This week, we’re heading up the road to go for gold.
Mark Twain wryly observed that “a gold mine is a hole in the ground with a liar at the entrance.” There were, and are, lots of gold mines dotting the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada, California’s gold country. But there’s other gold too, including countless cultural riches. This time of year even leaves turn gold, if not russet and red. Particularly colorful in all regards are the neighboring gold-country towns of Nevada City and Grass Valley.
Nevada City is small but sophisticated. Ghost-white Victorians cling to the hillsides. Most streets are little more than paved, crisscrossing cowpaths. In autumn the hills and the creek running through downtown blaze with New England color. First called Deer Creek Dry Diggins and then Caldwell's Upper Store, after the particularly brutal winter of 1850 the Spanish nevada or snow-covered seemed more fitting. When the new state of Nevada stole that name some 15 years later, the town added “city.”
Nevada City began as a placer mining camp. But with only seasonal water supplies, local miners soon developed mining techniques allowing them to work year-round; the long tom, ground sluice, and hydraulic mining were all Nevada City firsts, major technological breakthroughs and, in the case of hydraulicking, big ecological disasters. Anything to unearth all that money.
Bold and brazen women were (and probably still are) a fact of life in and around the town; the lives of Nevada City's infamous gambler, Eleanor “Madame Moustache” Dumont; precocious Lotta Crabtree; and outrageous Lola Montez—famous for her spider dance—all intersected here and in nearby Grass Valley. Appropriately enough, the U.S. senator who introduced legislation that led to women's suffrage lived in Nevada City. And both the University of California and PG&E got their starts at confabs here. Not so successful was the railway connecting Nevada City and Grass Valley, built in 1901; service on the notoriously unreliable Never Come, Never Go railroad stopped for good after a harsh 1926 snowstorm.
Nevada City is event as much as destination, so find out what’s happening in the area—big music festivals, art, theater, bike races, Wild and Scenic and other film festivals, Victorian and Cornish Christmases, the annual Robert Burns birthday celebration and dinner—to help plan your trip. Get started on the local story, once here, at tall, thin Firehouse No. 1 at 214 Main Street, now one of the Nevada County Historical Society’s museums. On gaslamp-lit Broad Street is the handsome stone-and-brick Nevada Theatre, 401 Broad, where Mark Twain launched his career as a lecturer. A quarter mile west on E. Broad lies a stone monolith acknowledged locally as Nevada City’s first hospital; the area’s early Maidu people, believing the sun healed all, climbed atop this impressive sunning rock and nestled into the hollow to take the cure. Peek into the Miners Foundry Cultural Center, 325 Spring Street, the town’s de facto arts center, to appreciate the huge free-span Old Stone Hall.
Back in the day, gold mine owners, managers, and financiers generally lived in Nevada City, while miners and other workers lived in nearby Grass Valley. So even today some folks consider Grass Valley a down-home alternative to neighboring Nevada City. A bit more working-class America, complete with fast food, tire-repair shops, and ungainly commercial sprawl.
Yet Grass Valley has a charm all its own, especially downtown, where a stroll takes you straight into the ‘50s—the 1950s as well as the 1850s. Grass Valley also has the impressive Center for the Arts, with two art galleries, 300-seat main theater, and 90-seat blackbox. The fairgrounds are also here, venue for big music acts and events, including the annual Draft Horse Classic. And don’t miss 850-acre Empire Mine State Park with its Bourn Cottage, an elegant epistle to wealth tucked into the estate’s impressive gardens, designed by San Francisco architect Willis Polk. Empire was largest of the area’s 19th-century hardrock mining conglomerates—some say the richest gold mine in the U.S.—and operated profitably until the 1950s. There was so much gold in them thar hills.