NEVADA CITY - The Queen of the Northern Mines

by Dennis Patrick

Nevada City retains its 49er flavor. How locals managed this in a district, the California foothills, that depending on the informant either enjoys or suffers major population growth seems moot. What's important is that, if you avoid big holiday weekends and the special events like bike races that regularly pack town, you can enjoy the queen city of the Northern Mines. It's not changed that much since Herbert Hoover mined here in his salad days or the famous American philosopher, Josiah Royce, was born down the road in Grass Valley. 

"Foliage or flowers" key visits. Drive in the half hour from Interstate 80 anytime between Labor Day and the ski season when fall color peaks or from Easter until Memorial Day when wild flowers flourish. Winter visits enjoy their fans too. Cornish Christmas, a reflection of the area's heritage of hard rock miners from England's Cornwall, ends the month of December, and parades and shopping in Nevada City and nearby Grass Valley tempt passing skiers on their way to the Tahoe Basin.

Nevada City has always been just a bit off the tested track of the Donner Party that's followed today by Interstate 80 and the railroad. Like the gambler's state, it took its name from the Spanish word for "snow covered" and added "City" to reduce misplaced mail. Like most Gold Rush towns it's sited at about 2,500 foot elevation at the lower fringe of the massive Sierra snow pack where miners could carouse away the winter. Like only Columbia, its entire downtown is a national historical landmark that runs down the south slope toward Deer Creek where miners once reportedly "panned a pound of gold a day." These days, locals find more gold in the tourists who flock in summer and winter.

"There's gold in them thar hills!"


However, the attractions of Broad Street beckon all year long. Five good book shops emphasize local and state history, at least three solid restaurants, an operating live theater and a host of shops that mostly manage to avoid tee shirts and "el cheapo" souvenirs, make it easy to rubberneck out a morning. Locals prefer Selaya's upscale dinners and Valdo's Italian food. For breakfast try the National Hotel. For steak, the plainly furnished Willo, on Highway 49 north of town, offer solid dinners.

Where the covered sidewalks thin out near the top of Broad Street, The Nevada Theatre, the oldest operating theatre in California, has made Nevada City a foothill cultural landmark since its founding in 1865.  Mark Twain told his jokes here. Opera, classical theater and favorite local performers like Lottie Crabtree and Lola Montez, once the mad king of Bavaria's girl friend, danced before the footlight candles. Today there's a lively award-winning local theater, The Foothill Theatre Company and a whole symphony of performances by Music in the Mountains many weekends.

Some of the best shops, scarce parking places and the Miners Foundry Cultural Center lurk on side streets. The Miners Foundry, where the famous Pelton Wheel that powered deep hardrock mines was invented, adds special St. Patrick's and other holiday events and some dandy Christmas shopping. At the top of Broad Street sits the American Victorian Museum, and the Teddy Bear Castle has more stuffed bears than a Disney cartoon.

Walking Nevada City


Downtown Nevada City; a working relic.



While there's a horse drawn carriage ride for the lame and lazy, wise visitors park on the south side of the creek and walk into town on the bridge over the freeway past the big nozzle of the machine once used for placer mining. This is so you can amble up while you're fresh, and cruise back down the hill at the end of the day. Just to the right as you cross the bridge, you'll see the Chamber of Commerce in the town's oldest building; it's a good spot to pick up a map for a walking tour at 132 Main Street. Just down the street Firehouse Number 1, now a museum, may be one of the most photographed buildings in town.

If you feel frisky, head on up the hill -- Don't miss Firehouse Number 2 which is still in operation. -- into Gingerbread heaven and the homes of Victorian-era doctors and other well-off professionals. After a seedy generation or two, family mansions got converted into bed and breakfast Inns by, it seems, a generation of well-off doctors and professionals anxious to escape urban madness.

Oddly enough, the often home schooled offspring of the leftover hippie folks up near North San Juan or Washington now seem headed towards the Harvard MBA route according to a conversation overhead in a local Laundromat.

