Downieville California

It appears that the gloriously mild weather I’ve had so far is gone, at least for a while.  It’s 97 degrees outside  (and we are at 3000 ft).  The river helps to keep things somewhat cool:

Downie River from Liz and Mark’s porch

And this is what you have to hear: the video to give you the sound!

River Rushing by

Not too hot for Calli and Reddie, obviously

Calli and Reddie at tug of war

Liz and I braved the blistering heat to go into town. Tiny now, Downieville was once a real contender for state capitol of California.  Instead it has to content itself with being the county seat of Sierra County.

Whence such cachet for a little  hamlet?  Gold. Discovered here at the junction of the Yuba River and the ‘Downie’ River in 1849 by Major Wm. Downie, gold birthed a boomtown with hotels and saloons enough for 5000 men within two or three years.  In 1894 a prospector might choose to live in the newly renovated St. Charles Hotel (now the post office) for $16.00 a week (board and lodging).  A ‘first class bed’ was $1.00 a night, ‘second class bed’ $.50.  I’m not sure that was actually cheap.

Great location, but I’m guessing the junction of the Yuba and the Downie look a bit different now 🙂

Confluence of Downie (left) and Yuba (right) rivers

In 1852, it was ten votes shy of becoming state capitol. Within about five years only four other towns in California were larger than Downieville.  All this glory was pretty short-lived, according to the doom-saying website ‘ghosttowns.’ By 1865 most of the gold had been found and people started leaving Downieville.

Boom towns came with trouble.  James O’Neal murdered his former employer over the termination of his employment and back pay.  O’Neal claimed the gun went off in a struggle with his former boss.  He was hanged. But the reason this incident merits mention (other than the current fad of getting back at one’s former employer when fired) is the following invitation to O’Neal’s hanging, sent out by the sheriff:

Office of the

MR. R.H. Squires

You are respectfully invited to be present at the
official execution of


which will take place in the Jail Yard at
Downieville, Cal., on Friday, November
27th, 1885, at 2 o’clock P.M.

Sheriff of Sierra County

Can you imagine getting a personalized invitation to a hanging? No, I thought not.

Downieville also has the dubious distinction of being the first town in California to hang a woman. Juanita, a pretty young Mexican woman who lived with her husband Jose, was accused of knifing a massive Australian miner who, drunk, had kicked down the door of their tiny cabin in the kind of good fun that drunks might enjoy.  According to accounts, he went back to apologize the next morning and stood blocking the door like a cyclops (that’s me, not the accounts) apologizing to Jose in Spanish, when Juanita lept out and put a Bowie knife in his heart. No motive is offered. Juanita got a hasty trial and was hanged. Allegedly she ascended the gallows, pulled up her long hair, put the noose over her neck, smoothed her dress and said Adios Senores, Adios Amigos.

My information on Downieville comes from the Sierra County website and “Downieville: Gold Town on the Yuba” published in 1991 by James J. Sinnott (very limited publication, I’m guessing, but super interesting).  Mr. Sinnott concerns himself far more in determining from which of Downieville’s four bridges Juanita was hanged than in what her murderous motive might have been.  So let’s try this one: massive white guy and buddies comes to tiny hut of young Mexican and his pretty young wife and, drunk, kicks in the door.  Next day he comes back and stands in the frame of the erstwhile door, allegedly apologizing.  You are a 24 year old, pretty, Mexican woman. What are you afraid he has come back for?  Everyone says he was an amiable guy.  Maybe he was a sweetheart.  But suddenly a young woman who took in washing for a living turns into a murderer.  Sigh.

The town itself, as I wrote yesterday, flourishes again as a destination for mountain bikers, kayakers,  hikers.  It now has a Downieville Outfitters (we didn’t go in–my money is on spiffy outdoorsy clothes), and the grocery store has become more of a snack and bottle of wine store.

Main Street and the grocery store

More main street photos:

More Main Street
And more Main Street
Main Street and the Mountains

Liz is friends with the owner of the art gallery (Liz is friends with just about everyone in Downieville!), who opened up the Yuba Theatre next door and gave us a tour.  The theater presents movies as well as plays and has an enormous 1940s film projector and an original Voice of the Theatre in the front walls.  Apparently the Voice is valued by collectors.  That was very cool, but the chairs are amazing.

Juba Theater
Wonderful old theater seat
The painted side of the aisle seats

Clearly, I was impressed.

Also impressive, in a different way, was the museum, where of course Liz was friends with the woman behind the front desk

Downieville Museum

The small museum is packed with memorabilia of Downieville’s mining heyday and after.  There is a display of gold nuggets, which must be replicas (i.e. fake) since they would be worth a fortune and are protected by a charming but flimsy antique case:

Gold nuggets (surely fake)

I was also delighted to know that the California mountain lion that I was sure was waiting to eat me on my way to Weaver Lake resides safely (and stuffed) in the museum instead:

Stuffed Mountain Lion

I heard a mom telling her child that this was a small one.  Big enough, I should think. Big enough.

But for sheer ‘dear god, give the child something to do’ brilliance, I loved the charm string:

1000 buttons collected for a charm string, 999 by a young woman thinking about marriage, plus one from the man who proposes

Girls starting to  think about marriage collected the most beautiful buttons they could find. It was best to get them as gifts or to trade for them with other button collectors. Worth zooming the image to read the placard.  The last one is given to her by her future husband. If anything makes history live, this one does for me. Imagine these young girls and their buttons.  I’m a big fan of buttons, I really am.  But this might be taking buttons a mite far.

One more, I’m done for today. Here is the front of Liz’s house

Front of the house


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