Steve Cottrell: Helping those in need — a Nevada County tradition |

Steve Cottrell: Helping those in need — a Nevada County tradition

By Steve Cottrell | Special to The Union

Nevada County has a long history of helping others during difficult times — locally, regionally, statewide, nationally, and even internationally. It is a legacy to be proud of.

When the Sacramento River and tributaries flooded in the winter of 1861-62, a concert in Nevada City raised more than $300 for valley victims. Grass Valley raised money as well, and nearly $500 was sent to those in need.

In 1871, when Chicago suffered its historic Great Fire, Nevada County men and women stepped forward with generous cash, clothing and food donations. And when a 1906 earthquake and fire leveled much of downtown San Francisco, an organized canvas of Nevada City and Grass Valley resulted in more than $5,000 being raised. Then, following World War I, a local fundraising effort generated more than $1,200 for starving children in Europe.

Naturally, raising funds for those in need has sometimes turned into a friendly competition to see which community could collect the most money — the kind of rivalry displayed in September 1900, when Nevada County responded to pleas for help from Galveston, Texas, after a hurricane had destroyed more than 3,600 buildings and killed more than 8,000 people as a huge storm surge swept across the island. When the storm cleared, Galveston, a community of 38,000, had approximately 10,000 homeless residents and was in desperate need of emergency relief.

When a deadly hurricane struck Galveston, Texas, in September 1900, residents here answered that community’s plea for help, sending money and clothing to aid survivors.
Courtesy Library of Congress

In fact, the Galveston hurricane of Sept. 8, 1900, was — and remains — the deadliest natural disaster in our nation’s history.

Local fundraising began the next day, when $25 was sent from the Nevada County Red Cross Society to Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C. Then, on Sept. 14, Grass Valley Mayor Charles Clinch called for an emergency meeting, saying he wanted the heads of all fraternal organizations, social clubs and other community groups to gather and discuss how best to help Galveston. And to emphasize the meeting’s importance, Clinch urged, “Postpone other engagements and lend us your assistance.”

Charles Edward Clinch (1858-1936 ) was mayor of Grass Valley in September 1900.
Courtesy Searls Historical Library

Following the mass meeting, Clinch was authorized to wire $500 to Texas, promising it would not be the last donation from Grass Valley. With the first $500 sent, The Morning Union correctly predicted, “a snug little sum will be raised in this city for the Galveston sufferers.”


Meanwhile, in Nevada City, Mayor Bayliss Rector chaired a community meeting at the Nevada Theatre, and $250 was immediately wired to hurricane relief headquarters in Austin, Texas, and reported to the California State Relief Committee in Sacramento. Rector said his community would raise at least $300, and a week later donations exceeded $600.

On Sept. 20, Rector received a Western Union telegram from Texas Governor Jospeh Sayers: “Wells, Fargo & Co. paid me $250 yesterday as a contribution from Nevada City. Many thanks for the generous action.” Clinch received a similar telegram for his community’s initial $500 donation.

Bayliss Strother Rector (1847-1915 ) was mayor of Nevada City in September 1900.
Courtesy Searls Historical Library

With Clinch leading the Grass Valley effort, cash contributions soon exceeded $1,300. In addition to money, several bundles of clothing were collected in both communities for shipment on the narrow gauge railroad to Colfax, then transferred to the Southern Pacific and routed to Austin for distribution. To help the humanitarian effort, all money was transmitted by Western Union at no charge, and the railroad companies and Wells Fargo waived all shipping costs.

In Nevada City, the relief fund capped at $611.55, prompting The Morning Union to remind readers that when Rector organized the effort, “He thought $300 would be an appropriate sum for this city to contribute. The people thought otherwise, however, and twice that amount has been raised.”

By the time both cities ended their fundraising campaigns, more than $2,000 in cash had been collected and wired to Texas, ($62,000 in current buying power), along with several boxes of clothing and other goods.

In December 1900, when the state relief committee in Sacramento tallied contributions from all California cities, Rector proudly boasted that Nevada City’s 3,250 citizens had contributed more money per capita than any other city in the state. Clinch made the same claim for Grass Valley’s 4,700 residents. (I’ll let you do the math).

The final state relief committee report showed that cash donations of $39,856.97 had been reported to them, meaning Nevada City and Grass Valley’s 8,000 or so residents were responsible for fully 5% of all money donated by California’s 1.485 million citizens — something worth bragging about, no matter which community raised the most money per capita.

(Note: If you are interested in reading about the 1900 Galveston hurricane, I highly recommend “Isaac’s Storm” by Erik Larson — a fascinating book you will not want to put down).

Historian Steve Cottrell, a former Nevada City Council member and mayor, can be contacted at

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