Images of America: Grass Valley

Lovingly researched and written by Claudine Chalmers of the Grass Valley Downtown Association, this 128-page book humanizes the remarkable history of this Gold Rush community. In 1850, George McKnight, looking for a wandering cow, stumbled across a rich outcropping of ore, and so began the boom that led to the construction of some of the largest gold mines in the West. Extensively captioned, this book features at least a couple of hundred historic photos that put a face (or faces) on the town. For anyone who would like to learn about Grass Valley’s past, this book is a must.


The book costs $19.99 and is available from local retail outlets, online, or from


Located along Highway 49 and Highway 20 in Nevada County north of Auburn and Interstate, Grass Valley, with a 1990 population of 9,048, is one of the most beautiful towns in the Mother Lode. George Knight discovered gold here in 1850 on a place that was subsequently named Gold Hill. And it almost literally was a hill of gold, for more that $130 million was taken from this hill in the next 108 years; more than half of California's total gold production came from mines in this area. Most of it came from the North Star and Empire mines. The gold found deep in the earth here made it the richest deposit in the state and one of the richest anywhere in the world. Cornish miners worked the mines, and even today their legacy remains. In December Grass Valley residents celebrate a Cornish Christmas, and pasties--a hearty meat pie--are found at several local restaurants.

In 1867, Grass Valley mines were operating a total of 248 stamp mills, making this a noisy place indeed. The ore-crushing machines processed over 70,000 tons of ore with an average yield of from $30 to $35 per ton. In 1869, production from the stamp mills amounted to almost $1.7 million.

The North Star Mining Museum features a huge 30-foot-tall Pelton wheel—the world's largest. Invented by James Pelton, a resident of nearby Camptonville, the wheel was a modification of the commonly used water wheel. It was more effective, however, in using water's force and produced more power to fuel the mining operation than that generated by wood-fired steam engines or other water wheels. Today Pelton wheels are used world-wide.

A must-see in Grass Valley is Empire Mine State Park. The state of California acquired the property in 1975. Mine owner William Bourne and his family maintained a home here, the so-called Empire Cottage that was built in 1898. Tours of the mansion and grounds are available.

The most notorious resident of early-day Grass Valley was the actress and dancer Lola Montez, who had captivated Europe. She also attracted King Ludwig of Bavaria, and he invented the title for her, "Countess of Lansfeld." She came to California in 1851, and after a less-than-enthusiastic local reception, retired for a brief time to a house at 248 Mill Street in Grass Valley, where she kept company with a grizzly bear cub and other odd pets. Today the house is the headquarters of the Nevada County Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Grass Valley and Nevada County Chamber of Commerce.

Today Grass Valley is a busy commercial center. The region features a thriving art scene. The charming downtown features many old buildings, including the Holbrooke Hotel, which incorporates the Golden Gate Saloon, oldest continuously operating saloon in the Gold Country. Many beautiful old homes ring the downtown area. The nearby Nevada County Fairgrounds host several major music festivals and other events.

Built in 1862, the Holbrooke Hotel, on Main Street in Grass Valley, once hosted such luminaries as Mark Twain, and Presidents Grant, Garfield, Harrison and Cleveland. The hotel was restored in the 1970s and 1980s.
A Grass Valley restaurant features pasties, based on a favorite food of Cornish miners who flocked here to work the huge gold mines in the late nineteenth century. The miners took these easily portable meals—made of meat, potatoes and various seasonings surrounded in pastry—deep into the mines and warmed them atop candles they took there for the purpose.
This humble home on Mill Street in Grass Valley was once the residence of the infamous Lola Montez. Today it houses the Grass Valley/Nevada City Chamber of Commerce.
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