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‘America, only more so’ – Nevada County’s struggles and successes defined California

he Union celebrates its 140th anniversary today. It is a story much more far-reaching than simply newsprint, ink, and the passage of time. The Union’s history also encompasses our regional history and reflects the rapid development of the United States.

One hundred and forty years. It seems like a long time ago, but, actually, it is the blink of an eye in historical terms. While the events occurred in relatively recent times, they are still distant enough that it requires a significant journey to reach the destination. The incidents are on a distant horizon, but seemingly within touch. Nevada County was a hub of much of this activity.

Born in the midst of the Civil War, The Union has witnessed the remarkable story of the county’s growth. But much had occurred long before the newspaper’s founding in 1864. And a significant portion had happened just prior to The Union’s debut.

Native cultures flourished for eons in this beautiful land – a panorama of fragrant wildflowers, fire-cloaked leaves, and the diamond mesh of light on breeze-ruffled waters. Just a handful of years before the newspaper’s genesis, the California Gold Rush brought swarms of eager gold seekers to these promising hills and valleys. And in their knapsacks were picks, shovels, gold pans – and dreams.

In 1841, the British philosopher Thomas Carlyle observed, “It is the spiritual always which determines the material.” And so it was with our region. It was out of the spiritual motivations of character, heart, poetic sentiment, patience, adaptation, independence, resolve, feverish prospects of instant wealth, and good humor that a society was carved out of these rude canyons. Cutting across all ages, races, and economic strata, the spirit of the era defined the dream.

In the middle of the 19th century, many people around the world would have given everything they owned to travel to where you are now, to experience an uncertain future in an unknown environment. Such is the power of hope; such is the magic of Nevada County, a landscape of possibility. And The Union chronicled the vision.

The newspaper has served as the front line of history. The stories that have filled its pages have examined day-to-day occurrences, and bit by bit have provided a foundation to explore the historical growth of our economy, politics, and social structure. This fascinating mosaic mirrors the promise and examines the brutal reality.

Nevada County is integral in providing insight into our development as Westerners. An understanding of our American Western heritage also is a key to comprehension of our place in the world. But it can be confusing, as the story is often a study in contrasts.

Our history is a mixture of myth and actuality, gentility and crudeness, high aspirations and our most base instincts, of golden imaginings and last chances. Our history is the record of visionaries and dilettantes, kindness and discrimination, law and the lawless, the noble and the profane. Our history is sometimes uncomfortable and troubling – fire, disease, environmental destruction, unruly boomtowns, labor unrest, shameless exploitation, and cultural intolerance. But there is also the fortitude to overcome obstacles with grace and dignity that can provide a counterbalance.

In short, it is our human story, good and bad, flawed and imperfect, warts and all. And The Union is the daily diary.

The connection of Nevada County to American Western history is palpable. As the historian Kevin Starr has stated, “(Early) California blended frontier and civilization, laying foundations for a regional culture that from its inception combined qualities of the East, the South and the Far West.”

And often Nevada County led the way. Our varied economic pursuits have always been important. And our cultural and political legacy is strong. An issue of The Overland Monthly from 1883 described California as “America, only more so,” and Nevada County provided much of that early identity.

Much of our history revolves around the yellow flake – gold. Initially, placer mining was common, but soon hardrock, underground mining became dominant. Imbedded deep within the quartz matrix, the struggle to wrest this elusive glittering quarry from its resting place has been an ongoing theme in the region’s development. But the development was more than just economic, it was also social. And personal.

My father, a Cornish gold miner who worked at the Empire, North Star, and Idaho-Maryland mines, once told me the story of an old hardrock gold miner who made a last request. “When I die,” this miner said, “Bury me in a tree, because I’ve spent too much time underground already.”

In many respects, the history of the society that developed in this area has spent too much time hidden underground, as well. The mineral production of the county is breathtaking and widely reported. But the stories of families seeking a new start and a better life are just as memorable and symbolic of the county’s appeal.

Stories like that of the Royce family, who had traveled to California in the heady days of 1849. They arrived after a six-month journey by prairie schooner across the seemingly endless road to the land of golden dreams. Upon their arrival in Grass Valley in 1854, the Royces had already visited many gold camps and the town was their ninth stop in five years. It would become their home.

