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Nevada County History

Grass Valley is the largest town in the western region of Nevada County, California. Situated at roughly 2,500 feet elevation in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, this historic northern Gold Country city is 57 miles by car from the state capitol in Sacramento, 64 miles from Sacramento International Airport, 88 miles west of Reno, and 143 miles northeast of San Francisco. As of the 2010 United States Census, its population was 12,860.

Grass Valley, which was originally known as Boston Ravine and later officially named Centerville, dates from the California Gold Rush, as does nearby Nevada City. When a post office was established in 1851, it was renamed Grass Valley the following year for unknown reasons. The town incorporated in 1860.

Many of those who came to settle in Grass Valley were tin miners from Cornwall, England. They were attracted to the California gold fields because the same skills needed for deep tin mining were needed for hard rock (deep) gold mining. Many of them specialized in pumping the water out of very deep mining shafts. This followed the disastrous fall in tin prices as large alluvial deposits began to be exploited elsewhere.

Grass Valley still holds on to its Cornish heritage, with events such as its annual Cornish Christmas and St Piran's Day celebrations. Cornish pasties are a local favorite dish with a few restaurants in town specializing in recipes handed down from the original immigrant generation. Grass Valley is also twinned with Bodmin in Cornwall (UK).

It is said that Grass Valley was named by settlers whose cattle had wandered from their campsite on Greenhorn Creek to a “grassy valley” nearby where the grazing was better.

The “grassy valley” proved to be a convenient location for constructing buildings and Wolf Creek.

It is believed that millions of dollars of gold, depending on current value, still lies buried deep in the earth below the quaint town of Grass Valley. Prospectors from Oregon in search of gold and emigrants from the east looking for fertile homeland settled in Grass Valley between 1848 and 1849. As with all the mining camps and towns along what would become Highway 49, gold fever created an instantaneous population explosion. Though early miners sought their riches in the streams, it was only by accident that the true wealth of Grass Valley was discovered. Legend has it a miner in search of his missing cow stubbed his toe and dislodged a large rock which when he picked up gleamed with gold. Not too much later another man searching for stones to construct a chimney discovered a rich vein of gold quartz. The rest, as they say, is history.

By 1855, the town was prospering and growing when it suffered two significant setbacks. A fire that swept through the town destroyed 300 buildings. Rebuilt, the town faced a worse disaster, the ease of accessing the gold had become more and more difficult. Tenacity and improved techniques in hard rock mining allowed Grass Valley to once again prosper by the 1860s.

150 million dollars in gold was mined from the Empire Mine and the North Star Mine in their 100 years of service. Nevada County in total produced an unbelievable 440 million dollars in gold during that same time period.

George Starr, manager of the Empire Mine, and William Bowers Bourn II, the mine owner, donated mine property which became Memorial Park. Grass Valley was one of the fortunate cities whose economy based on its mining efforts was able to prosper even through the Great Depression. Both mines closed in 1956 and are now a park and museum open to the public.

Grass Valley today still proudly displays its early architecture and history as a living museum that coexists with a thriving, modern business center that has maintained its cultural identity and remained a strong family-oriented city.

North Star Mine


Our area is the heart of the historic California Gold Country. Grass Valley, Nevada City, and other communities have beautifully preserved the historic flavor from the Gold Rush days. Visit gold mines, homes of mining entrepreneurs, foundries, railroad museums, and other mining museums. We are home to a vibrant arts and theater community. Visit galleries and attend delightful theatrical performances.

Located in the beautiful Sierra Foothills, hiking, boating, horseback riding, and much more are at your doorstep. Local farmers, ranchers, and vineyards provide organic and locally grown fruits, vegetables, meats, wines, and more! Visit one of our many farmers’ markets for the delicious flavor of our community.


Grass Valley has a Mediterranean climate with warm to hot, dry summers and wet, cool, rainy winters. Summer is very dry, but thunderstorms may occur. Snow occurs at times.


The combined communities of Grass Valley and Nevada City have a fairly diversified economy. The gold rush days left a historical legacy and today, tourism and the related services sector constitute the bulk of the local economy. Many of those who do not commute to the Sacramento Valley, work locally in retail, wholesale, trade, engineering, manufacturing, construction, and other businesses, as well in various levels of local and state government. A significant number of high-tech electronics companies are in the area.

