The first settlement in Nevada County was established by John Rose, a shipbuilder from Yerba Buena (later renamed San Francisco), who, like almost all the European settlers who would flock to the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, came in quest of gold.
Rose established a settlement at Pleasant Valley near the current Bridgeport Crossing, which features the covered bridge that endures as an iconic symbol of a bygone era, still presenting its architectural and cultural echoes in contemporary western Nevada County.
Soon after, a man named Findlay from Oregon established a trading post at the mouth of Greenhorn Creek, and David Bovyer opened a similar store, containing provisions, in the current township of Rough and Ready.
Over the course of the next three to four decades, western Nevada County would foster the sudden growth of a myriad of settlements, most of which would vanish by the turn of the 20th century and leave the map of county jurisdiction dotted with ghost towns.
In 1860, the California census demonstrated that 10 years after the creation of the Golden State, Nevada County was the fourth most populous county, trailing San Francisco, Sacramento and El Dorado counties.
While Nevada City quickly emerged as the most prominent settlement in 1851, other townships, including North Bloomfield, French Corral, Meadow Lake, Rough and Ready and other small settlements began to crop up in areas where placer mining was rampant.
The town of North Bloomfield is perhaps the most famous ghost town in western Nevada County, as it has largely been preserved as part of the Malakoff Diggins State Historic Site. The town was originally called Humbug.
The colorful name is derived from a tale of an Irish prospector who grew inebriated at a local watering house while getting provisions in Nevada City and boasted of a large strike in the hills north of town.
Prospectors ravenous for gold secretively followed the Irishman back to North Bloomfield and spent the next few days prospecting up and down the creek.
Finding nothing, the crestfallen prospectors christened the creek Humbug, which subsequently lent its name to the town.
Cherokee is another ghost town steeped in local legend.
The name of the now defunct town earned its name from a group of Cherokee Indians who moved to the area at the advent of the Gold Rush.
In 1851, the Grizzly Ditch was brought to Cherokee, providing the impetus for a settlement, which at its height in 1852 boasted a population of more than 400.
The settlement also featured the Grizzly Hotel, a general store, a public hall built in 1861 and a large-frame, one-room schoolhouse.
French Corral, currently a semi-ghost town as it maintains a population of a few dozen residents and is officially recognized as a census-designated place, once flourished as a settlement of nearly 500 people.
Perched on the San Juan Ridge at an elevation of about 2,000 feet above sea level, the locale averts the swelter of summers that can scorch the valleys and is not prone to the copious snow loads that winter drops on the more highly elevated topographical regions of Nevada County.
The name derives from a corral built by a Frenchman working at the diggings at Frenchmans Bar on the Middle Yuba River.
The ravines of the areas were one of the first sites to be prospected in 1849, and a man named Galloway soon opened a store in a tent to capitalize on the population explosion.
In 1852, a ditch was brought in from Shady Creek. The following year, as was often the case in the Gold Rush towns, a large fire devastated much of the town, devouring 50 of the 70 houses in existence. Nevertheless, the town rebuilt itself and it wasn’t until the turn of the century that the jurisdiction entered a period of steady decline.
You Bet lends another colorful name to the rolling and picturesque geography of western Nevada County. The former mining camp was named by Lazarus Beard, who built a small saloon on the top of a hill in the area.
Most historians date the construction of the 12-by-12 building at 1857, when the Gold Rush was already well underway.
Beard, who was by all accounts not a shy man, had a host of slang expressions that he hauled with him from the hills of Kentucky, and apparently his favorite was “You Bet.”
When a couple of his associates jokingly suggested the name of the town be named after the barkeep’s favorite expression, the proposition was met with general favor and the name stuck.
The town grew to be one of the largest municipalities in Nevada County in the latter portion of the 1860s with a post office, three hotels, a grand dance hall, four general stores, five saloons, two variety shops, a butcher shop, a cobbler, two blacksmith shops and a tin shop.
All of the above were destroyed in a fire that originated in a Chinese wash house on April 24, 1869, and while the town was partially rebuilt, it never returned to the prominence it formerly held in the region.
Other settlements have since waned in influence to become no more than the ghosts of the habitations that harbored hard-luck miners, enterprising capitalists, wayward highwaymen, adventurers, blacksmiths, prostitutes, judges, doctors, engineers and merchants.
The ghost towns of Nevada County include Blue Tent, Bear Valley, Bridgeport, Alpha, Omega, Red Dog, Spenceville, Sweetland, White Cloud, Excelsior, Eureka, Jones Bar, La Barr Meadows and Lafayette Hill.
The legends of their ascent are all similarly tied to the discovery of gold and the subsequent rise of placer mining throughout the entire county.
The settlements’ collective decline is commonly tied to the disappearance of placer mining and the rise of hard-rock mining.
As the large nuggets of gold that could be located and sifted from the dirt of the hillsides became more scarce, those with a working knowledge of geology realized the future of the gold industry was in the ability to extract it from the gold-bearing quartz veins that ran through the highly mineralized surface near Grass Valley and in other outlying vicinities of the county.
Gone were the days of the independent individual arriving in the West with a pan, blueprints for a sluice box and the wild hope and determination necessary to woo Lady Luck and strike it rich.
They were replaced slowly but decidedly by rich capitalists, capable of purchasing the large and heavy equipment needed to produce deep and long tunnels underground and pump water from those workings.
These men were wealthy enough to hire a team of engineers to find dynamic solutions to the problems that persistently arose in an enterprise as fraught with danger and disaster as hard-rock mining.
These were men with the financial leverage to hire men to spend long days of labor underground, attempting to extract the amount of gold that would make them rich in exchange for a wage.
As hard-rock mining replaced placer mining as the dominant form in western Nevada County, the rich began to build their spacious houses in the hills of Nevada City while the working class built a community in Grass Valley.
Those who staked out the settlements in all the nooks of Nevada County began to come into either of those towns or stay and watch their once proud communities diminish into memories.
Matthew Renda is a former staff member and a freelance writer for The Union.
Nevada County ghosts of the Gold Rush