Gold was not discovered here until January of 1853 when a German miner by the name of
Christian Kientz found color in the hill north of town. Kientz named the hill San Juan, due to
its resemblance to one he had seen while serving in the Mexican War under General Winfield Scott,
atop which stood an old prison named San Juan de Ulloa.
The rich placers in the area were responsible for the initial growth of San Juan, but these
deposits were nothing compared to those of the ancient river channel which ran through the ridge.
When the middle Yuba Canal was completed in the spring of 1854, it provided a more reliable
source of water to the district and enabled hydraulic mining operations to commence working on a
The hydraulic operations employed a lot of men, resulting in the town’s quick growth, and it
soon became one of the major mining centers along the San Juan Ridge. The post office was
established on May 21 of 1857, at which time the “North” was added to the town’s name to
distinguish it from San Juan in Monterey County.
On August 5 of 1859, a three hundred-mile long flume was completed to North San Juan from the
lakes around present Bowman Lake. This incredible feat marked the beginning of a decade of great
prosperity for the town and its several thousand inhabitants. As water was the vital element in
hydraulic mining, the town soon became the headquarters for numerous water companies that
supplied the mines, some of whom’s water crossed Main Street in elevated flumes.
Three major fires swept through North San Juan during its mining days, each one wiping out
most of the town. The resilient townsfolk refused to give in to the flames and always rebuilt, as
long as the gravels continued to pay. At one time many houses were scattered about the hill above
town, but when it was discovered they stood atop rich gravels, the mining companies wasted no
time in buying them up and washing them away.
North San Juan’s decline from boomtown to quietown began with the end of hydraulic mining in
1884. Without the jobs provided by the mines, the town couldn’t support its large population.
Miners and their families were forced to leave, to find employment wherever they could. As the
population dwindled, buildings were abandoned and left to fall into disrepair. Fortunately, many
of the town’s early structures were built of brick and equipped with the mandatory iron doors and
shutters, and a few still remain in good repair today.