Downtown Nevada City

Nevada City

It was first settled in 1849, during the California Gold Rush, as Nevada (Spanish for "snow-covered", a reference to the snow-topped mountains in the area).

The Gold Tunnel on the north side of Deer Creek was the city's first mine. The first sawmill built in Nevada City was on Deer Creek, just above the town, in August 1850, and was built by Lewis & Son, with a water wheel. In 1850–51, it was the most important mining town in the state, Nevada County being the leading gold-mining county in the state. In 1851, The Nevada Journal became the first newspaper published in the town and county. The town of Nevada was incorporated on April 19, 1856. In 1864, the word “City” was added to the name to relieve confusion with the nearby state of Nevada, and the town has legally been known as “Nevada City” ever since. The former town of Coyoteville, California, later became Nevada City's northwestern section.


Live music, theater, and dance are performed nearly continually at Miners Foundry Cultural Center and the historic Nevada Theatre.

Miners Foundry in Nevada City

Many bars and restaurants feature live music. The California Arts Council selected 14 districts to serve as California's inaugural state-designated Cultural Districts. Nevada County was bestowed the great honor of being home to 2 of the 14 districts: Grass Valley-Nevada City and Truckee.

Museums and Galleries

The Nevada County Historical Society operates the Historic Firehouse No. 1 Museum downtown and the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum in the Seven Hills Business District area. There is a small museum at Miners Foundry Cultural Center. Many businesses also have displays of photos and historic artifacts dating back to the Gold Rush and pioneer eras. In addition, there are several art galleries and businesses that exhibit fine art.

Recurring Events

There are several annual major cultural events which include Victorian Christmas (street faire), Summer Nights (street faire), Mardi Gras, Fourth of July Parade, Teddy Bear Convention, and Psychic Faire.

The Constitution Day Parade is held on the second Sunday of September. It is one of the oldest and largest Constitution observances in the western United States. The event features youth, business, and nonprofit entries, the Ophir Prison Marching Kazoo Band, and since 1987, the Famous Marching Presidents (and their First Ladies).

The Wild & Scenic Film Festival, beginning in 2003, has showcased films on a full range of environmental issues as well as films emphasizing outdoor adventure and extreme sports. The event takes place in January and occupies multiple venues in downtown Nevada City. It has become one of the largest film festivals of its kind in the United States.

The Nevada City Film Festival started in 2001, has grown from a showcase for local filmmakers to an international film festival hosting notable filmmakers from around the country, including director Mike Mills (Thumbsucker, The Beginners), director Jonathan Krisel (Portlandia), actress and comedian Natasha Leggero (Last Comic Standing), and Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim of Tim & Eric's Awesome Show, Great Job! The annual festival is held over the course of four days in August. The Nevada City Film Festival has been called "The Sundance of the Foothills."

The Nevada City Storytelling Festival, located at the North Columbia Schoolhouse Cultural Center in nearby North Columbia, has attracted major national and regional storytellers since 1985. The event takes place each July in a pine-shaded amphitheater built specifically for storytelling.

Summer Nights, an outdoor street festival of art and music, is held several Wednesday evenings in July. During Summer Nights, Nevada City's landmark historic district is closed to motorized traffic and filled with arts, crafts, classic cars, food, drink, and music.

Victorian Christmas, an annual family tradition, takes place two Wednesday evenings and three Sunday afternoons in December and features holiday activities for all ages: carriage rides, arts & crafts, live entertainment, and savory yuletide treats and libations. Similar to Summer Nights in July, the streets of downtown Nevada City are closed to motorized traffic.


Tourists visit Nevada City for outdoor recreation, history, fine arts and entertainment, and special events. Nevada City attracts vacationers in all four seasons and is a popular weekend getaway for visitors in Northern California and Nevada. Nevada City serves as a base for recreation in the nearby Tahoe National Forest, South Yuba River, and the High Sierras. Nevada City is just 45 minutes from Donner Summit area skiing and 60–90 minutes from Lake Tahoe ski areas. Nevada City's popular tourist attractions include:

South Yuba River State Park — Four-season hiking and gold panning, spring whitewater boating, and summer/fall swimming on the federally designated Wild and Scenic South Yuba River.