"What did we do wrong?" one tie-dyed graying lady noted to her Indian braided friend. "Your daughter's in medical school and my son's at Harvard!"

Panning found gold and hardrock mines made mine owners rich.


Some things haven't changed. Miners still tunnel into the several hundred miles of hard rock mines in the areas. Streams like Kanaka Creek or the North Fork of the Yuba River toward Downieville offer gold panning and rocker box action -- check regulations at the miner's supply shop at the top of Broad Street.

The National Hotel, where the boss once promised a bartender a three week vacation when a box under the bar filled with bottle caps, still serves fine breakfasts and decent drinks. According to local legend the owner drilled a hole in the box and the result was a four foot high stack of bottle caps in the basement. Maybe this is the reason it's the oldest continuously operating hotel in California.

The only thing missing today is a friendly neighborhood bank robber like Joaquin Murietta or Black Bart, who stuck up the stage on the winding road to Downieville which is now Highway 49. Then, of course, there's Lyman Gillmore who, if locals are correct and they did name a school after him, flew a home-built airplane before the brothers Wright. See the exhibit in the Grass Valley Library.

Grass Valley & the Empire Mine

Nearby Grass Valley, just west of Nevada city, enjoyed, or suffered, the growth in the area as its hardrock mines produced well into WW II. The Northstar Mining Museum and Pelton Wheel Exhibit offers more mining memorabilia. The nearby Gold Quartz Discovery Marker commemorates George McKnight's errant cow. When George ambled out to retrieve his milker he stubbed his toe on the exposed tip of a gold quartz reef that became the famous Gold Hill Mine.

The Empire Mine, just south of Grass Valley, made more money than any other in California. It operated from 1850 until 1956 and produced 5.8 million ounces -- sadly, most at $35 an ounce rather than today's $300+ -- of gold as well as over 367 feet of tunnels. As one of the only decent jobs available during the depression, it's fondly remembered by the old hard rock types who gather once a year on Miner's Day.

Unlike the placer mines that washed gold from open slopes with water, Empire's hard rock operation required special skills mostly Cornish miners had learned in England's tin mines. With the invention of the Pelton Wheel very deep tunnels were able to follow the gold-bearing quartz veins to distances of 11,000 feet or more and to depths of a mile below the surface.

Today, the mine's a California Department of Beaches and Parks historic site which includes the Bourne Cottage, home of the mine's owner, and its 12 scented acres of the Grand Rose Garden. While the area's open most days, it's worth calling ahead for the special demonstrations of Living History Days. Also worth a visit is the North Star Mining Museum and powerhouse off Wolfe Creek via Mill Street.

Grass Valley also offers a host of shops that sell Cornish meat pies AKA pasties (no jokes about strippers, please). Miners would bring these delicious meat-filled pies down into the mines and heat them on top of their miner's lanterns. Try Marshall's Pasties next to the Grass Valley Library on Main Street; Steak lovers do well in the Owl Tavern, also on Main Street.

Malakoff Diggings & Covered Bridges

The lunar landscape of Malakoff Diggings, just out of Nevada City on North Bloomfield Road, shows the grim side of 49ers high-tech hydraulic mining, which used high pressure hoses to wash alluvial gold out of the ground. By 1876 the operation processed 50,000 tons of gravel a day. By 1884 farmers downstream, and citizens as far as San Francisco, complained about damage due to over 80,000,000,000 pounds of displaced earth that filled river beds and raised flood water crests to threaten dikes and muddied drinking water. In an historic decision, dumping mine tailings in California rivers was banned and hydraulic mining ended.

A small museum, seasonal summer docents and park rangers and a variety of trails and displays offer a good look at the historic destruction in the area. There's fair camping, creek trout fishing and gold panning nearby.

