Founded in the late 1840s, the historic mining town of Downieville has survived floods and fires to become one of Northern California’s most picturesque Gold Rush communities.
Despite numerous floods that swept away dozens of buildings — the town is built near the fork of the North Yuba and Downie rivers — and fires, including a disastrous conflagration in 1947, Downieville offers a quaint downtown district and several dozen 19th century wood frame homes.
Downieville is located on Highway 49—the Gold Country Highway — 10 miles west of Sierra City. To reach it, go west of Reno on I-80 to Truckee. Turn north on Highway 89 and continue to Sattley. Turn west on Highway 49 to Sierra City, then on to Downieville.
Originally named Jim Crow Diggings, then Washingtonville and Missouri Town, the area was finally named simply the Forks before the arrival of Major William Downie in May 1850.
Downie led a multiracial group of miners who began making significant gold discoveries in the riverbed. Large nuggets, including one that weighed 25 pounds, were found in the area, which took Downie’s name.
By 1851, some 5,000 people had flocked to Downieville, which soon had four butcher shops, four bakeries and 15 hotels. Prices reflected the isolation of the community and the difficulties in obtaining most basic commodities; eggs were $3 apiece and whiskey was $16 a bottle.
In 1853, the Mountain Messenger—still produced and said to be the oldest weekly paper in California—started publishing.
Perhaps because of the town’s remoteness and the lack of established legal authorities, town fathers quickly earned a ruthless reputation for justice.
In the 1850s, Downieville leaders are said to have hanged the first woman executed in the state of California. According to local legend, a dance hall girl accidently stabbed an annoying miner during an argument. While it was probably self-defense, a mob quickly formed and hanged her from a bridge over the Yuba River.
It is ironic, then, that one of the most historic landmarks in Downieville is its refurbished Gallows. In the jail yard of the Sierra County Courthouse, visitors will find California’s only remaining original gallows, used once in 1885 to hang a convicted murderer, James O’Neal.
Despite its macabre history, today’s Downieville is a rather peaceful and beautiful place. More than a dozen historic buildings—most converted into newer businesses—line the town’s photogenic Main Street, including the old blacksmith shop, built in 1896, the Hirschfeldter Building, built in 1852, and the Craycroft Building, also built in 1852.
Other historic sites, not on the main road, include the Methodist Church, built in 1852, and the oldest Protestant Church in continuous use in California, as well as the Catholic Church, built in 1858.
Additionally, just east of town, you can find the Downieville Brewery (a somewhat dilapidated two-story wooden building that is open for tours) and the site of Major Downie’s cabin, erected there in 1849.
Across the river from the main part of the town, you can also see the large wooden (long closed) Downieville Foundry building, constructed in 1855. This business once crafted much of the mining machinery used in area mills and mines.
A good place to gain a bit of history about the community is at the Downieville Museum, located on Main Street in the former Chinese Store and Gambling House. This fine small museum contains historic photos, antique firearms, mining equipment, clothing, quilts and other remnants of the town’s past.
The Lions Park, adjacent to the river, has picnic tables and a rusting collection of old mining equipment. Gold mining in the river is allowed here.
A walk along the river, either east to the small waterfalls and the cemetery, or west to Cannon Point (where the one-ton town cannon still sits) is an opportunity to enjoy the clean mountain air, the sound of the river and the thickly forested surroundings—and imagine how Major Downie must have felt when he arrived at this place more than a century ago. For more information, go to http://sierracountychamber.com/Downieville.
Rich Moreno covers the places Nevadans want to visit.