Queen City of the San Juan Ridge
Special to The Union
THE SAN JUAN RIDGE is that stretch of the Sierra Nevada that lies between and separates the South Yuba from the Middle Yuba Rivers. “The Ridge,” as it is known locally, was named for the town and is actually a pre-historic river bottom extending some forty miles from French Corral at 1,700 feet elevation on Nevada County’s western boundary to Graniteville at nearly 5,000 feet on the north.
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Here along the Ridge are the gold laden gravel deposits of an ancient channel left high and dry by volcanic eruption. In addition to gold these deposits contain countless varieties of fossilized wood.
At latitude 39.369 and longitude 121.104, elevation 2,113 feet, bearing the postal zip code of 95960, we find the community of North San Juan known since the late 19th century as the “Queen City of the San Juan Ridge.” The place is also called the “Garden Spot of the Ridge,” and is bisected by State Sign Route 49, the “Golden Chain Highway” of the Mother Lode.
North San Juan was settled in the spring of 1853, by Jeremiah Tucker and Christian Kientz. The men had located and filed claim on what they named “Gold Cut Mine,” which lay near the present town.
A Spanish name in the Northern Mines? Legend states that Kientz was a soldier in the Mexican Expedition of 1847, under General Winfield Scott which landed at Vera Cruz. Kientz fancied the hill he was mining resembled the castle of San Juan d’Ulloa which guards the entrance to Vera Cruz harbor.
The town grew and in 1857, the residents applied for a post office. The name San Juan was already in use in California at the mission settlement of San Juan Bautista in San Benito county. A public meeting was held to discuss the many alternate names suggested by the residents. After lengthy discussion, it was decided to simply add the prefix “North,” to their San Juan and so it has remained down through the years.
During the booming hydraulic gold mining days of the 1850s, 60s and 70s, the town was the social and commercial center of the bustling San Juan Ridge. It was then that the town acquired its regal designation and other refinements befitting royalty.
In 1857, North San Juan indeed came of age when one of the most important trappings of culture and refinement, a locally published newspaper appeared. On November 18, 1857, the North San Juan Star began weekly publication which lasted only until August of that year when the paper was sold and the name changed to Hydraulic Press whose new owners promised editorially that:
“We shall endeavor to deserve success, by industrious devotion to the moral and material interests of not only our town, but of the whole contiguous county, generally designated the Ridge.”
From 1860, until forced to suspend operations the town was headquarters for many hydraulic mining and ditch water companies which supplied the mines along the Ridge. The town was served by five different stagecoach and express lines and boasted all other refinements befitting the Queen of the Ridge.
Through the town in 1878, passed he world’s first long distance telephone line which stretched some 60 miles from French Corral to Milton in nearby Sierra county. The progressive hydraulic mining companies were quick to recognize the value of almost instant communication. Some of the mines were nearly 75 miles from the high mountain reservoirs and near the end of summer when water was at a very low level, rapid communication was vital to insure conservation and a steady flow to the mines some 3,000 or more feet lower down the mountain from the source.
The largest and most profitable hydraulic gold mining operations were conducted along the Ridge. The gold, however was unevenly distributed throughout the channel with the richest gravels being at the lowest level. Entire mountains were washed away in order to gain the gold lying beneath.
Geologists a one time estimated that more than $400 million in gold remains locked in the gravels of the San Juan Ridge and may never be recovered under existing debris laws. That value estimate is low considering it was made when gold was artificially pegged at $35 per ounce.
The largest and most spectacular hydraulic pit on the Ridge is the Malakoff which is today along with the entire town of North Bloomfield part of the 2,700-acre Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park.
BOB WYCKOFF is a retired Nevada County newspaper editor/publisher and author of local history. His latest work is published by and available at The Union newspaper office, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley.
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