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
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.
Visit Washington's Historic Sites