It is not known who the first white men were to reach the Forks of the North Yuba, or exactly
when they came. It’s likely that prospectors searched far into the canyon of the North Yuba
during the summer and fall of 1848, after the discovery at Coloma exposed the populace to the
lure of gold. Among the first white men definitely known to be in the area were Philo Haven and
his nephew Carlos, Francis Anderson, Warren Goodall, and Thomas Angus. They located at what came
to be known as Little Rich Bar, about one half-mile below present day Downieville, in early
September of 1849. Anderson is reported to be among the first to hit paydirt, raising color on
Major William Downie, an immigrant from Scotland, headed for California upon learning of the
discovery of gold. After reaching San Francisco, Downie booked passage on the schooner Milwaukee,
which set out for Sacramento on July 5 of 1849. Downie writes of the trip, “We got up to
Sacramento in eleven days, pulling and warping the old box most of the way. But what of that! We
were going to the Gold Diggings!”
Downie left Sacramento and headed for the Yuba River, where after two months of prospecting
with disappointing results, he decided to give up his pan and rocker to become a storekeeper.
This endeavor proved short-lived; however, for one day two miners came into the store and paid
for their purchases in lumpy gold nuggets. From this Downie deduced that they were washing gold
higher up the river and he wanted some of it for himself.
Downie’s party—ten black sailors, an Indian, an Irish boy named Michael Deverney, and a
Kanaka named Jim Crow—arrived that November at “The Forks,” the place where a smaller river
joined the North Yuba. Following the smaller river a short ways north, they came upon several men
working a little bar just below the Blue Banks, a very rich section of river bed and bank
gravels. The party camped for a time on nearby Jersey Flat where they learned they could find
gold in the most unusual of places. Tradition has it that one morning, Jim Crow caught a trout
weighing between twelve and fourteen pounds, and after cooking it that night for supper, they
found gold in the bottom of the kettle.
The Major and his men later moved on to Zumwalt Flat where they put up a few log cabins for
shelter against the rapidly approaching winter. The party’s supplies were already running low, so
late in December a detachment of eight men led by Jim Crow were sent below for provisions. When
the weather allowed those left in camp to work, they were pleasantly surprised to find the area
so rich that it was not uncommon for them to make from one to two hundred dollars a day. But by
late February, the snow put an end to all work on the diggings, forcing the men to remain in the
cabins. By March the party sent for supplies had not yet returned and with the food nearly gone,
the men went on rations. Fortunately the arrival of spring and the return of Jim Crow with
provisions found the men still alive.
A small number of miners followed Crow back to The Forks, and as the trails into this remote
wilderness became more passable, the news of the discovery spread as if by magic. It soon became
necessary to lay out a town, which task was appointed to James Vineyard as he was schooled in
surveying; he also served as the town’s first Constable. In April of 1850, the first
eating-house was opened by Mrs. Judge Galloway in a large log cabin. The Pioneer Meat Market,
established by Ned Barker, soon followed and from there the town took off. Miners poured into the
region each day for weeks on end, resulting in rich strikes on the neighboring bars and flats
becoming an almost daily occurrence. The Forks soon became the center of a wide circle of camps
stretching out in all directions.
With the large number of miners entering the area and so many claims being staked, many
disputes arose between the claim holders, making it necessary to call a meeting to establish a
set of mining laws for the region. The miners had their meeting and adopted a set of rules, one
of which limited the size of a claim to thirty feet. After the meeting, “things went on smoothly
again for some time—until the lawyers came up.”
The miner’s life was not a cheap or easy one in the high Sierras. As supplies had to be
brought in over the rough riverside trail, necessities were both scarce and expensive; a simple
wool shirt cost $50, sugar sold for $4 a pound, boots and shoes ran from $25 to $150 a pair. Most
of the miner’s day was spent knee deep in ice-cold waters, panning, sluicing, or rocking, all
hard work. After a supper of salt pork and beans, maybe a hard biscuit or two, the miner might
read a bit, talk over the day’s events with his partners, or maybe visit the saloon before
retiring to his bed beneath the stars, a blanket spread out on the ground. But the gold, the
Gold! made it all worthwhile and there was plenty of it along the Yuba River. One claim, sixty
foot square on Durgan Flat, yielded Frank Anderson and his three companions $12,000 in eleven
days, $80,000 in six months. The three partners at Tin Cup Diggins, located across from the rich
Zumwalt Flats, wouldn’t quit work for the day until a tin cup had been filled with gold, which
they had no trouble doing. A twenty-five-pound nugget of solid gold was found in the river two
miles upstream from camp. With finds like this it’s no wonder that by May of 1850 an estimated
two thousand miners were camped out at The Forks.
When it came time to give the busy mining camp a more permanent name, a Mr. Parks offered the
name Downieville which met with unanimous approval. Why Downieville? An old story relates that
the Major may have offered a pan of gold to his fellow citizens if they’d rename the camp in his
honor, although no existing records have shown this to be true.
On the night of February 19, 1852, Downieville was completely destroyed by fire. The blaze
swept through the cloth tent and clapboard shanty town with a relentless fury, leaving rubble and
smoldering ashes to greet the dawn. Damages were estimated at $150,000 and although many lost
everything they owned, the town was quickly rebuilt of more substantial materials and business
and life returned to their normal frenzy.
The large population living along the Yuba River, the region’s vast wealth, and the fact that
the county seat at Marysville was too far away for effective government, prompted the citizens to
petition the state legislature to separate a portion of Yuba County and create a new county to be
called Sierra. On April 16 of 1852, it was made so and Downieville became the county seat, which
it remains today.
One of the largest gold “nuggets” ever found in the world was reportedly unearthed near
Downieville in 1853 by a man known as Finney, nicknamed “Old Virginny” as he hailed from
Virginia. The mass of gold weighed 5,009 ounces, contained only a small amount of quartz, and was
valued at $84,302. Its shape resembled a pair of dumbbells, the link between the two being broken
when Finney pried it out of the ground. Taken to San Francisco, the nugget was put on display on
the counter of a prominent mercantile firm where it was viewed by thousands before finally being
shipped back east. Finney later went on to play an important role in the Comstock Lode saga,
giving his name to a town called Virginia City.
The town suffered a second disastrous fire on the first day of January in 1858. Once again
the flames were beyond control and everything in their path was destroyed, including the bridge
to Jersey Flat. As before, the town was rebuilt, although perhaps not as quickly. By this time
the gold had become more difficult to find as the river and its tributaries were finally becoming
worked out. The continuing decline of the mining region eventually led to many of the town’s
citizens leaving the area and the days of old, the days of gold, became little more than memories
to those who stayed in Downieville.