Historic Downtown Area — Much of the city's downtown area (bisected by Broad Street) is in the National Register of Historic Places. Most of the buildings date from the 19th century.

The Nevada City Classic — Since 1960, the downtown has been the site for a challenging professional cycling race. Races for juniors, men, and women usually take place on Father's Day Weekend. The race attracts thousands of visitors. In June 2009, Lance Armstrong was the winner.

Nevada City Winery was the first bonded winery to open in Nevada County following Prohibition in the United States.

Empire Mine State Park

George Roberts, a lumberman, discovered the Empire Mine originally in 1850. While surveying timber in the area, the lumberman happened to glance down at his boots, which were covered with tiny gold flakes. Believing the land held little gold and was too hard to mine, George sold the land and rights for only $350. Within 13 years of this sale, over a million dollars in gold was brought to the surface. Eventually the mine produced over 5.6 million ounces of gold before its closure in 1956.

Today the Empire Mine still hoards its treasure as geologists figure that only 20% of the gold has been removed from the mine. The Mine boasts an unbelievable 367 miles of now abandoned and flooded shafts and extends 11,000 feet on the incline a mile below the surface. The task of keeping track of so many tunnels was handled in what was called the “Secret Room” where a scale model was created and updated. Today, the model can be viewed in the park’s museum.

The men attributed to the success of the Empire Mine were William Bourn Jr. and his mine superintendent, George Starr. Starr is credited with most of the technological innovations that helped make the Empire Mine so successful.

In addition to the museum, visitors can walk up the path to the Bourn Mansion. Built entirely of waste rock from the mine, the home is a beautiful example of the late 1890's architecture. Designed to resemble an English country lodge, the home was built by Willis Polk. Surrounding the home are 13 acres of gardens and manicured lawns, rose gardens, and reflecting pools.

At Thanksgiving and Christmas, the grounds are decorated for the festive season. It is recommended to call ahead for the guided tours, and audio-visual presentations are offered throughout the day at various times by park rangers and local docents.

The park, purchased by the state of California for over $1 million in 1975, boasts 22 miles of hiking trails that surround the 805 acres.

Mine Skips at Empire Mine

Nevada County History

Take a peek into the past and find gold. From the rugged mountain peaks of Truckee where the ill-fated Donner Party wintered to the lucrative deep quartz mines below Grass Valley and beyond, Nevada County offers fascinating historic reminders at every turn. Nevada County’s many historic buildings, museums, state parks, and sites offer an intriguing look into the region’s fascinating history. In addition to paying homage to the robust Gold Rush era, these historic destinations also offer vibrant insight into hearty emigrants, Native Americans, and Chinese populations who filled the county’s history books.

The California Gold Rush: Eureka! The Discovery of gold in 1848 carried California’s name around the globe. Men came from the East, from England, Germany, Chile, China, and all around the world.

Grass Valley and Nevada City offer a range of gold mining history unequaled elsewhere in the Gold Country. All of the different mining techniques are explained, and there are numerous exhibits of mining gear and memorabilia.

Image Courtesy of Wiki Commons

And if you’d like to try your hand at recreational gold panning, you can still find color in Nevada County rivers.

Nevada County is home to several state parks that offer history and recreation opportunities at one scenic location. Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, twenty-six miles from Nevada City, is the site of California’s largest hydraulic mine and features a visitor center with exhibits on life in the old mining town of North Bloomfield. Grass Valley’s Empire Mine State Historic Park is the site of one of the oldest, largest, and richest gold mines in California. Today the park features historic mine buildings, as well as guided tours and living history presentations. Donner Memorial State Park is home to the Emigrant Trail Museum, as well as a wonderful self-paced interpretive walking trail. Also in Grass Valley, the North Star Mine Powerhouse and Pelton Wheel Museum focus on mining history, while in Nevada City, the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum focuses on railroad history.

Nevada City is home to the circa 1861 Historic Firehouse No. 1 Museum, which features horse-drawn fire wagons, handcarts, and “modern” motorized engines through 1938, as well as Native American, Chinese, and Donner Party relics. Historical researchers will enjoy spending time at Nevada City’s circa 1872 Searls Historical Library with its treasure trove of historical photos, maps, and books.

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