“The Forks “It is not certain who the first white men to reach Sierra County were, but it is known that prospectors had reached as far as Downieville in the summer of 1849. William “Major” Downie, in one of his letters printed in The Sierra Citizen in 1854, describing the route of his party to the site of Downieville in the fall of 1849, speaks of a branch of the North Yuba River leading to the north (the present day Downie River) as being muddy, and upon getting up this fork of the river he found several men at work mining.
More than likely prospectors traveled as far into the canyon of the North Yuba as Downieville in the summer of 1848, following the discovery of gold at Coloma on the American River by James Marshall in January of that year.
Among the first white men to be known as having reached a place on the North Yuba which was to become Downieville were Philo Haven, Francis Anderson, Warren Goodall, Joseph Zumwalt, Thomas Angus and Carlos Haven. They mined at a place about a half mile below Downieville in the summer of 1849. Francis Anderson is given credit for being among the first to discover gold. Francis Anderson is given credit for being among the first to discover gold on September 14th, 1849 at the site of the present town of Downieville.
Major Downie, as mentioned earlier, arrived at the Forks in November of 1849 with his company of twelve men and constructed a small log cabin at a site on the present day Upper Main Street a short distance north of the Downie River.
As the winter of 1849 approached, food and supplies for Downie’s company to stay and mine through the winter was questionable. Major Downie traveled downstream to Goodyears Bar and secured enough goods from miners leaving the area to supply his company for that first winter in the North Yuba area. Downie was a respected and well liked man in the new settlement of The Forks and played a significant role in the development of this Yuba River gold rush camp. It is reported that due to these efforts the mining settlement had its name changed to Downieville.
The first store, built in the fall of 1849 by J.F. Foster, consisted of a tent stretched over two logs. Another of the earliest stores was that of a Mr. McGhee whose place of business was near the location of the later built St. Charles Hotel and present day Sierra Hardware. These stores stocked whatever could be packed into this remote area. Sometimes food of questionable quality was available and at other times the only thing in stock might be nails, buttons or jack knifes.With the news of gold being discovered in great quantities along the North Yuba miners by the hundreds began pouring into the region. As early as the summer of 1850 the number of miners in the North Yuba area was estimated at two thousand with about half being in the Downieville area. By the fall of that year Downieville boosted fifteen hotels, four bakeries, four butcher shops and every piece of mining ground was claimed.
During 1851 Downieville continued to grow and the population reached several thousand miners and dozens of merchants. During the fourth of July celebration of that year a miner named James Cannon, having celebrated the holiday with too much liquor, had an altercation with a young Mexican woman named Juanita. The result was the fatal stabbing of Cannon by the young women. A lynch-court was summoned and twelve jurymen eagerly responded with a verdict of guilty, Juanita was taken to a bridge in town and strung up. The first and only woman hanged in California.
During 1851 Downieville continued to grow and the population reached several thousand miners and dozens of merchants. During the fourth of July celebration of that year a miner named James Cannon, having celebrated the holiday with too much liquor, had an altercation with a young Mexican woman named Juanita. The result was the fatal stabbing of Cannon by the young women. A lynch-court was summoned and twelve jurymen eagerly responded with a verdict of guilty, Juanita was taken to a bridge in town and strung up. The first and only women hanged in California.
The placer deposits of the Downieville area were worked extensively during the 1850’s and the productivity of these deposits began to decline during the end of the decade. Because of the decline in gold production from the benches, bars and stream bottoms prospectors turned their attention to the gold bearing quartz deposits. By the beginning of the 1860’s hard rock mining was underway and a reported ten companies were crushing ore above Downieville.
By 1856 Downieville had become a gold rush town of “Consequence”,seat of Sierra County and supply hub for the North Yuba country
Although quartz mining was underway the early 1860’s were the beginning of the decline of Downieville as a gold producing town. The Comstock Lode in Virginia City drew hundreds, if not thousands, of the productive citizens away from the Downieville area and into the new discoveries in Nevada. During the early to mid 1860’s Downieville was transitioning from a rough and tumble gold rush town to a seat of county business and supply town.
In the fall of 1865 a company of miners made application to the county board of supervisors to exhume the bodies resting in the old cemetery northeast of town, and re-intern the remains in the new cemetery above Zumwalt flat. The flat that the old cemetery was located on had been tunneled and mined so extensively that some of the graves had sunk down. On the east side of the cemetery the ground had been mined so far into the burial ground that two or three coffins were protruding from the ground. The board of supervisors did not grant the application, but in the spring of 1876 a like request was granted and the last piece of gold rush placer ground in Downieville was directed through a sluice box.
Although major floods have raised the surface level of town proper and buried gold rush bottles and artifacts deep under the surface of this settlement, several important early bottles have been recovered from this historic gold rush town. Examples of J.T. Daly Clubhouse, Jockey Clubhouse Gin, Wistar’s Clubhouse, WSC Clubhouse, Catawba Wine Bitters, western and eastern pontil soda’s and even shards of a Bryant’s (cone) Stomach Bitters have been discovered in the Downieville area.
Downieville was the first and always has been the foremost town in Sierra County and at the present time is considered one of the best preserved gold rush towns in the northern mines. Several gold rush structures are still in use and include The Craycroft Building, Mackerman and Company building, the Methodist Church, the Downieville Brewery, the Masonic Building, several private residences and the J.M.B. Meroux grocery store. The Meroux store, a stone and brick structure, built in 1852 was donated in the 1930’s by the Meroux family to the community of Downieville and now houses the Downieville Museum.
During the beginning of the gold rush paper money didn’t exist in Sierra County. All goods and services were paid for with gold or bartered and traded.
|Pack mules leaving Downieville for the remote mining communities|