landscape was battle scarred. At its peak, the North Bloomfield Gravel and Mining Company had 100 miles of canals and ditches to pull water to the mines and were blasting 100,000 tons of gravel a day. Debris washed into the rivers and tributaries, causing extensive damage, pollution, flooding, and mudslides. Rivers as far south as the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys were inundated. After a series of deadly floods, a court case in 1884 heavily restricted to the point of nearly eliminating hydraulic mining.
Stop 8: Nevada City, Nevada County (Nisenan territory)
The settlement of Nevada sprang up in 1849 at Deer Creek and was founded a year later. Today much of the downtown is a historic district.
“Bridgeport Covered Bridge – South Yuba River State Park.” South Yuba River State Park. Last updated May 2014. southyubariverstatepark.org/RespDocuments/BridgeBrochureWithOpenSchematic.pdf.
“Bridgeport Historic District.” California State Office of Historic Preservation. Accessed May 15, 2019. http://ohp.parks.ca.gov/ListedResources/Detail/390.
“California History.” Nevada City Chamber. Accessed May 15, 2019. https://www.nevadacitychamber.com/history/california-history/.
Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park. Brochure. Sacramento, CA: California State Parks, 2017.
“Nevada.” California State Office of Historic Preservation. Accessed May 15, 2019. http://ohp.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=21443.
“North Columbia.” Malakoff.com. Accessed May 15, 2019. http://www.malakoff.com/goldcountry/northcol.htm.
“North Columbia: The Columbia Hill Schoolhouse.” Malakoff.com. Accessed May 15, 2019. http://www.malakoff.com/goldcountry/mcnocosh.htm.
Stelow, Bob. “French Corral.” Ghosttowns.com. Acccessed May 15, 2019. https://www.ghosttowns.com/states/ca/frenchcorral.html.
Wyckoff, Bob. “Wyckoff: North San Juan, Queen of ‘The Ridge’.” The Union. August 7, 2014. https://www.theunion.com/news/local-news/wyckoff-north-san-juan-queen-of-the-ridge/.
“Yuba.” California State Office of Historic Preservation. Accessed May 15, 2019. http://ohp.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=21537.