James Marshall is said to have prospected Deer Creek in the summer of 1848. Reportedly the
first white man to pan for gold at this spot, he met with little success and unfortunately moved
on to search for better diggings. Had he stayed he might have made a strike, for the placers of
Deer Creek and the surrounding region proved to be phenomenally rich.
A man named Hunt is believed to have discovered the rich auriferous deposits at Deer Creek in
the fall of 1849, at which time the area became known as Deer Creek Dry Diggings. In September of
the same year, three young miners by the names of Thomas Cross, John Pennington, and William
McCaig built the first cabin in the diggings, just above where Gold Run empties into the creek known as Deer.
When Dr. A. B. Caldwell, owner of a supply store four miles downstream at Beckville, heard of
the activity at Deer Creek Dry Diggings, he came to take a look for himself and promptly decided
to establish his second store in the new camp. That October he built a log cabin on the slope of
Aristocracy Hill, near the present site of Trinity Episcopal Church, and set up a general
merchandise store. Due to his popularity with the miners, Deer Creek Dry Diggings came to be
known as Caldwells Upper Store.
The region was rich, early reports tell of miners panning a pound of gold a day from the bed
of Deer Creek, and the camp grew quickly. The harsh winter proved only a minor discomfort (as
long as there was gold), and by 1850 nearly one thousand people resided in the area. The ravines
were literally thick with miners, and American Hill was covered with a jumble of brush houses,
canvas tents, and log cabins.
A public meeting was called in March of 1850 in order to elect a city government for the
rapidly growing town. One of the earliest miners, a man by the name of Stamps, was elected
Alcalde. At the same time, a vote was taken to rename the camp. From such choices as Deer Creek,
Aurora, Gold Run, and Sierra, the name Nevada, meaning “snow-covered” in Spanish, was chosen,
possibly due to the heavy snowfall the previous winter. When the post office was established in
December, the name Nevada City was applied, which appears on the 1851 maps of Butler and
Milleson. Several other maps; however, simply marked the spot as “Nevada,” and for most of the
1850’s both names were used interchangeably. This didn’t present a problem until Nevada Territory
was formed in 1861, at which time it became necessary to officially add “City” to the town’s
title to avoid confusion with the new territory.
The early settlers built their town on a series of hills surrounding Deer Creek, hills with
such names as Lost, Nabob, Piety, Wet, American, Cement, Prospect, Bourbon, Aristocracy, Boulder,
Oregon, and Buckeye. The town’s unusual pattern of streets, which somewhat resemble the spokes of
a twisted wheel, comes from the early days when most of the mining activity took place near the
plaza at Deer Creek. After finishing work for the day, the miners would head for their cabins in
the hills, following trails that branched out from the plaza in all directions. In time, some of
the more favored trails were widened, became wagon roads and were eventually paved.
By the end of 1850, several thousand people lived in and about the town of Nevada. Hundreds
of buildings had been erected to house the stores, hotels, and saloons necessary to supply the
miners’ needs. Ditches were dug to ensure a constant supply of water to the diggings and the
town, no more dry diggings here. An early editor relates: “The city is upon the hillsides, on
the ridges, among the streams and over them; the muddy water rushing beneath houses, stores and
hotels and through the streets, splashing and gurgling as if uttering self-congratulatory hymns
for its escape from the torturing cradles, long toms and sluices.”
Hydraulic mining traces its origins to the early years of Nevada City. In 1852, a French
miner named A. Chabot used a canvas hose about forty feet long to wash dirt and gravel on his
claim into a sluice box, where the gold was then separated from the gravel in the usual manner.
Early the following year, a miner from Connecticut named E. E. Matteson improved on the method by
attaching a crude tin nozzle to the end of a rawhide hose. This enabled him to direct a strong
stream of water against the face of a bank on his claim on American Hill, easily washing the pay
dirt down into his sluice boxes. As he had once barely escaped death when a bank caved in on him,
Matteson saw this as a much safer way to mine. After seeing his success, other miners in the area
began using his methods and hydraulic mining was born.
The development of quartz and hydraulic mining in the region helped bring about the demise of
the wandering prospector, those drifting miners always in search of better diggings, while at the
same time insuring the town’s continued existence. Big money was required to work the big mines,
so big mining companies were formed, providing steady employment for many of the region’s miners.
This encouraged store owners and businessmen to put up permanent, fire-proof buildings for their
stores and also resulted in many well-constructed frame homes being built for families which
settled down in the area.
The placers in the district were worked during most of the 1850’s, finally playing out for
good by 1860. The region’s rich quartz and drift mines; however, were continuously active up
until around 1900 and were worked intermittently afterwards until 1942. The total production for
the region is estimated to be near $70 million. This great amount of gold, along with the
importance of being the county seat and the town’s popularity with travelers, have combined to
keep Nevada City one of the most intact Gold Rush towns in the state. Many buildings from the
1850’s and 1860’s remain in fine condition, unimpaired by neon lights, billboards, and other
detracting raiments of the twentieth century. The town’s business section appears today much as
it did during the days of gold, the old buildings with their iron doors and shutters have
weathered the years well, as have many of the old Victorian homes in the residential sections of
town. As darkness falls and the gas streetlights flicker on, walk along the winding streets and
examine the homes, the old business buildings, and the shops within. Drive along Hwy 49 through
the mountains, pan for gold in the South Fork of the Yuba River, and enjoy the fresh air.