Stories like those of the Gold Rush Chinese who came seeking what they called “Gold Mountain.” By the 1860s, the Chinese constituted nearly 20 percent of Nevada City’s population.

Stories like that of my mother’s family, refugees from 1930s Oklahoma, who came to Grass Valley seeking a brighter future.

Stories like those of the thousands of new residents who have sought greener pastures in Nevada County in recent generations. These are treasured tales as precious as gold nuggets. It is an important aspect of the Nevada County legacy.

The countless immigrants from around the nation and the world who came to Nevada County brought with them diverse cultures that have animated our region and brightly decorated our communities. They were drawn by crucial impulses – optimism and determination. And they supplied ingredients that flavored our villages. Some received a benefit in return. They found themselves, and a society they could embrace.

Our celebrations of the past, such as Cornish Christmas, are appropriate and well deserved. But our past is a brief one. The Grass Valley native and influential 19th century philosopher Josiah Royce once said that, in the West, young people often were raised in communities that were not as old as their older brothers.

We are a young country with many “children” – different regions with different characteristics. The American West is the youngest of these children. And just like children everywhere, we are full to the brim with a rambunctious attitude and occasionally questionable actions. The history of the American West is the product of many factors, and Nevada County provides a prime example of our sometimes rough-and-tumble upbringing.

“Gold from Nevada County” has several meanings – both our mineral capacity and what we represent in the growth of the West. Our activities, our aspirations, reflect the goals of much of America life: a better life for ourselves and our families, taking a chance, following our dreams. These are golden attributes, the stuff that gives meaning to Nevada County history.

As J.S. Holliday, leading historian of the California Gold Rush, succinctly states, “California’s most valuable commodity has not been gold or agricultural produce, barrels of oil, Hollywood movies, or computer chips. More than these emblems of wealth and success, (our history) has bequeathed the idea of California as a place where the impossible is possible.” Nevada County was a trailblazer for this notion.

In technology, Nevada County has been an innovator. Improvements in mining equipment became industry standards. In the 1860s, Andrew Hallidie’s experiences with wire cable in building Nevada City’s Pine Street Bridge influenced his design of the San Francisco Cable Car system. In the early 20th century, Lyman Gilmore established the first commercial airport in the west, maybe in the United States. And, in recent times, the Grass Valley Group pioneered state-of-the art video control equipment.

Appreciation of culture has always characterized Nevada County. This area has been sophisticated from the beginning, and The Union has reported on a remarkable array of artists. Within weeks of their founding, Grass Valley and Nevada City began hosting the leading cultural icons of the day and would continue to do so ever since.

In the 19th century, Mark Twain and Horace Greeley lectured, famous tenor Richard Jose sang, actor Edwin Booth emoted, and operatic soprano Kate Hayes enchanted. Residents were fascinated with the infamous Lola Montez, briefly a citizen of Grass Valley. Influential humorist and early Grass Valley city father Alonzo Delano amused, and home-grown entertainers Emma Nevada and Lotta Crabtree dazzled.

This heritage continues today, with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder and dozens of talented singers, painters, musicians, actors, and writers dotting our fabled hills. Nevada County has always been a Mecca for the imaginative.

Politically, Nevada County has helped define the nation. President Herbert Hoover lived in our area and worked in the mines. Three United States senators have been locals. Each changed the direction of American life. Senator Aaron A. Sargent wrote the words that became the 19th Amendment, providing voting rights for women; Senator William Morris Stewart authored the 15th amendment defining voting rights; and Senator George Hearst helped outline mining laws and founded the influential Hearst newspaper empire. Nevada County lent its name to the new state of Nevada, founded in 1864, the same year The Union commenced operations. And Nevada County gold helped finance the Civil War. And the Union has documented these momentous events.

On Oct. 28, 1864, the Grass Valley Daily Union sprang to life, under the auspices of publishers Blumenthal and Townsend. Most likely, the proprietors expected their little newspaper to ultimately disappear as did the many other publications of the era. Thankfully, it did not. And for 140 years, The Union has offered an invaluable time capsule of our experiences and ambitions.

In 1880, Thompson and West’s History of Nevada County recorded that The Union is “devoted to the mining interests of Grass Valley and Nevada county, and is edited with vigor and ability.”

Vigor and ability.

Two words that describe the spirit of Nevada County. Both then and now.


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