Friday, November 9, 2012

Sierra County California Gold Rush History

The North Fork Flats
(From Downieville east to China Flat)
Map of The North Fork Flats
Rick Simi 2008
Jersey Flat
Located in what is now Downieville, Jersey Flat was discovered in 1849 and first called Murraysville. In 1850 the Jersey Company acquired the flat and it is reported at least two million dollars was mined here. The first post office in Downieville, opened on October 7, 1851, was located on Jersey Flat. Gold rush structures that are still in use on the flat include the Methodist Church, the Masonic Lodge and the former home and medical office of Dr. Jump.


Breyfogle Flat
This flat was located one mile east of Downieville and on the south side of the North Yuba River near Slate Castle Creek. The bench of river gravel below the flat was first mined from March to November of 1850 by the Breyfogle brothers for whom the flat was named. Gold rush pioneer George Hardy built a home at the flat sometime in1851 and it is said that by the beginning of 1852 Hardy and his family were farming a one hundred and fifty seven acre section of the flat.
It is also said the first white male born in the Downieville area, Joel Hardy, was born at the flat on April 28, 1852.
            The area that was first mined in 1850 is now covered by the Lure Resort and any evidence of gold rush activity has been erased. The flat that was farmed by the Hardy family is now the Slate Castle Ranch. Bottles from the 1880 – 1890 periods have been recovered from the flat but I have no evidence that gold rush bottles have been discovered from this area.
            On a field trip up Slate Castle Creek in the 1980’s I discovered a small camp that contained about five structure sites that could have housed cabins. At this site shards of black glass Hostetter’s Bitters were discovered along with other bottles dating from the mid to late 1860’s confirming a small mining camp could have existed during the waning years of the gold rush.
O’Donnel’s Flat
This flat was located three and one half miles east of Downieville on the present day road to Sierra City. There is some confusion on the name of this flat. Jim Sinnot in his Downieville book refers to it as McDonald Flat and Katie Willmarth Green, in her book Like a Leaf Upon the Current Cast, refers to it as O’Donnel Flat. Although no large settlement developed here this place is significant for the fact that it is said the Downie party camped and prospected here for several days in the fall of 1849 before making their way to the site of Downieville.
O’Donnel’s Flat was large enough to be a polling place and in 1854 fifty two votes were cast here in the general election and an advertisement from the Sierra Citizen (reproduced at left) shows W.N. Farrin running a general store at about the same time. This place in later years became known as the McCarty Ranch and in 1911 the house at the ranch was destroyed by fire. The State of California Highway Maintenance Station now occupies O’Donnel’s Flat.
New York Flat
A short distance north of O’Donnel’s Flat a small settlement developed at New York Flat in the early 1850’s and was home to the Louis Barnhardt family and stage and express man John Garnossett. Fires in 1871 and 1880 destroyed these homes. Several small open pontil bottles were found at this site documenting the age of this early settlement. Today two partially caved in basements mark this site.
 Shady Flat
One of the mining districts of Sierra County that was laid out in the early 1850’s was that of Shady Flat. This flat is located four miles east of Downieville on the present day Highway 49. D.L. Whitney built and operated a sawmill at Shady Flat in 1855 and the remains of a stone wall which could have been the site of the sawmill still exists. One structure dating from the depression era remains at Shady Flat.
Mobile Flat
 By the mid 1850’s a small settlement was started at this flat located about a half mile east of Shady Flat. In 1858 there is mention of Dunham’s Store and Frank Beaver’s place located at this flat. In the early 1870’s a man by the name of Big Bill was advertising as the proprietor of the Shoo Fly Saloon at Mobile Flat. (reproduced at right)

Field research indicates that a camp indeed existed during the 1870’s and early 1880’s on the north side of the Yuba River at this site. Although it is said a gold rush camp was located at this site, the flooding of the Yuba River over the years, I believe, has erased any evidence of the gold rush camp. I do not have any confirmation of gold rush bottles being discovered at Mobile Flat.  During the flood of 1997 what remained of Mobile Flat was washed somewhere downstream and today only one caved in basement still remains at this site.

