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.