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Up The Road: Luzena Stanley Wilson

Wayne Hsieh

This week we add another woman’s perspective to the story of life in California’s gold camps. An everyday perspective. Of the very few women who made up gold-rush communities, most were not notorious—definitely not internationally notorious, like “Spanish dancer” Lola Montez—but just plain folks, doing their best to get food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. 

Like Luzena Stanley Wilson of Nevada City, who had come from Missouri with her husband and two children, first operating a hotel in Sacramento. After being literally washed away by the famous flood of 1849 they settled in the foothill town known as Nevada, later Nevada City, where they ran another hotel—and survived a fire that incinerated the entire town. As stunning as it would be to watch one’s town burn down, this wasn’t at all uncommon. Gold-rush towns sprang to life overnight, so many hand-built wood frames and tents—all very combustible. It was only after many such fires that communities formed volunteer fire brigades and, more importantly, began to build with brick and iron, architectural details notable today throughout the gold country.

Here are some of Luzena Wilson’s comments about life in Nevada City:

We had lived eighteen months in Nevada City when fire cut us adrift again, as water had done in Sacramento. Some careless hand had set fire to a pile of pine shavings lying at the side of a house in course of construction, and while we slept, unconscious of danger, the flames caught and spread, and in a short half hour the whole town was in a blaze.

Credit David Berry
Gold country towns bought fire engines as soon as they could. Here’s Columbia’s 1852 hand-pumper, Papeete.

Snatching each a garment, we hurried out through blinding smoke and darting flames, not daring even to make an effort to collect our effects. There were no means for stopping such a conflagration. Bells clanged and gongs sounded, but all to no purpose save to wake the sleeping people, for neither engines nor firemen were at hand. . . . The tinder-like pine houses ignited with a spark, and the fire raged and roared over the fated town. The red glare fell far back into the pine woods and lighted them like day; it wrapped the moving human creatures in a fiendish glow, and cast their giant shadows far along the ground. The fire howled and moaned like a giant in an agony of pain, and the buildings crashed and fell as if he were striking them down in his writhings. When the slow dawn broke, and the sun came riding up so calm and smiling, . . . his beams lighted sad countenances, reflecting the utter ruin of their fortunes. The eight thousand inhabitants were homeless, for in the principal part of the town every house was swept away; and most of them were penniless as well as homeless. Like ourselves most of them had invested their money in buildings and goods, and scarcely anything was saved. . . .

Credit Wayne Hsieh
Nevada City’s (brick) Nevada Theater is California’s oldest theater building. Iron shutters add extra fireproofing.

The mines around Nevada City were wonderfully rich. Miles and miles of flume carried the water from mine to mine, to flow on through more miles of sluice-boxes. Claims were staked off in every ravine for hangers about the city. Men dug for gold in the very streets of the town and under the very foundations of the houses. Not infrequently the digging of a well would develop a rich claim and make the owner rich in a few weeks.

After the fire we let our city lot go for a few dollars and the man who bought it took thirty thousand dollars out of the gravel part of it, which sloped down to the ravine. . . . Not a half block from my house, a young man took out sixteen thousand dollars, and then gave his claim to me. I had no way to work it, and my husband was opposed to mining on general principles, so I sold the property for a hundred dollars. The man who bought it took out of it, before we left the town, ten thousand dollars.

Kim Weir, a former NSPR news reporter, is editor and founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project dedicated to sustaining the Northern California story. She is also an active member of the Society of American Travel Writers. North State Public Radio’s Up the Road program is jointly produced by Up the Road.