Karen Newell Young
Nevada City Advocate
They all started with the miners. Like the elusive gold nuggets in the Mother Lode, towns that began with fanciful names – Little York, Red Dog,
Hangtown, Gouge Eye – all sprang from the prospectors’ camps.
The rough and tumble times that made some people rich, also caused both personal and environmental devastation. Many came away from the minefields with nothing and the hills were washed away by hydraulic operations,
threatening farmers below. Others became wealthy and helped cultivate communities that still exist today.
Some, like You Bet, Rough and Ready, French Corral and Gouge Eye, are still populated regions, proud of their mining roots. Others disappeared like so much gold dust in the wind. Most towns did not survive once the metal disappeared. But during the prospecting days, mining camps were named after animals, Native Americans, business owners, barroom brawls, or the hometowns where miners hailed from. Others were named after the luck the prospectors hoped would follow them into the gold fields.
“People had a lot of fun with names in those days,” said Bernie Zimmerman, chair of the Nevada County Historic Landmark Commission. “After all, you could name a camp anything you wanted.”
Like many historians, Zimmerman was drawn to the colorful names given to former mining camps, many of which evolved into communities.
“Each town has a story,” he said. “I’m making my way through the towns and recording them before they get forgotten. People are curious about how some of these places got their names – especially, people not from around here.”
Zimmerman is researching and recording early towns and their history at Nevada County Historical Landmarks Commission. Most of the entries were originally posted by historian David Comstock and updated by Zimmerman.
Here are some of the stories about Nevada County’s quirkiest named towns or settlements.
Relief Hill is an unincorporated community in Nevada County located roughly midway between North Bloomfield and Washington. The post office established in 1894 was named Relief, and the name appears on some maps, especially those from around the turn of the 19th century.
However, the town’s inhabitants and most historians called it Relief Hill.
Prior to the Gold Rush, the area was a summer home for the Southern Maidu Indians. The present Relief Hill Road is believed to be the approximate location of a Maidu trail.
There are two conflicting stories about how Relief Hill got its name. One story is that it is located at the spot where in 1847 a rescue party met survivors of the Donner party who expressed their relief. Another story is that in 1853 four miners were prospecting in the area. They had no luck at mining and were about to give up when relief came in the form of gold.
By the 1960s, the town site was deserted. Not much but the cemetery remains.
You Bet was established by miners from across Birdseye Canyon in the nearby town of Waloupa. Lazarus Beard opened a saloon there in 1857. According to local lore, the Waloupa miners gathered one day in Beard’s saloon to name the new town. Whenever Beard was asked about a proposed name, he would reply “you bet.” After much drinking, the miners decided that You Bet sounded just right.
By 1864, the town had 40 to 50 buildings, including hotels, stores, shops and saloons. A schoolhouse was built that year between Red Dog, a mining town about a mile to the north, and You Bet.
Today, You Bet has about 50 residences and is located a few miles from the old mining town. It has a community church, but no businesses. It was declared a California Historical Landmark in 1975. All that remains of the Gold Rush era are the scarred diggings, some ditches and the historic cemetery, which contains gravestones dating back to the 1860s.
Gouge Eye, originally named Hunt’s Hill after the miner who discovered it in 1852, was two miles northwest of You Bet. It was located on one of the deepest parts of the rich Blue Lead channel of gold-bearing gravel. In 1855, one of the mining claims established by French miners was “jumped” and during the fight one of them lost an eye. After that the mine and sometimes the town were called Gouge Eye. By 1857, the town boasted two saloons, a blacksmith and stable, a butcher shop, a boot and shoe store, and several grocery stores. Today, it is a historic site.
Cherokee was a gold mining town in Nevada County that has also been known as Patterson, Melrose and Tyler. It is located on the San Juan Ridge about four miles east of North San Juan. The San Juan Ridge sits atop an ancient riverbed of gold-bearing gravel, which made it one of the richest California mining areas in the second half of the 19th century. Archaeologists have found signs of human habitation on the Ridge, including the area around Cherokee, dating back 5,000 years. At the time of the Gold Rush, the Ridge was home to the Nisenan and the Southern Maidu, who had lived in various locations along the Ridge for more than 1,000 years.
The Gold Rush came to Cherokee in 1850 when a group of Cherokee Indians began mining there and gave it its name. Mining in the area proved profitable, and the town grew quickly, especially after the Grizzly Ditch brought year-round water for mining. Cherokee was the most active mining center on the Ridge.
Today, all that remains of Cherokee are the schoolhouse, located on Sages Road just north of Tyler Foote Crossing Road, the historic cemetery and a lot of land scarred by hydraulic mining. However, just northwest of the old town site, Ananda Village, a spiritual community and retreat center, has thrived.
Three young men settled Red Dog Hill, a mine and campsite. It was named by the youngest, a 15-year-old prospector. As mining operations grew, the campsite became a settlement and then a town with a population of 2,000 before it was eventually abandoned. It was named either after a zinc mine in Illinois, or the canine that guarded the gold. Red Dog is listed on BLM land and on the National Register of Historic Places.
Rough and Ready
Lawlessness and hostility marked the early days of Rough and Ready, which was settled by a mining company from Wisconsin. Their leader named the company after Gen. Zachary Taylor. The future president was nicknamed “Old Rough and Ready.” Anger over the U.S. government’s “mining tax” led the town to secede from the nation in 1850 and was renamed “The Great Republic of Rough and Ready.” One of the world’s smallest nations voted to return to the union three months later – on July 4th. Zimmerman said that while many historians believe that the secession actually happened, he said the story is local lore. Fires devastated the town over the years, although a few original buildings remain, most notably the Old Grange Hall.
Information above was gleaned from various sites, including the Doris Foley Library and the Searls Historical Library. For more information, visit nevadacountylandmarks.com.
About the Photo: Previous page:
The Rough and Ready Grange was built in 1851 by the International Order of Odd Fellows. It was destroyed by fire in 1854 and rebuilt.
The Grange today is primarily used for community events.Rough and Ready Ramblers play every Sunday from 10 a.m. to noon at the Grange..