A county of 959 square miles, Sierra County ranges in elevation from 2,200 to 8,900 feet. With a current population of just over 3,300 it is California's second least populated county. The county seat of Sierra County, Downieville, lies in a forested canyon in the middle of the Tahoe National Forest at an altitude of about 2,900 feet. The small town of five or six blocks, located at the confluence of the Downie River and thee north fork of the Yuba River, invites visitors to step back in time to the days of the Gold Rush. The beautiful 100,000 acre Sierra Valley is located in portions of Sierra and Plumas counties. It is the largest alpine valley in North America.
The Maidu and Washoe Indians were the first residents of this area.The Maidu occupied most of the land along the Feather River, while the Washoe resided in Sierra Valley and Long Valley. Little is known of the exact numbers of these populations in Sierra County, and whether they stayed in the area year round or, more likely, just seasonally – during summers they came into the mountains to hunt and fish, and during the fall and winter, they returned to the foothills and valleys below. Artifacts such as spear points, arrow heads, beads, mortars, pestles and grinding rocks have been found, particularly along Henness Pass Road. Seed grinding holes in local granite and basalt boulders can be seen along the Feather River and in the nearby hills.
The discovery of gold signaled the end and a new beginning. With the prime habitable areas quickly becoming occupied by towns, mines, claims, farms and ranches, these peoples suffered a major population crash due to habitat loss and disease. For example, the Sierra Nevada population of Maidu declined from an estimated 9,000 in 1770 to just 93 (1930 census). Today they number over 3,500.
The Gold Rush
The discovery of gold in January 1848 at Sutter's Mill on the American River at Culluma (later changed to Coloma) drew those in search of the precious yellow metal. Coloma is northeast of Sacramento, and only about 85 miles from Downieville. Prospectors flocked to the Sierra County area (then part of Yuba County) – initially to its rivers to do panning and later quartz mining of the gold veins in the mountains. Major towns were located in the river valleys surrounded by mining camps and towns located in the surrounding mountains. Two good examples were Downieville and La Porte (La Porte later becoming part of Plumas County). By the early 1860s, hydaulic mining of the placer was at its height with the normal solitude of the mountains being replaced by the continuous roar of the water coming out of the pipes.
Downieville began as a mining town with a few log cabins. Gold was discovered in the North Fork of the Yuba River in November 1849. In January of 1850, a Scottish immigrant, Major William Downie, camped his small party here calling it "The Forks." Downie's party found the gravel beds rich with placer gold and within a year the area had boomed to a population of 5,000. The town prospered and soon boasted a flourishing tent city with saloons and stores. The town site was laid out and named Downieville, in honor of its founder. By the mid-1850's, Downieville was one of the largest towns in California -- surpassed only by San Francisco, Sacramento, Grass Valley, and Nevada City. It served as a trading center for the Northern mines. It missed becoming the state capital by only ten votes! The population soared to 16,000 between 1848 and 1860.
Sierra County was created on April 16, 1852 from Yuba County, making Downieville the county seat. Prior to that justice was largely handled by miner's courts since Marysville was too far away and frequenly inaccessible during the winter.
Sierra County was the northernmost county in the Mother Lode. One of the world's largest nuggets, the "Monumental Nugget," was found in 1869 at Sierra City, just north of Downieville. Gold production in Sierra County from lode mining operations totals nearly 3 million ounces, and placer gold production has been recorded at more than 2 million ounces.
The Post Gold Rush Era
Gold mining elsewhere in California begain its decline about 1860 when silver was discovered in Nevada. But in Sierra County gold mining continued to grow until the end of that decade. It then began a slow decline as sufficient deposits of placer become increasingly difficult to find and less profitable. Towns became depopulated and even abandoned. Some, such as most of St. Louis, were washed way by hydraulic mining for the gold located benigh their foundations. Hydraulic mining was banned in 1884, but allowed to recommence on a much smaller scale after 1893. The gold mining industry quickly switched to lode mines and dredges During the Great Depression (1930s), gold mining and production surged. All that was curtailed during World War II and has not since recovered.
The decline of Sierra County's economy and population continued with it becoming the second smallest populated county in California. Sierra County gradually transformed into a diversified rural economy with an increasing amount of tourism.
Today, the county's industries include cattle, dairy, agriculture, tourism, recreation plus some logging and a bit of gold mining. Sierra County is littered with history in the form of old buildings, ghost towns, remains of mines and the scars of past hydraulic mining operations. Its county seat, Downieville, is home to the Mountain Messenger, California's oldest weekly newspaper, published continuously since 1853.