By Carmel Barry-Schweyer and Alycia Alvarez | Arcadia Publishing
Placer County Gold—Yesterday & Today, Craig MacDonald book review
Placer County, which runs from Roseville (east of Sacramento) to Lake Tahoe, is known around the world for its spectacular national forests, lakes, rivers, wine and fruits. But it was gold—lots of it—that first helped it gain fame. In 1848, Claude Chana discovered gold in Auburn Ravine, east of Sacramento.
The multi-talented Frenchman went on to plant the first wine grape vines as well as peaches, apples and plums. The county became recognized for its award-winning wine and fruits.
Chana is immortalized in a gigantic, 45-ton concrete statute showing him panning for gold. The incredible eye-catcher, created by local sculptor Dr. Kenneth Fox, rises high above Lincoln Way near Interstate 80.
Auburn, named because of its red dirt, became a major mining and supply town for the Gold Country. It's also the County Seat for Placer County.
"Placer," the Spanish term for gold-bearing gravel, is an appropriate name for the county, which produced millions of dollars worth of gold—from the days of prospectors using wooden bowls to sift water looking for nuggets through hydraulic mining, which washed down hillsides in search of yellow riches.
Its history is captured by Carmel Barry-Schweyer and Alycia Alvarez, noted Placer County historians, who sifted through antique photos of the area to produce "Mining Camps of Placer County" (Arcadia Publishing), forever documenting and preserving the fascinating past.
One thing evident from these photos—many from the Placer County Department of Museums—is the difficulty of searching for gold and the toll it took on miners and others. All you have to do is see the mainly 20-35-year-old miners' rugged faces to sense how tough it was in those days. But people kept on coming to Placer County and the Sierra from all over the world, including China.
In 1852, the Chinese were the largest ethnic group in the county—more than 3,000—mainly from the Kwangtung Province. Coming from farming provinces, they became successful by knowing how to dam streams to get at the gold and re-sift gravel that previous miners had left behind.
It took the Chinese three months to get to California by ship. Thirty miles east of Auburn, the town of Dutch Flat ended up with the largest Chinese population (800). Ironically, that town ended up as the birthplace of what became the famous Central Pacific Railroad, much of which was built by more than 12,000 hard-working Chinese.
Dr. D.W. Strong's Dutch Flat Store is where the original articles of incorporation were drawn for building the Central Pacific Railroad between California and Utah. Strong paid for a survey and went with Engineer Theodore Judah over the Sierra to the Truckee River, mapping out possible routes. The railroad board of directors not only included the two entrepreneurs but Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, C.P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins and other successful businessmen.
The book's authors also show how important hydraulic mining was in Dutch Flat and elsewhere.
Once there were 425 hydraulic operations in California. They required a huge investment to construct ditches, flumes and reservoirs. Huge nozzles capably washed down mountainsides to get at the gold but they also left silt and debris that clogged rivers, killed fish and ruined farmlands. Farmers and other citizens fought the hydraulic mining companies in court.
In 1884, District Court Judge Lorenzo Sawyer's decision dealt a death blow to hydraulic mining by prohibiting the discharge of debris in Sierra Nevada waterways. This was one of the first environmental laws in history. Some of the remaining water ditches were used to develop the fruit industry and for hydroelectric companies.
Some fascinating tidbits from the book:
—The town of Blue Canyon had such harsh winters that school was only taught after snows melted in the Spring and before heavy snow returned in the Fall or Winter.
—In 1851, Auburn had the only Post Office in the County. The Placer Herald listed the names and addresses on letters the PO received, so miners and others could come in and get them (or pay someone to do it).
—There's a great photo of a Water Bucket Station—11 buckets hanging over a water trough on Main Street in Foresthill. There were several bucket stations in many mining camps and towns because of major fire danger. Some towns had to be rebuilt over and over again.
—There was a Courtship & Marriage Code that many women followed in the 19th Century: Never Dance more than twice with the same man. Engagements were short. When invitations were sent out for an engagement, the bride-to-be could not be seen in public 10 days before the wedding.
—Mrs. Eliza Elliott, owner of the Orleans Hotel as well as 20 hogs, became Mayor of Auburn and let her critters roam free.
"Mining Camps of Placer County"—through its intriguing photos and text—gives a good look at what life was like in the rugged days of the Gold Rush. It shows a variety of cultures being thrown together, which sometimes caused conflicts, sometimes understanding. These immigrants ended up helping California become the "Golden State."
(The reviewer enjoyed writing for the Auburn-based, Sierra Heritage Magazine. His in-law was related to an Auburn Mayor and the founder of The Silva-Bergtholdt Company in Newcastle, which became the largest deciduous fruit shipping center in the World.)