Hunt history or hide away in Nevada City

By Lindsey Turrentine
sacbee staff
Published Jan. 30, 1998

Assay Office
The South Yuba Canal Building and Ott's Assay Office are the oldest business building in Nevada City.

Photo Lindsey Turrentine/sacbee

One hundred and fifty years after the Gold Rush, riches still flow in the foothill town of Nevada City. The town no longer makes a mint on nuggets and ore -- these days, Nevada City mines the wallets of tourists escaping hustle and bustle in lower altitudes.

It's no wonder visitors empty their purses on treks to this tiny town of just over 2,000. Just 70 miles northeast of Sacramento, Nevada City offers a mother lode of museums, artifacts and bed and breakfasts to appease the most avid history buff or the mildest vacationer.

"It's a great town," says Ruth Ann Riese, co-owner of the local Grandmere's Inn. "There are a number of museums, and the libraries here are very good. Many people come up just to trace genealogy."

Graced with more Gold Rush era buildings than any other Gold Country town, Nevada City's streets cradle countless coffee shops and boutiques. In 1985,the National Register of Historic Places commemorated Nevada City's persistence in preservation by naming the town "the largest and best-preserved historical downtown district in California Gold Country."

Nevada City's popularity also gets a boost from its coordinates. As one of the most northeastern Gold Rush hot spots, Nevada City enjoys cool summers, winters with occasional light snow (enough for snowmen, too little for snow-ins) and proximity to ski centers at north Lake Tahoe.

A walking tour of Nevada city can be a one-day affair that's easy on the pocketbook. With some extra cash, however, visitors can take tours during the day via horse-drawn carriage by calling (530) 265-9646.

Lunch or a cup of strong coffee at Cafe Mekka on Commercial Street makes a tasty -- and fashionable -- mid-day stop. On Sacramento Street, the Nevada City Brewing Company offers a full menu and samples of a local brew. The historic building also has a beer garden out back.

Highlights of a walking tour of Nevada City:

Pelton Wheel
The Pelton Wheel was invented in Nevada County and, in its heyday, produced enough power for 16,000 households. A small wheel stands on display at the east end of Main Street.

Photo Lindsey Turrentine/sacbee
Nestled in the lowest corner of town at the intersection of Union, Commercial, Main and Coyote streets, the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce stuffs a flotilla of brochures and booklets into the tiny South Yuba Canal Building and Ott's Assay Office. Come here for maps and information, but also to look at the historic building itself.

The Canal Building has stood in Nevada City since 1851. James J. Ott toiled here while he assayed the ore that sparked the silver rush in Nevada's Comstock Lode, and rumor has it that Lola Montez, the infamous Gold Rush dancer and Madam, lived upstairs. To contact the chamber, call (800) 655-6569 or visit

Firehouse No. 1. perches just a few feet and some wooden steps up Main Street. Where local volunteers once ran "hook and ladder wagons" to put out blazes, the Nevada City Historical Society now keeps up an eclectic display of Gold Rush vintage tools, clothing and memorabilia. The museum's 50 years' worth of tarnished gold pans and dusty displays make the building an artifact in its own right. This is the most photographed building in town.

Chinese shrine
This Chinese shrine occupies almost the entire back room of Firehouse No. 1, now a tiny museum of Nevada City history.

Photo Lindsey Turrentine/sacbee

The historic National Hotel occupies a full block on the south side of Nevada City's main promenade, Broad St. The Victorian-era building enjoys local fame for continuously operating longer than any other hotel west of the Rockies -- since 1856. Although some of the hotel's antiques may be a bit too antique for a comfortable stay, they make an interesting exhibit for visitors interested in the history of Nevada City's red light district.

Three blocks up Broad St., the Nevada Theater beckons those interested in literary history -- and ghosts. "We have ghosts, a man and a woman," confides Foothill theater employee Nancy Hoagland. Perhaps these fabled residents are inspired by past fabricators who have graced the theater: Mark Twain appeared twice on its stage, as did John Wilkes Booth's actor-brother, Edwin Booth. (Jack London never made his scheduled show because of flooding downstream.) Established in 1865, the theater is the oldest theater building in California and still hosts a full season of performances.

Just across the street, Firehouse No. 2 attracts many a shutterbug with its brick facade dating to 1861. The building still houses a volunteer fire crew.

At the intersection of Broad and Bennett street on "Nabab Hill," the Grandmere Inn gives overnighters an opportunity to sleep in rooms where a famous pioneer snoozed. Also known as the "Sargent House," this bed and breakfast was once home to A.A. Sargent, a '49er from Massachusetts. Sargent owned the first newspaper in Nevada County, then went on to sit two terms in the California Congress and one in the U.S. Senate, champion the cause of suffrage and create legislation for the Transcontinental Railroad. Contact the inn at (530) 265-4660.

On the side:

Empire Cottage

Empire Cottage at Empire Mine State Historic Park.

Photo Lindsey Turrentine/sacbee

Just south of Nevada City sits Grass Valley, Nevada City's more mainstream neighbor and home to Empire Mine State Historic Park. For a $3 entrance fee, visitors to the park can wander the perfectly pruned estate of mine-owner William Bourn, Jr., peer down the mine's shaft and learn about the operations of a large-scale gold mine.

The well-preserved park hosts a number of programs, including guided tours of the owner's grand "cottage" and opportunities to visit former workshops, business offices and disposal sites around the mine. For those interested only in a pleasant place to stop, the park provides an idyllic setting and plenty of picnic tables. Hiking trails weave throughout the park.

Empire Mine sits at 10791 E. Empire St. in Grass Valley. Call the park at (530) 273-8522.

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