"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."
A Series of Firsts Heralds The Creation of a Town

by Don Baumgart

A few of the names of men who found and lost fortunes during the Gold Rush are known, but who ever heard of Joshua Turner? He built the first sawmill in Nevada City in 1850 and that mill produced the wood to build the Nevada Hotel -- from a single tree!

By 1858 42 sawmills were operating in and around Nevada City, 26 powered by steam, 16 by water wheels.

The most prominent, and successful, sawmill owner was Martin Luther Marsh, whose name remains in the community because he built his bride a mansion which still stands on Boulder street -- the Marsh House. Marsh saw that timber was the next bonanza to be had and he acquired his first mill and timber acreage in the 1850s.

Work in the mills was a thirsty business, so by 1858 there were five breweries in nevada City ready to satisfy the thirst of the mill workers. Emile Weiss learned brewing in Germany and walked from Sacramento to nevada City to open his brewery.

Sawmills were by nature dirty places to spend a day so it's not unusual that the Pacific Soap works opened its doors on Coyote Street during the heyday of lumber making.

The mills made everything from timbers to hold up mine tunnels to doors, sash and molding for new homes springing up around town. But one of the markets for wood was already beginning to disappear. Ravaged by repeated fires that tore through wooden buildings, people were looking elsewhere for building materials.

In 1853 Hamlet Davis put up the first fireproof building at Pine and Broad in nevada City. It was built of brick. Soon the town had 28 brick buildings and the need for lumber to rebuild after the frequent fires, declined noticeably.

Progress had arrived!

Thomas Pearce came to Grass Valley from England to open the area's first butcher shop in 1864, locating his slaughter house between Grass Valley and nevada City to serve both towns.

The town's first movie house, the Crystal Theater, opened in March of 1908, playing silent movies for the residents of what had grown into a diverse town from a simple mining camp. The movie business had its ups and downs even then and the Crystal closed a year after opening. It was followed by the Broadway Theater which opened in a converted livery stable across the street from the National Hotel. Admission to the Broadway cost adults a dime, kids five cents.

From a collection of miners' tents and shacks Nevada City grew into a town that has flourished and become home to a wide variety of businesses, many of which would bewilder those tired, wet men crouched over their gold pans.

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Copyright Don Baumgart, 2006


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