Perhaps the first white men to mine for gold in this region were early settlers from Oregon;
David Stump and two other prospectors who arrived in October of 1848. The three men spent their
time crevassing for gold near the future sites of the rich Eureka and Idaho mines, staying until
the approaching winter drove them off the mountain.
A small herd of cattle were likely the valley’s only inhabitants the following summer. They
had wandered off from a party of emigrants who, exhausted after traversing the rugged trail over
Donner Pass, had camped near the junction of Steep Hollow and the Bear River to rest before
continuing on their journey. Upon finding their cattle in the valley, chewing away on the rich
grass, someone must have referred to the place as the “grassy valley,” and eventually the spot
came to be known as Grass Valley.
By the end of 1849, several small groups had established themselves in the valley. Among the
earliest were Benjamin Taylor, Dr. Saunders, Captain Broughton and his two sons, Gregory and
Alexander. To protect themselves against the coming winter, they built a crude log cabin that
August on Badger Hill. Just a few days later, another group of emigrants joined the Saunders
party, bringing the total number of settlers on Badger Hill to about twenty.
On September 23 of 1849, a company under the leadership of Rev. H. H. Cummings arrived and
built four cabins along the south side of a ravine at the lower end of the valley. One of the men
operated a store from one of the cabins and the place came to be known as Boston Ravine, which
would later grow to be the chief settlement in the region.
Before winter set in, one final band of settlers arrived in the valley. A group of men
calling themselves the Rhode Island Company settled down and built the “Providence Store,” near
the top of what is now Main Street, bringing the total number of inhabitants in the area to about
forty. Throughout the winter, weather permitting, the men of the grassy valley worked the
streams, gulches, flats, and ravines in the area, finding gold in just about all of them. And
while they may have cursed the winter storms, the harsh weather was also a blessing as it didn’t
allow many new prospectors into the area.
When the worst of the storms were over and the roads became somewhat passable, miners began
to pour into the area. Standing almost shoulder to shoulder along the entire length of Wolf
Creek, the miners dug and they panned, and they panned and they dug, and they took out a bunch of
gold. Before long a sizable camp was established, with buildings going up as quickly as possible
to help the miners “loosen their pokes.”
Perhaps the most important event in the camp’s history occurred one moonlit night in October
of 1850. Legend has it that George McKnight, the miner, (some books list him as Knight) was
chasing a runaway cow when he stubbed his toe on a rock outcropping near the top of a hill. The
rock broke away easily and McKnight reached down to pick it up, perhaps to toss it at the fleeing
cow. But a moonbeam glittered off the rock, revealing it to be laced with gold. The cow
forgotten, McKnight hurried back to his cabin, grabbed a hammer, and crushed the rock into a fine
sand. He then panned out the sand and recovered more gold in those few minutes than he had the
entire previous week. The rock was gold-bearing quartz, and although it wasn’t the first such
discovery in the Gold Country, it was one of the most important.
McKnight’s find “set the camp in the wildest excitement” and in a matter of days practically
every inch of Gold Hill was staked out and claimed. Other quartz gold discoveries quickly
followed at nearby Ophir, Rich, and Massachusetts hills. This was the effective beginning of the
boom in hardrock mining, the operation which would help keep many camps alive long after their
placers had played out.
The discovery of these gold-laced quartz ledges beneath the camp created an overnight
boomtown, making Grass Valley one of the largest and most important mining camps in the state. By
March of 1851, over 150 wooden structures had been built, including hotels, saloons, and many
stores. A log cabin served as the first school, wherein twelve pupils learned their lessons from
Miss Rosa Farrington. The first church society was organized the same year by Reverend Blythe.
The post office was established on July 10 of 1851 under the name of Centreville; the name was
changed to Grass Valley the following year.
Successful quartz mining could not be accomplished on a small scale, it required a stable and
experienced labor force to pry the ore loose from the bowels of the earth. It also required
capital, and heavy complicated machinery to crush and thoroughly pulverize the quartz so that all
the gold might be extracted. As early as the summer of 1851, large mining companies were being
formed to work the hard rock mines. The Gold Hill Company was the first, establishing a quartz
mill near the site of the original discovery. Other companies soon followed, including the
Empire, North Star, Pennsylvania, Idaho-Maryland, and Brunswick, all located within a mile or two
of Gold Hill.
The companies found that the men best suited for working the deep quartz mines were Cornish
miners, experienced at digging from the tin mines of Cornwall, England. They were a stable and
plentiful lot, as the mine owners soon discovered, for whenever a new man was needed, a Cornish
miner always knew just the man for the job: “My cousin, Jack.” Which is how Cornish miners
became known as Cousin Jacks. The Cornish were a superstitious lot, believing that Jabberwocks
(gremlins) lived in the tunnels, and that Tommyknockers (the spirits of dead miners) would tap
out warnings of impending disasters on the rock walls. They also felt it was bad luck for a woman
to go underground, or to start a new operation on Friday. Whistling in the mines was definitely
frowned upon, as it could set up vibrations that would cause a cave-in.
But gold was not the only thing that Grass Valley became known for. Two famous women lived
here during the Gold Rush, performers both of them, one nearing the end of her career while the
other’s was just beginning.
When Lola Montez—the Countess of Landsfeld, mistress of mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, and
performer of the “Spider Dance”—stepped off the stage in Grass Valley in 1853, she found an
assortment of citizens such as could only be found in a California mining camp. More than twenty
different nationalities were represented, including good men and bad men, educated and not, rich
and poor. But in California it didn’t matter who you were, or who you knew, or what you’d done
“back in the States.” What mattered to the miners was what you did and how you did it while you
were here. When Lola stepped off the stage she must have found the town to her liking, for within
a short while she bought a house and settled down. And while the townspeople may have found it
unusual to see the noted performer hard at work in her garden, digging, planting, weeding, they
undoubtedly became used to the sight. Perhaps more unusual was the pet bear which Lola kept
chained in a little bear house in the back yard.
Two doors down from Lola, a young girl named Lotta Crabtree lived with her mother who ran a
boarding house. The two became friends and spent many hours together, during which Lola taught
the girl a few dance steps and bits of song. Within the next few years, Lotta began touring the
mining camps, entertaining the miners with her songs and dances. She later became quite a famous
actress and the first female millionaire in the country. Lola eventually became restless and left
town in 1855 to resume performing and touring the world.
One of the worst fires to ever strike a mining camp hit Grass Valley on September 13 of 1855.
Within a matter of two hours, the flames swept over thirty acres and completely destroyed the
three hundred wooden buildings which made up the original town. Little property was saved due to
the fire’s rapid progress, many residents felt fortunate to escape with their lives. But the
citizens rebuilt immediately, for the mines had only begun to scrape the surface of the deep,
rich quartz veins and the town was destined to survive. Taking a lesson from other fire-ravaged
camps, Grass Valley was rebuilt with sturdier, fire-resistant materials such as brick and stone.
And as the mining activity never really let up here until the 1950’s, many of the early buildings
have remained in constant use since they were built. Some have undergone changes of course,
remodeling, restoration, renovation, but a good number of these original buildings are still
standing, looking much today as they did during the Grass Valley’s days of gold.