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Grass Valley History


One thing you will quickly notice here in the Sierra Foothills is that things are, well, hilly, and that open valleys are the exception. This insight could be described as a “Eureka moment,” although we do generally like to save that phrase for found nuggets. But if it was 1848 and you were wandering around these foothills considering your prospects, what would you think if you came out of the pines and into a beautifully sloping, open grassy valley, complete with its own creeks and seasonal lake? I’m home, perhaps? And what if you had a little luck panning for gold in a nearby creek? You just might consider yourself to be employed. Well, that’s not unlike the story of a group of twenty adventurers, down from Oregon who are generally credited with establishing what would become the town of Grass Valley in that very year. And an auspicious year 1848 was, as that is also the year that the Mexican-American War formally ended, making the unincorporated, unorganized California Territory an official possession of the United States. The ball was rolling.

California was never organized by congress as a territory, but passed the requirements directly for statehood in 1850. Meanwhile, in little old “Grassy Valley,” as it was called at first, 1850 also saw some significant events. In that year the town gained its first store, hotel and actual family. It was also the year that a settler named George McKnight discovered gold in quartz rock, which began the transition from prospectors searching for “free gold” to the serious pursuit of deep-tunnel, hardrock mining. Before it was over, four hundred million dollars worth of gold would be extracted from the mines that ringed Grass Valley, making it the richest mining area in all of California.

In 1855 the first bridge over the Mississippi River opened in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the population of Grass Valley rose to 3,500. We aren’t sure just how directly related the two events are, as most miners were arriving via San Francisco, which they reached by ship. We do know that Grass Valley suffered a devastating fire in 1855, resulting in the loss of over three hundred buildings including, sadly, the Golden Gate Saloon. When the smoke cleared, most of Grass Valley was gone. But spirits were strong and, along with many other structures, the saloon was soon rebuilt- this time to last, of fieldstone and brick. This new Golden Gate Saloon lives on today as part of the Holbrooke Hotel, where it is the oldest continuously operated bar west of the Mississippi River, which as we all know was first bridged in… 1855! We can’t confirm that Kevin Bacon has spent time in the bar but, intriguingly, Mark Twain was a known patron of the saloon and his hometown just happened to be Hannibal, Missouri, which lies on the banks of a certain large, mid-American river. Gives you gold rush goose bumps, doesn’t it?

The Holbrooke Hotel began life as the Exchange Hotel, which was built in 1862 to accommodate visitors, especially patrons of the bustling Grass Valley Gold Exchange. It wasn’t until 1879 when the hotel was purchased by Ellen and Daniel Holbrooke that the current name was given to the establishment. It has long been the social center of the town and over the years the hotel has hosted many famous guests including presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison and James Garfield. Other notables who have stayed the night include fighters, “Gentleman Jim” Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons, the aforementioned Mark Twain and also Bret Harte. On the right evening you might have encountered entertainers Lola Montez, Lotta Crabtree or Emma Nevada in the lobby. Happily, the hotel remains in operation for today’s Nevada County visitors, celebrity and otherwise. We are keeping an eye out for Kevin Bacon.


During the 1860s, underground mining techniques were improved and a highly profitable hardrock gold extraction industry was established. One major problem in the mines was the buildup of excess water. A solution which led to a major influence on the culture of Grass Valley was to be found in Cornwall, England. There, Cornish tin miners had developed the best-in-the-business Cornish Pump and the pumps, along with the skilled Cornish mine workers, were soon being employed in the Nevada County mines. Word spread back to England that California offered high-paying work and a better way of life. Soon there was a steady stream of “Cousin Jacks” and “Jennies” immigrating and settling in the Grass Valley area. The arrangement was so successful that by the 1890s it is estimated that 60% of the population of Grass Valley was Cornish. Traditions such as the town’s Cornish Choir and annual celebration of a series of Cornish Christmas street fairs have continued to be enjoyed over the past 125 years. If you enjoy a Cornish pastie for lunch while you’re here, it’s all thanks to a well-designed sump pump.

During the mining heydays, Grass Valley was surrounded by mines with stamp mills crushing ore to extract gold which ran 24 hours per day, 364 days per year. The mines closed only one day of the year, for the annual Miners’ Picnic. Mines such as the Empire, Northstar, Pennsylvania, Idaho-Maryland and Brunswick were world-famous for their productivity. Empire Mine State Historic Park in Grass Valley is an enjoyable place to fuel your imagination for the times, as it is the site of the oldest, largest, and richest gold mine in California. From 1850 to its closing in 1956, it produced 5.8 million ounces of gold. The Park contains many of the original mine buildings, the owner’s “cottage” and the restored gardens and grounds. It is also the entrance to 367 miles of abandoned and flooded shafts and tunnels and has 12 miles of trails for hikers, bikers and horseback riders. It is one of several mines that in just about 100 years, extracted more than $400 million in gold, making Grass Valley California's most prosperous mining town.

An interesting cultural aspect that arose with the mining industry is that the working miners tended to live in Grass Valley while mine owners, managers and professionals primarily lived in nearby Nevada City. This began a rivalry which carried over in several ways, including spirited contests between school sports teams and even reports of Saturday night confrontations between groups of young men at Lake Olympia, which was midway between the two towns, where today’s Brunswick Basin shopping center now exists. Perhaps they were there to debate who had the fastest horses and prettiest girlfriends, or vice versa, but old-timers report incidents of fisticuffs breaking out. Lake Olympia and the adjacent Glenbrook Race Track were such an interesting part of Nevada County history that we are telling their story on a separate page- just click here!


For a variety of reasons, the mines around Grass Valley closed during the 1950s and the economy was forced to diversify. Logging, a historic mainstay, continued for a while and the area has always attracted its fair share of outdoor recreation and tourism. But scientific innovation and technology became a surprise boon to the area. In 1953, Charley Litton, a vacuum tube manufacturing pioneer moved Litton Industries to Grass Valley. A few years later, Litton’s friend, Dr. Donald Hare, founded a company called Grass Valley Group and introduced a video broadcast mixer which helped establish the area as a dynamic place to be for talent in the electronics industry. Many “high-tech” businesses have followed, making this one of the most progressive parts of the local economy.

In 1981 retail merchants and businesspeople formed the Grass Valley Downtown Association and in 1986 they incorporated the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “Main Street Program” into the plan, making a commitment to a vibrant historic downtown Grass Valley. Today, the town thrives due to the quality of the businesses and the beautifully restored historic buildings in the downtown commercial district. Like the Del Oro Theatre for instance- an Art Deco beauty built in 1940 by United Artists, with a 70-foot illuminated spire. One look at it gives you a real sense of place and the place is Grass Valley. There is a very active arts community and a lively events calendar for the downtown and adjacent Nevada County Fairgrounds that keep visitors happily coming back to explore both the present and the past.

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