Jackson’s mighty wheels
November 17, 2016
It's the presence of the wheels that makes the historic mining town of Jackson so unique. These aren't ordinary wheels like you find on a wagon. Rather, Jackson's wheels are giant 58-foot wooden spokes once used by a local mining operation.
Called the Kennedy Tailings Wheels — there are two of these huge spirals — they were originally built in 1914 to move a slurry of tailings into flumes that carried it over two hills to a nearby reservoir.
The two wheels were once part of a series of four, but the others collapsed years ago. The Kennedy Wheels—the only ones ever constructed in California—were built to allow the mine to conform with stricter environmental laws enacted in the early 20th century.
In 2013, the city of Jackson raised funds to save the two remaining wheels. A special enclosure now protects Wheel No. 4, thereby saving it from further destruction from the elements, while Wheel No. 1 has been stabilized with cables and supports.
In the distance, north of the wheel site, you can still see the remains of the Kennedy Mine facility, which include a rusted metal headframe and several buildings.
Jackson, of course, is more than just the Kennedy Wheels. Located in the heart of California's Mother Lode country (just off Highway 49), it is one of the most picturesque of that region's 19th century mining towns.
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The town was established in 1848 near a freshwater spring that served as a watering hole for livestock and wandering prospectors.
Originally called "Bottileas," or "place to fill one's bottles," the town was named a year later either after a local miner, Alden Appolas Moore Jackson, or for President Andrew Jackson (historians disagree).
Unlike most neighboring towns, which developed almost overnight as mining boomtowns, Jackson was originally a supply point and grew more slowly. In 1857, however, gold was discovered on the hillside above the town.
Despite the discovery, Jackson experienced a more controlled boom and has maintained a fairly stable population of several thousand people over the years.
The story of how the town became the seat for Amador County is one worth retelling. Originally part of Calaveras County, Jackson fought Mokelumne Hill for rights to the county seat.
After losing an 1849 election on the issue — which Jackson officials insisted was crooked — the local Jackson judge, William Smith, shot to death the county clerk when he tried to move the county records to Mokelumne Hill.
After years of squabbling to regain the seat, in 1854 Jackson officials convinced the California Legislature to allow them to create their own county. Ironically, Jackson only narrowly defeated the town of Volcano in a vote to claim the new Amador County seat.
Today, Jackson has maintained much of its gold rush-era charm. Its narrow streets are lined with many classic frontier buildings while its neighborhoods still have plenty of beautiful Victorian and Queen Anne homes.
Probably the most significant downtown building is the three-story National Hotel, built in 1862 and reportedly the oldest continuously operating hotel in California. The Spanish Colonial-style hotel, with 44 rooms, was originally called the Louisiana House and has long been a popular local gathering place.
The Amador County Museum on Church Street (a few blocks from the downtown) is a fine place to learn more about the area. Housed in a shaded brick mansion, built in 1859, the museum includes displays of antique furniture, a neat working scale model of the Kennedy Wheels, a clothing display and other exhibits.
Just across the street from the museum, you can find two majestic churches (hence the street name): St. Patrick's Catholic and the United Methodist. Built in the 1860s, the churches are impressive, steepled structures that show Jackson was a town of substance.
North of the downtown is the St. Sava Church, an unusual Eastern European-looking building (onion dome top) constructed in 1894, that was the first Serbian Orthodox church built in the U.S.
For more information, go to: http://ci.jackson.ca.us/.
Rich Moreno covers the places Nevadans want to visit.