Thursday, March 16, 2017

California Gold Rush -- Yreka Strikes Gold

Dear Friends,

As soon as I answered a reader by publishing a map of the California Gold County, another reader writes to ask how come I haven't mentioned the gold strike in Yreka, California, up north near the Oregon border?

Well let's talk about a place that would come to be known as "The richest square mile on earth."

In March of 1851, Abraham Thompson was a member of a mule train en route to Scott Valley from southern Oregon. The six men in the party decided to camp overnight on "the flats" in a ravine called Black Gulch. It's said others before them had camped and even prospected there. But it's also said that though gold was found there, it was never in a sufficient quantity to spark any real interest. Imagine that.

Of course all of that changed when Abraham Thompson was striking camp the next morning. It happened as he was watched something extraordinary take place. By chance, what he saw that morning would lead to a significant gold strike in California history.

A Map Of Yreka, The Northern Goldfields,
& Sierra Nevada Goldfields
It's said that the ground was soaked because of recent heavy rains. Near the tents, the pack mules were chowing down on grass.

The mules pulled on the grass and bunches came out at each pull because of the saturated soil. Each time the pack mules pulled the bunches of grass out of the ground, they exposed the roots.

Very soon, Abraham Thompson noticed that on those roots were flecks and even very small nuggets of gold. It's said the roots actually glistened in the morning light.

It was that that made him and the others stay. And unbeknownst to Thompson and the others, they just spent the night on what would soon become known as "the richest square mile on earth."

According to everything that I've been able to read on this, within six weeks of his discovery in March of 1851 some 2,000 miners arrived in what quickly became known as "Thompson's Dry Diggings." By May, that gold rush "boomtown" was made up of a few rough cabins, tents, and shanties for the transient gold miners. And by August of that year, as the miners discovered that this area was the "Second Mother Lode," the population swelled to 5,000.

At that time, the town was renamed Shasta Butte City. It was moved to its present location in order to be closer to the nearest water supply which is the Yreka Creek. Soon the new town took shape with the first real structures going up on Main Street, which is today's Miner Street. Then in early 1852, the California State Legislature created Siskiyou County.

And yes, for those of you who have read it before, writer/poet Joaquin Miller did describe Yreka, California, during 1853 and 1854, as a bustling place, noting:

"A tide of people poured up and down [Miner Street], and across from other streets, as strong as in a town of the East. The white people on the side walks, the Chinese and the mules in the main street. Not a woman in sight, nor a child."

After being called Thompson's Dry Diggings for a while, the town was then being called Shasta Butte City. But because there was another town of Shasta in the same region, those in Shasta Butte City decided to change the name of the town again. That was when those there finally settled on calling their town Yreka. The story goes that the word "Yreka" is a Shasta Indian word that means "north mountain" or "white mountain".

And no, I don't believe Mark Twain's version of why the town is called Yreka. Twain is noted as telling the story:

"[Bret] Harte had arrived in California in the1850s, twenty-three or twenty-four years old, and had wandered up into the surface diggings of the camp at Yreka, a place which had acquired its mysterious name -- when in its first days it much needed a name -- through an accident. There was a bakeshop with a canvas sign which had not yet been put up but had been painted and stretched to dry in such a way that the word BAKERY, all but the B, showed through and was reversed. A stranger read it wrong end first, YREKA, and supposed that that was the name of the camp. The campers were satisfied with it and adopted it."

Honestly, knowing how much "fake news" Twain spread in his day, I think Mark Twain was simply spinning another yarn.  Besides, there was a reason that he was known for telling tall tales, he was full of beans.

As for Yreka, the gold rush town that started as a mining camp site actually incorporated just six years later on April 21st, 1857. And as we all know today, Yreka slowly transformed itself from a crude gold rush boomtown into a town that folks could be proud of. Soon elections were held, and lawmen were sworn in. Soon construction began on a courthouse, a hospital, a church, and a school opened up.

It was also during that time that Yreka was selected as the seat of government for Siskiyou County. But as with other gold mining towns, for Yreka the gold rush was all but completely petered out. And yes, because of this, by 1871 the population had dwindled to just a little over a thousand people. 

The Yreka Fire of 1871

On the July of 4th of 1871, disaster struck when a fire ravaged the town. Yes, it became know as "The Fire of 1871" and it was thought to be started by the careless use of firecrackers. 

It is said that it jumped from the north side of Miner Street to the south side, and before it was finally extinguished the heart of Yreka was nothing be smoldering ruins. Many of the structures that burned were made of wood and dated to the gold rush era of twenty years prior.

All toll, the fire consumed about thirteen blocks of Yreka. This included buildings such as a hotel, their theater, the Odd Fellow’s Hall, all the livery stables, a schoolhouse, a number of homes, a foundry, and even their Catholic Church. 

Of course, as with many but not all towns in the Old West which were destroyed by fire, Yreka rebuilt. But unlike other towns, such as Tombstone after its two fires in 1881 and 1882 or Dodge City after its fires in 1885 and 1886 which destroyed most of the original businesses along Front Street, Yreka rebuilt using brick and many of those buildings still stand today in its downtown.

It is said that when Yreka rebuilt, it became stronger, certainly more fire-proof, than before. And soon afterwards, ranching, farming, and timber replaced gold mining as its economic base. With that as their economic base, and more stage lines being used the town for a stage stop than any other community in the state of California, and a short-line railroad connecting the city with the Southern Pacific's West Coast line in 1889, Yreka not only survived -- but prevailed.

So How Did It Survive?

One source for this information asked the interesting question, "Why did Yreka manage to avoid the fate of so many other gold rush boomtowns?"

And frankly, that's a fine question because not all of the boomtowns survived after their booms went bust. The west is actually dotted with towns that went bust, never recovered, and were simply abandoned. Whether gold or silver, some towns simply dried up and are nothing more than ghost towns today. Many towns died just because there was nothing to take the place of the gold or the silver mines.

While I think the answer may be too simple to accept by some, I really believe that, as with other places such as Tombstone Arizona after their silver boom went bust or as with Dodge City Kansas after the cattle drives dried up, there are those people who simply stayed on because they liked living there. There may have still been miners and cattlemen in those areas, but I really don't see those who stayed on as necessarily looking for another boom of some sort take place.

I believe they saw those towns as a place to stick around and build on. And frankly, whether it was turning more toward cattle, farming, and logging, the towns that survived found something to economically take the place of the mines if they wanted to stay around. And friends, that's the true tenacious spirit of Americans.

It's true, towns weren't built by boomers, gamblers, shady types, prostitutes, outlaws, and the ever present con-artists trying to cheat one out of their hard earned money. Towns weren't build by transient opportunists who come in to get what they can and leave, which was the case for many boomtowns. No, those people weren't and never have been the ones that really built towns.

Towns throughout our great land were built after the booms, and not during. It is only after booms go bust that we find those who are truly made of stronger stuff. It's those who aren't afraid to roll up their sleeves and get to work. It's those who do not let fires, or crime, pestilence, or hard times drive them out.

They are the Americans who we can thank for the beauty of small towns all across our great land. They are the people who stayed and fought the odds. They are the true pioneers who kept alive what some thought were dead and had no chance of surviving the future. Whether it's a farmer or rancher, cowboy or blacksmith, store owner or teacher, grocer or butcher, liveryman or carpenter, they are those who built America.

So yes, that's why Yreka survived when some others didn't. It was because Yreka was and is a nice place to live, and people wanted to find a way to keep it alive. And yes, they did just that with the heart of their community still being Miner Street. Yes, just as it has always been.

Tom Correa

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