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Wyckoff: North San Juan, queen of ‘The Ridge’

Bob Wyckoff

During the booming hydraulic gold mining days of the 1860s and ’70s, North San Juan was the social and commercial center of the bustling San Juan Ridge.

The town was settled in the spring of 1853 by Jeremiah Tucker and Christian Kientz, who located and claimed the Gold Cut mine near the present town site.

Why a Spanish name in the northern mines? Legend states that Kientz was a soldier in the Mexican expedition of Gen. Winfield Scott, which landed at Vera Cruz in 1846. Kientz fancied the hill he was mining resembled the castle of San Juan d’Ullo, which guards the entrance to Vera Cruz harbor.

The town of San Juan grew, and in 1857, the residents applied for a post office. The name San Juan was already in use at the mission settlement of San Juan, to the south in San Benito County.

A public meeting was held to discuss the many alternate names suggested. It was finally decided to simply add the prefix “North” to their San Juan.

From 1860 until it was forced to suspend operations, the town was headquarters for many hydraulic mining and ditch water delivery companies. The town was served by five stagecoach and express lines, and boasted all the refinements befitting her title, “Queen of the Ridge.”

Through the town of some 3,000 residents passed long freight wagon trains as they snaked their way over the toll roads of Henness Pass from the riverboat docks at Marysville, carrying supplies to the bonanza silver mines of the Comstock Lode at Virginia City, Nev.

In 1878, the world’s first long-distance telephone line passed through North San Juan, stretching 60 miles from nearby French Corral to Milton in Sierra County.

The progressive hydraulic miner was quick to see the value of the telephone. Some of the mines were nearly 75 miles from the high-mountain reservoirs, and near the end of summer when water was scarce, rapid communication was vital to insure a steady flow.

San Juan Ridge, or “The Ridge,” as it is known locally, was named for the town and is actually a prehistoric river bottom extending some 40 miles from French Corral at 1,700 feet elevation on Nevada County’s western border to Graniteville at nearly 5,000 on the north.

Here, along this ridge separating the South and Middle Yuba rivers, are the gold-laden gravel deposits of an ancient channel left high and dry by volcanic activity.

In addition to gold, these deposits contain fossilized wood and nearly every kind of rock known to the Sierra Nevada region.

The largest and most profitable hydraulic gold mining operations in California were conducted along San Juan Ridge. The gold, however, was unevenly distributed throughout the channel, with the richest gravels being at the lowest levels.

Entire mountains were washed away in order to gain the gold lying beneath.

Geologists estimate that more than $400 million in gold remains in the gravel of the Ridge and may never be recovered under existing debris laws.

The cost to recover the precious metal is greater than the value of the gold mined.

The largest and most spectacular hydraulic pit on the Ridge is the Malakoff, which is part of the 2,700-acre Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park at North Bloomfield, 14 miles east of North San Juan.

Today, North San Juan is bisected by state Highway 49, the Mother Lode highway, and has a post office and a small commercial center.

The Ridge is also home to many former urban dwellers seeking the solitude and clean air offered here in great abundance by Mother Nature. Painters, sculptors, writers, poets and many other talented persons have settled on the hills and valleys of the Ridge.

Bob Wyckoff, was a former newspaper editor, author of local history, a lifetime student of California history and a longtime resident of Nevada County. Visit TheUnion.com for more of his stories and photography on western Nevada County history.

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