Jim Crow
The supposed settlement that sprang up in the early 1850’s at the mouth of Jim Crow Creek was named after Jim Crow, a Kanaka who was a member of Major Downie’s party that first prospected the North Yuba in the fall of 1849. It is hard to determine how many structures, if any, were located at this site which is now covered by the Shangri La Resort. I have not had any confirmation of gold rush bottles or even pieces of them being found at this site. Shards of gold rush era bottles have been discovered at three small flats located a short distance southwest of this site and these possibly could have been the site of Jim Crow.

Crow City
Located about two miles up the river from the supposed site of Jim Crow is a small settlement or camp which the Author contends could have been the site of Crow City. No structures remain, but when the Author visited the area several flats and partially caved in root cellars could still be recognized. The drink of choice for residents of Crow City must have been Old Sachem Bitters and Wigwam Tonic judging by the amount of broken examples of this bottle discovered at this site. As remote and out of the way as this settlement was I can imagine it sits just as I left it twenty some years ago.

Lots of shards of Old Sachem's were found at Crow City
Secret Canyon
Directly across from O’Donnels Flat and the present day State Highway Maintenance Station Secret Canyon flows into the Yuba River. It is said that the Major Downie party camped and prospected at O’Donnels Flat in the fall of 1849, but the small flat across the Yuba River at the mouth of Secret Canyon has always been of interest to the Author as a probable place that a part or all of the Downie party of twelve men could have camped and prospected. Documenting this contention is the fact that the amount of open pontil bottles and artifacts that have been discovered at this site by the Author and friends could have been the amount used by a party of twelve men camping for several days or say a week. The other fact weighing in favor of this being the site of Downie’s first camp on the North Yuba is that it is on the side of the river that the party had descended down from Secret Canyon.
            On a trail from the mouth of Secret Canyon toward the ridge about two miles is the site of a small gold rush settlement that is unnamed and is not generally known. This camp or settlement consisted of four to six structures and the bottles and artifacts discovered at the site dated from the late 1850’s to the late 1860’s. Several visits to this site and extensive research have yet to provide a name for this camp. Secret Canyon to this day holds the secret of this small settlement.
Open pontil utility bottles of the type found at Secret Canyon




  1. Wow! Amazing post on the history of gold rush days in your area Rick. I commend you on your diligent research over the years. As a lifelong So. Cal. guy, I am very naive about gold rush history and the towns associated with it. Question: All these early settlements are referred to as "flats", is this because they were flat areas in an otherwise hilly or mountainous terrain, allowing for the establishment of camps or structures?

  2. Dennis,
    Yes you are correct. Here in the steep canyons of the northern gold country flat ground was at a premium and every flat piece of ground that was big enough to hold structures was settled. I am working on a post about the "Bars" that were settled here in Sierra County during the gold rush at the moment and will post it soon
    Thanks for the interest

  3. I've been prospecting this area for the past 5 years or so. My claim is down the Jim Crow several miles south of the Sierra Shangri La resort, and there are remains of numerous camps along the creek.

    Some guys with metal detectors came out a few years ago and found the lid of an opium container, embossed with a Chinese symbol for good luck, which they gave to me. It was right above the spot I was working and I'm guessing the Chinese miners were working the same spot I was. I found some coarse gold there but not much of it, of course Chinese miners are not known for leaving a whole lot of gold behind.

    No lack of artifacts from the 1800s still scattered throughout the area. Lots of pieces of metal pots, ceramic mugs and parts of rock moving equipment. Go about three miles south of the Shangri La and you will find a complete table saw sitting in the woods next to the Jim Crow and rusting into the ground lol. You gotta wonder.

    I also found an intact bottle out on a side creek. It looks much like a Corona bottle except there are no markings on it anywhere. I'm not sure when they started marking beer bottles, but I'm guessing this was from the 1960s or 1970s.

    Thanks for the article, it has me eager to get back out there!