Stepping Back in Time

Remember California when folks seldom locked their doors? When people were friendly? When crowds were rare?

This California still exists, in tiny Sierra City, a cluster of sleepy old buildings anchoring the northern end of Highway 49. Here, one finds the quietest corner of the Sierra Nevada about ten miles west of the junction of highways 49 and 89, and hour's drive north of Truckee.

In Sierra City, time seems to have stopped in, say, 1952, Tour buses, chain motels and fast food restaurants are far away. History and scenery are close–Sierra City's nineteenth-century mines produced some $300 million in gold. In the town's boom years, from about 1860 to 1880, about 10,000 fortune seekers lived here; today "city" is a misnomer–the old buildings house perhaps 225 souls. The Kentucky Mine, just east of Sierra City, showcases the town's lively past.

Today's visitor's find a different kind of wealth–the essence of the Sierra, with dozens of lakes scooped out by repeated glaciations, gleaming granite escarpments, weather sculpted pines, firs and junipers, and hiking trails galore.

Accommodations range from primitive to luxurious. U.S. Forest Service campgrounds along Highway 49 or along Gold Lake Road, just north of Sierra City, provide shady sites for tent campers or motorhomes, Right in Sierra City the Sierra Skies RV Park features friendly hosts and grassy parking.

More than a dozen rustic lodges–some dating from the 1920s with little changed except for modern amenities such as showers and electricity–offer low-key quarters. At the peak of the summer season the lodges book well in advance, often a year ahead, but cancellations do occur.

People have long cherished the region. Maidu Native Americans summered here for thousands of years, reveling in the lush vegetation and game. Ancient acorn grinding rocks, old village sites and numerous petroglyphs give evidence of their stay.

In 1849, Thomas Robertson Stoddart, with his wild tales of a lake lined with gold, provoked a stampede of fortune seekers, displacing the Native Americans. Today, Gold Lake, third largest in the region, is named after this early-day boondoggle.

Although Gold Lake itself produced little gold, the region yielded a huge fortune in the precious metal over the next decades.

Miners first panned the rich gravels of the North Yuba River that roars past Sierra City, and by 1851 began burrowing into the earth. Between 1850 and 1890 dozens of quartz mines operated here, honeycombing the Sierra Buttes above Sierra City with hundreds of miles of shafts and tunnels.

The Sierra Buttes Mines, best known of all, operated here from the early 1850s until 1937 with a forty-stamp and twenty-stamp mill, producing in excess of $17 million in gold.

The Young America Mine, on the north side of the Buttes, featured a forty-stamp mill that clanked 24 hours a day. The mill was so loud that it could be heard all the way over the mountain in Sierra City when the wind was right.

On August 21, 1869, the Monumental Mine produced a 106-pound nugget. At the time of its discovery it was the largest single piece ever found in the county and the second largest ever found in California. The Sierra Buttes are still yielding gold; on October 28, 1972, Jack Rose found a 28-ounce chunk of the metal while on a hunting trip.

Recreation in the last century took a variety of forms. Then, as now, people enjoyed the natural beauty of the region. The spectacular geological centerpiece of the region, the 8,587-foot high Sierra Buttes, has been a popular hiking destination since the 1850s. For many locals the climb became a Fourth of July tradition. Early-day groups on horseback ascended a winding trail (now a rough four-wheel-drive track) to the base of the crags. Here gentlemen climbed partway up first, then lowered ropes to the ladies, who, hampered by long skirts and corsets, tied the ropes around their waists so they could be hoisted upward.

From the top the adventurers enjoyed views of Sierra City 4,400 feet below, as well as of the Sacramento Valley, Mt. Lassen and other distant peaks. To commemorate their climbs these intrepid adventurers carved their names and dates on a slab of granite. The rock with its antique graffiti is still there.

Although one can still trudge to the summit from Sierra City, an easier route leads from Packer Saddle above Packer Lake and follows a switchback trail up the gentler west-facing slope of the buttes. Today a fire lookout, accessible via a series of steep aluminum stairs, seems to jut out into space atop the highest spire.

On top of the Sierra Buttes, a steep stairway leads to a fire lookout. Parts of the stairs hang over empty space--this is not a place for hikers with vertigo!

In Sierra City, locals greet heavy snows of winter with delight–and trepidation. The Lakes Basin area, with its sweeping vistas and deep drifts, attracts snowmobilers and cross-country skiers. Several companies offer tours and equipment rentals.

But there's another side to winter here. Armed with a lethal combination of heavy snow and steep terrain, the Buttes have periodically dumped avalanches on the community. An 1852 avalanche destroyed much of the original town, which was relocated to a less dangerous site. Another half-dozen avalanches roared down upon the town between 1859 and 1911.

Even though Sierra City seems to doze in another century, the tiny town is slowly being pulled into the new millennium. More attention is being focused on the region following the May, 1993 dedication of the 160-mile-long Yuba-Donner Scenic Byway. The scenic route takes in Sierra City in its traverse of Interstate 80 and state highways 89, 49, and 20.

Tahoe National Forest, working with the Downieville Chamber of Commerce, Sierra County Historical Society, California Department of Transportation and the Downieville Lions Club, produced a brochure that ties in with one of the most historic sections of the byway, "49 Miles Along Highway 49." The brochure describes historic sites from Oregon House to Yuba Pass. In addition the organizations have erected a series of roadside signs identifying historic sites.

Feasibly, one can drive the loop in a day. But the best travel takes time. And savoring the quiet diversions of the Sierra City area would take a lifetime.

Please read our online article, the "Kentucky Mine: Putting a Unique Stamp on History."

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