Northern California’s Highway 49 is lined with quaint, historic mining towns, but few are as picturesque as Nevada City.
Located about two hours west of Reno via Interstate 80 and California Highway 20, Nevada City traces its beginnings to the discovery of gold in the area in 1849.
Miners worked the banks of Deer Creek and reportedly were removing as much as a pound of gold per day. A settlement quickly developed, which was originally called Deer Creek Dry Diggins, and later Caldwell’s Upper Store.
By 1850, the camp had more than a thousand residents and a new name, Nevada, after the Sierra Nevada range. During the next decade, the town experienced several fires, which resulted in it being rebuilt using bricks.
In addition to sharing a name with the state, Nevada City has another connection with the Silver State.
In 1859, a wagon full of blue mud and dirt was sent from Northern Nevada to the town of Nevada for assaying. The assayer, James J. Ott, tested the dirt and found that it contained about 60 percent silver and 40 percent gold. The discovery sparked a major rush as local miners raced to the location of this marvelous find, the Comstock Lode in Virginia City.
In 1864, the residents of Virginia City and the surrounding territory successfully applied for statehood and, much to the chagrin of the citizens of the town of Nevada, the name of this new state was Nevada.
Reluctantly, the residents of the town added “City” to its name to avoid confusion.
The Nevada-Nevada City connection doesn’t end there. In the mid-19th century, a girl named Emma Wixon was born in a mining camp outside of Nevada City.
At the age of 3, her parents moved with her to Austin, Nevada.
She later attended Mills College (then called Mills Seminary) in Oakland, where she completed her training as a singer. At age 21, she made her operatic debut in London – using the stage name Emma Nevada. Over the next several decades, she gained international acclaim.
Nevada City boosters insist she took the name in honor of her birthplace, but Nevada historians counter that her name reflects the state where she grew up.
Today, Nevada City remains a wonderful relic of the last century. Like Virginia City, it contains numerous restored 19th century buildings and Victorian homes.
Built atop seven hills, Nevada City is a maze of twisting streets lined with fascinating historic structures. You’ll find plenty of intriguing places to explore such as Firehouse No. 1, a beautiful, white, Victorian building on Commercial Street, that now houses a museum describing the area’s past.
Up the hill, on Broad Street, is the elegant Sargent House, built in 1856 by former U.S. Sen. Aaron A. Sargent, who owned the local newspaper for many years. It is now a bed and breakfast.
Also on Broad Street is Firehouse No. 2, a picturesque brick structure built in 1861, which housed one of the city’s first volunteer fire departments.
A few doors down is the restored Nevada Theater, built in 1865 and California’s oldest theater, which continues to be used for performances. Emma Nevada performed in it in 1902.
Farther down the street is the National Hotel, built between 1854 and 1857. Despite several fires, the hotel is the oldest continuously operated hotel in California.
Nevada City also offers a wide variety of boutiques behind the Victorian storefronts, ranging from restaurants to crystal shops, bookstores to wine shops.
Other Nevada City attractions include the Nevada City Winery; the Pine Street Bridge, a replica of a 1903 span that was originally built by Andrew Hallidie, father of San Francisco’s cable car system; and Ott’s Assay Office, built in 1857.
A useful walking tour brochure is available from the Chamber of Commerce, 132 Main St., Nevada City, CA 95959; (800) 655-NJOY (6569); http://www.nevadacitychamber.com.
n Richard Moreno is the author of “Backyard Travels in Northern Nevada” and “The Roadside History of Nevada,” which are available at local bookstores.