Just west of Nevada City, in the direction of Marysville where an exiled Sun Yat Sen wrote much of China's Constitution, a wonderful covered bridge lurks on the Yuba River a half mile above Englebright Reservoir. It's a favorite spot to fish, swim or picnic

Shady Ladies

With so many miners and so few women it's no surprise that the area welcomed, at least at first, ladies of renewable virtue and whatever entertainers managed to turn up on their tours throughout the mines. One, Lola Montez, the Madonna of the day who lived in the Grass Valley Cabin now the home of the Grass Valley Chamber of Commerce, kept bears. When not kicking up her rather round heels, she taught Lottie Crabtree, who got her start as an entertainer dancing on an anvil in Rough & Ready, how to wow the crowds of bearded miners who often tipped in gold dust or nuggets.

The Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad

Western rail fans shouldn't miss this Gold Flat narrow gauge operation just out of town. Two lovely steam engines, a Baldwin used for years by Universal Studios in such movies as John Wayne's THE SPOILERS, and the only narrow gauge built by Lima, haul a selection from the 20 or so rail cars.

Lyman Gilmore: Flight Before the Wrights!

Lyman Gilmore built and flew gliders in the 1890s. In 1895 he designed a monoplane with retractable landing gear and an aluminum wing. In 1902 he built and flew a 32 foot glider with a twenty horsepower steam engine. This was the year BEFORE the Wrights! Gilmore made more than 20 flights from 100 yards to a mile in the next few years. Today, Gilmore, a classically strange recluse, has only a small exhibit and a local school named for him. Fame plays a strange game.

Other Seasonal Events

In early April wildflowers in the foothills offer an excuse for Wildflower Walks along the South Yuba River near one of California's nicest covered bridges. Hobby miners pan here and, a short scramble downstream, trout bite in Englebright Reservoir. Contact the Gold Mines Division of California Department of Parks and Recreation. To get to Bridgeport follow the winding old road through Rough & Ready, a lively wide spot in the road named for Zachary Taylor's nickname. Mining residents here seceded from the Union, but "rejoined" on the 4th of July, the date now given to Secession Day celebrations.

In Nevada City, the April Teddy Bear Convention features tours of the Teddy Bear Castle in the Miner's Foundry. Near the end of the month the stream trout season opens -- check regulations.

In late June and early July, just after the four days of the California Blue Grass Festival, Music in the Mountains Summer Festival offers three weeks of classical, Broadway and pop music.

The June Tour of Nevada Bicycle Race draws mobs. So arrange lodgings early and stand on the inside of steep downhill curbs so you don't meet a sweaty biker up close and personal. Men, Women, Juniors and other classes rumble and crash right in town.

In August the Nevada County Fair, an old time event under the trees in Grass Valley let you meet the locals. In December, Cornish Christmas in Grass Valley and the Victorian Christmas in Nevada City will, with a little help from the snow gods, turn both towns into 19th Century wonderlands.

Fishing, Rafting, Skiing et al


Decent wild trout fishing isn't far. Creeks produce and the North and South Forks of the Yuba offer solid fishing for mostly stocked "truck trout". Denis Peirce, in Penn Valley, takes groups up into the lower Sierras on show and tell trout fishing trips. Spaulding Reservoir, Lola Montez Lakes, Fordyce Reservoir and other Sierra lakes and impoundments provide a mix of browns, rainbows and brook trout. Kids even catch fish out of Deer Creek in town.

Rafting the North Fork of the Yuba, hiking the remote waters of the Middle Fork and watching the nudist sunbathers around Washington offer varied diversions. In the winter, cross-country skiing starts just up the Highway 2 grade east of town.


  • Empire Mine living history days 916-273-8522
  • Nevada City Chamber of Commerce 916-265-2692
    248 Mill Street, Nevada City, CA 95959
  • Grass Valley Chamber of Commerce 916-273-4332
    132 Main Street, Grass Valley, CA 95945
  • Golden Mines Parks & Recreation 916-273-3884
  • Music in the Mountains 916-265-6173
  • Tour of Nevada City Bicycle Races 209-795-7113

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