Nevada City History
One of the most enjoyable things about Nevada City is the pleasure of bringing friends here for their first time. Everyone falls in love with Nevada City and a “how did I not know about this place” reaction is pretty common too. But why is it that the response to this little town of hills is so universal?I think I may have found the answer in a quote from local historian Edwin Tyson. Mr. Tyson observed, "After more than a century of pioneer heritage, Nevada City remains the most complete gold rush town in California.” That’s it, it’s the completeness! There is great beauty in the “stopped in time” quality and visual wholeness of the business district and in the many lovely old homes as well. Your reverie isn’t broken by having to look around eyesore examples of 1970's commercial architecture and garish plastic signs, which often managed to creep into the best of historic old towns. Nevada City is a place that freely encourages the imagination to drift back in time. And how Nevada City evolved is, naturally, a very interesting tale that begins with the big bang of 1849.
What’s the Rush?
We’ve all heard the story of how California gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in nearby Coloma in 1848. Expansionist President James K. Polk had acquired California from Mexico that same year and, in order to encourage Americans to settle there, in 1849 he officially declared the California gold rush to be on! (If you’d like to thank him personally, he will be marching in Nevada City’s Constitution Day Parade in September). So by the fall of 1849, the first three “easterners” had built a cabin and staked a claim along Deer Creek, in the location which would grow to become Nevada City.
For starters, the settlement was called Deer Creek Dry Diggins and it was a fast-growing mining camp due to a steady stream of hopeful new arrivals. Dr. A.B. Caldwell opened a general store and the mining camp started resembling a town. The town became known to some as Caldwell's Upper Store. By 1850 it was decided the settlement needed an official name, so, inside a canvas-walled hotel at Main and Commercial streets, ballots were collected. The choice of "Nevada" which is Spanish for "snow-covered" was declared the winning name. It had been a snowy winter.
The year 1850 also marked California’s entry into statehood and in 1851, Nevada became the county seat. By 1856, the election records show that over 2000 votes were cast in the town of Nevada, with only Sacramento and San Francisco polling more. Due to some New England style “moral influence” and able leadership from prosperous early settlers, Nevada became known as a relatively lawful town in contrast to many of the lawless camps of the time. But the gold rush boom was on and the town grew to a peak of ten thousand citizens. And it grew along an unusual pattern of streets, like the spokes of a wheel, resulting from the mule trails established as miners left the plaza at Deer Creek to return to their homes after their day’s labor in pursuit of gold. Their homes were scattered over the seven hills of the city of Nevada, which were Aristocracy, Piety, Prospect, Lost, Cement, Wet and American hills. This description is sometimes debated by historians who cite the residents of Nabob, Boulder, Bourbon, Oregon and Buckeye hills. Let’s just say it was hilly and they were glad they had mules, which some historians would insist were burros.
Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, the city of Nevada grew in size and prominence, despite a series of seven disastrous fires that roared through town. Each time, the citizens quickly rebuilt, utilizing an ever- increasing amount of brick, to the point where the Nevada Brick Yard was established at the foot of Broad Street. The city of Nevada’s final name change came about in 1864. In that year, the western part of the Utah Territory was formed into the State of Nevada so the word "city" was added to the name of our town to distinguish the two for the benefit of all, particularly the U.S. Postal Service. The hardly-ever snow-covered state won out over the hardly-ever snow-covered city, but we are just fine with the result.
Defined By Mines
During the mining heydays that followed, Nevada City and its sibling city, Grass Valley, were surrounded by mines with stamp mills crushing ore to extract gold twenty-four hours per day, 364 days per year. The mines closed only one day per year, for the annual Miner’s Picnic. Mines such as the Empire, Northstar, Pennsylvania, Idaho-Maryland and Brunswick were world-famous dream makers. Empire Mine State Historic Park in Grass Valley is an enjoyable place to fuel your imagination of those times, as it is the site of the oldest, largest, and richest gold mine in California. Mining remained “king” until the operations closed during the 1950s.
An interesting cultural aspect that arose with the dominance of the mining industry is that the working miners tended to live in Grass Valley while mine owners, managers and professionals primarily lived in 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. These typically occurred 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 itself is an interesting part of Nevada County history.
Built to Last
Utilizing the wealth that came with the gold, many merchants, bankers and mine owners and managers settled in Nevada City and built homes in the style of their day. The reign of Queen Victoria generated one popular style of architecture known as "Victorian,” while Colonial, Greek Revival and California Gothic expressions in building are represented here as well. There are some lovely neighborhoods, thanks to the taste of the original builders and the care with which they have been maintained by owners since.
The federal Works Progress Administration program of the 1930s provided Nevada City with the striking art deco designs of the city hall and courthouse and two of the more interesting buildings in the downtown area are fire houses that were built with far more than utilitarian style. What accounts for the preservation of Nevada City is the economic downturn it faced when the gold started petering out. When the mines in the area closed, there was not much reason for building or the refurbishing of old buildings and the architecture of the period was thereby spared “urban renewal.”
In the late 1960s the residents and visitors to the area started recognizing the remarkable charm of the town. City ordinances were revised to disallow historically inaccurate and poorly thought-out storefronts and signage. The city buried all the power lines which cluttered the downtown area. Gas lights made from original 1800s molds were placed along Broad Street and the Nevada Theatre was restored. Private restorations followed and the result is the beautiful and historic little city that we enjoy today. As a matter of fact, in 1985 the entire downtown area became registered as a national historic landmark. But don’t expect to find moth balls in the streets; this town is a hub of activity! Business, arts, celebrations, sports, and entertainment of every variety occur on and around the streets of the town. There are great places to stay, first rate restaurants and events that draw attendees from far and near. Nevada City today is simultaneously a premiere destination for visitors and a very nice small town that locals are proud to call home.