Water has always been tied to wealth, particularly in the Sierra Nevada mining towns. Where to mine, the length of the season, even the exposure of riches was made possible by the graces of Mother Nature.
We tend to view the early miners huddled in their tent shelters waiting for the winter rains to stop, when it was actually the heavy rains that they relied on in the early years that would make a good season.
The heavy rains rushed down the rivers and streams, dislodging rich deposits that lay hidden beneath, loosening and washing rocks and soil downstream.
The tributaries of Deer Creek were among the richest in the county when miners flocked to every river, stream and creek in the county searching for gold.
It was said that in 1849, gold could easily be dug out with a small pocket knife and a pound of gold could easily be scrapped out in a day, even by an inept miner.
In 1903, a group of local boys ranging in ages from 6 to 16 were busily engaged in digging for gold in the city park.
Apparently one of the youngest discovered the treasure while playing in the creek, and at first he tried to keep it a secret, but was soon discovered as he spent his riches on candy and gum.
His playmates soon put a tail on him and once his secret was discovered, nearly every youngster in town joined him in the creek.
The boys made do with anything useful at hand to dig and pry, and their implements included coal shuttles, buckets, dishpans and pie plates, including a few authentic gold pans.
Apparently their luck was brought about by the heavy April showers of several days past, which had washed the surface ground away, exposing the shiny grains of gold that were seen by the first youngster.
Some were more successful than others finding gold worth from one dollar on down, but that would buy a good quantity of candy in those days.
It was found that the gold from which the riches came had been dumped in the city park and came from a lot in town where the Legg & Shaw building was standing (on Broad Street).
The old-timers of the day said they could remember when a person could pick up several dollars in gold on the streets after a heavy storm, the nuggets being washed out by the rain.
Deer Creek looked very different from the small creek we see running through Nevada City today. Its very existence in the early days contributed to the settlement of the nearby town which would be named Nevada and later changed to Nevada City.
When the easy gold was taken from the creeks and stream beds the first year, the miners looked to the hills.
Gold was found but their big obstacle was getting the dirt and rocks down to a water source in order to wash it.
That problem was soon resolved as water was brought from the natural streams and creeks by way of “ditches.” Once a water source was located, men would then construct the ditch from its source across hills and trails to the desired conclusion, be it a mine or a town.
Even with the richness of the soil and minerals beneath the surface, growth here would have been impossible without water brought in during the dry summer season for agriculture use and the mining industry.
By 1880 there were more than 2,000 miles of ditches, canals and flumes laid across Nevada County.
Miles of ditches and flumes supplied water to the hard rock mines in Grass Valley, as well as to the hydraulic mines on the San Juan Ridge, until the 1884 Sawyer Decision curtailed hydraulic mining in California.
Diverting water changed the landscape over decades, and the town of Nevada City and Deer Creek might not be recognizable to a forty-niner as the same place he once knew.
Being able to look down into Deer Creek, still snaking through the landscape after more than 150 years, is evidence that we, too, are part of a rich history.
Maria Brower is a member of the Nevada County Historical Society and works at the Doris Foley Library for Historical Research. The Nevada County Historical Society meets on the last Thursday of the month at the Transportation Museum at 7:30 p.m. The general public is invited to attend. The Speaker for the Feb. 27 meeting will be Vince Seck, who will give a presentation and slides on Lake Olympia Park where the Brunswick Shopping Center now stands.
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