Town History - Gold Discovery, Early Citizenry, Legends

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      • The Pelton Wheel Monument

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Town History

      A short distance out of North San Juan, Hwy 49 begins a winding, precipitous descent into the deep canyon of the middle fork of the Yuba River. Steep cliffs, towering granite walls, and thousands of acres of forest are your companions as the road reaches the crossing and then begins its ascent to the high ridges on the other side of the river. Camptonville sits atop one of these ridges, in the center of a once important mining district.
      The town was founded when rich gold deposits were uncovered here in 1850 or ’51. Perhaps the first building to go up in the new settlement was a hotel known as the Nevada House, around which both the diggings and the town quickly developed. The new camp was located on the main road between Marysville, Nevada City, and the higher mountain camps around Downieville to the north. Pack mule trains became a common site as they stopped here daily on their way to the higher camps.
      Prosperity came to town in 1852 when gold was discovered on Gold Ridge to the east. Before long, settlements began springing up all over the region as the yellow metal was being discovered left and right. The prospectors had located a portion of the rich Blue Lead, an ancient river channel loaded with gold. And luckily for the miners, the deposits were covered with only a shallow layer of dirt and rock, unlike some other channels which lay hundreds of feet below the surface.
      The wealth of new camps brought hundreds of miners into the region in 1852, one of whom was a blacksmith named Robert Campton. Due to his popularity with the miners, the camp he settled in was christened Camptonville in his honor. A post office was established here on February 18 of 1854, and by the following year the population of the town and vicinity had reached some thirteen hundred. With the introduction of hydraulic mining in the late 1850’s, the town boomed. A mile-long plank road formed the town’s main street, lined on both sides by more than thirty stores, several hotels, boarding houses, offices, and a plethora of saloons.
      Camptonville suffered a number of serious fires during the Gold Rush, being completely destroyed several times. Besides fire, the town was also threatened with annihilation by water. As the hydraulic operations followed the course of the ancient river channel, they ate away hundreds of acres of land, including the land upon which the town was built, forcing the citizens to pick up and move to higher ground.
      A testament to the richness of this region is the number of camps which once existed within only a few miles of Camptonville. Two miles north was Galena Hill which boasted a large hotel, two stores and two saloons in 1856. Three miles northwest was Youngs Hill, also complete with several hotels, saloons, and a theater. Southwest was Ramms Ranch. North was Railroad Hill, settled in 1852 and the first town to use iron rails in the Yuba mines. Nearby was Depot Hill. Northeast by six miles was Oak Valley, where one hundred miners worked Oak Valley Creek in 1855. Three miles west of Oak Valley was Dadds Gulch, founded by a man named Parsons in 1851. Weeds Point, Slate Range, Celestial Valley and bars too numerous to mention once all had their share of miners searching the gravels for gold.
      The town’s most famous citizen was unquestionably Lester Pelton, the inventor of the Pelton Wheel which was long used in mining machinery and electric generators. Pelton’s wheel was an immense improvement over the water wheel in use at the time. When a stream of water was shot at the cups on a regular waterwheel, much of the force of the stream was lost as the water bounced straight back from the cup into the stream. Pelton designed a cup which was divided by a kind of sloping ridge that channeled the stream of water away to each side, allowing all of the force from the stream to be used to turn the wheel. This proved to be much more efficient, turned the wheel faster, produced more power, and was an important step in the development of hydroelectric power equipment.

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