"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."

The Little Town at the End of the Road


by Don Baumgart

In the Sierra Nevada mountains a half-hour drive from Nevada City, the town of Washington perches on the banks of the Yuba River's south fork. Nestled in a canyon between 5,000 foot high mountain ridges, Washington is where the road ends.

At first the place was named Indiana Camp by homesick Hoosiers. The year was 1849 and the world stampeded in to help gather California's gold. Then a couple of miles downstream a new mining camp appeared, named Jefferson.

The Indiana Camp miners met in the local saloon as the snow piled up four feet deep outside. They had to do something about those upstarts who had named their camp after the country's third president. That night Indiana Camp took the name of the first U.S. president.

It became official on the Fourth of July, 1850 and George Kelsey, a local saloon keeper, was named Washington's first mayor.

Renamed Washington, the camp soon grew into a prosperous gold mining town. The Yuba River was rich with gold and by August of 1850 a thousand miners were making dams and canals to get at the river bed's nuggets. Three thousand were in the vicinity. By now Washington had hotels, restaurants, and a bowling alley.

The Washington Hotel is still there. Wyatt and Josephine Earp slept in one of the hotel's rooms. So did President Grover Cleveland. And so did a steady stream of miners and travelers starting when the hotel was built, eight years after the Gold Rush began.

Fourteen renovated rooms are available to Twenty-first Century guests. And, just like in the old West, if you want a room, you ask the saloon bartender what's available. And most likely the woman behind the bar who gets you a room will be the town's current mayor.

But back in 1858 you'd find a bit more than a room, a cold drink, and a meal in Washington; five provision stores, two clothing stores, two hotels, and a billiard saloon. By 1866 the town had added a butcher shop and a shoe store.

Although there's not much mention of it, Washington had a brewery, too. An August 18, 1867 newspaper article describes the ravages to Washington by a fire. "The fire destroyed every store, hotel, saloon, and business place from the Washington Brewery to Brimskill's dwelling house."

Recovery was swift and in 1884 one newspaper recorded the fact that the town had five places where whiskey was sold by the drink, and no church.

"They will assure you," writes Robert Slyter of Washington's long-time residents, "this was once a really tough town. Gun fights every night."

There were other dangers to life in a mining camp, too.

"Mrs. Condon, of Washington, was gored and tossed ten or twelve feet by the Murphy cow," a Nevada City newspaper reported. "This cow was considered by all to have a nasty disposition."

As nearby newspapers turned their attention to the little town of Washington, a common theme ran through the printed reports: impending riches! "Eagge & Company are opening a deep channel on the bar opposite the village of Washington. The company will work day and night and big pay is sure to come."

The Big Strike is just ahead. It was the same untempered certainty that fueled the entire Gold Rush, bringing young men long hard miles to try their hand at finding riches in the rushing waters of California's rivers and streams. Today most visitors come to Washington for the golden sunshine, and the peace and quiet at the end of the road.

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Copyright Don Baumgart, 2006


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