Town History - Gold Discovery, Early Citizenry, Legends

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Town History

      Originally known as Indiana Boys Camp, Washington is most likely the oldest mining camp in Nevada County. It was founded in the fall of 1849 by a group of emigrants from Indiana, who after a little prospecting, found the place to their liking and settled in for the winter.
      Tales of good diggings managed to leak out during the winter and the following spring the Indiana boys were joined by hundreds of miners; by summer the population was approaching one thousand. During the camp’s first Fourth of July celebration, the miners got together and decided to change the name of their camp to Washington in a moment of patriotic fervor. At the same time, George Kelsey, a local saloon keeper, was appointed as the camp’s first Alcalde.
      The rich placers continued to draw miners to the region, and by 1851 a few thousand men were working the river. Many were engaged in building dams and flumes in an effort to drain the river to get at the gold-laden gravels. As was generally the case, the costs involved in this type of operation were significant and the gold recovered not up to the miners’ expectations, resulting in many leaving the area to search for better diggings.
      Those who were content with lesser returns stayed on, and when other gravel deposits were discovered nearby, the town enjoyed a renewed prosperity, especially with the advent of hydraulic mining operations. These operations began during the late 1850’s and continued up until the Sawyer Decision was handed down, which “perpetually enjoined and restrained all discharging or dumping into the Yuba River or its tributaries of mining debris and tailings.” For many years after the decision; however, clandestine hydraulic operations were carried on, especially during the winter months when the activity could be better hidden. In order to enforce the injunction, “government sneaks” snooped about the area, looking for evidence of outlaw mining. This resulted in every stranger in town being viewed with suspicion, their activities closely monitored until they left town.
      During the boom years in Washington, citizen and visitor alike wanted for nothing. A school, church, billiard saloon, two hotels, two clothing stores, five provision stores, and numerous saloons and other businesses took care of the population. The camp also enjoyed a good measure of success as a supply point for the region, as every bar and flat along the river had its small settlement of miners. Not every one was large enough to warrant a store of its own, so the miners headed for Washington when they needed tools and provisions.
      Washington suffered a number of serious fires over the years, the worst of which occurred on August 16 of 1867. Believed to be the work of an incendiary, the fire was discovered at eleven p.m. in a cabin at the rear of Pendleton’s Butcher Shop. Spreading rapidly, the flames swept up and down Main Street, destroying every store, hotel, saloon, and business place from the Washington Brewery to Brimskill’s dwelling place. In less than two hours, more than twenty buildings were consumed by the voracious conflagration, causing between $40,000 and $50,000 in damages. No one was insured.
      Fire was not the only hazard to residents of Washington. The Daily National Gazette on July 23 of 1870 reports on the dangers of wild animals: “Mrs. Condon, a resident of Washington, was attacked by a “vicious cow” which struck her in the back with its horns, throwing the poor woman some ten or twelve feet. Her wounds were reported to be serious and were feared to result fatally.”
      Traveling through magnificent pine forests, the road to Washington winds down the side of the mountain until it reaches Washington Flat, located on the banks of the South Fork of the Yuba River. All about the area, especially near the river, are huge piles of granite boulders which were carried and placed there, stone by stone, by the patient Chinese miners who reworked the diggings after the white miners were through. This is the last remaining town of the many which once prospered in the Washington mining district during the days of gold.
      Washington is located east of Nevada City, thirteen miles via Hwy 20, and then six miles down Washington Road.

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