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A Greenhorn Gold Miner’s Love Affair With Downieville, Ca—1979

With the onset of a particularly cold, wet winter, I quit my job as a welder in a Seattle shipyard and headed for California’s Gold Country. I was clueless but eager to develop the skills to pan enough gold to realize my dream of becoming a free and independent miner. Because my bankroll was perilously thin, I would need to learn fast or be forced to slink back into the city to resume punching a timeclock.

I rang in the New Year of 1979 freshly camped in the Tahoe National Forest, beside the North Fork of the Yuba River. I had arrived with a carload of gear and supplies and immediately pitched my canvas tent mere feet from the riverbank. Reasoning that my tent would leak at least a little during the heaviest storms, I opted to transfer the car’s cargo into the tent and convert my Datsun station wagon into my sleeping quarters, where I thought I could count on warm and dry slumbers.

With the arrival of each storm, I covered my supplies inside the tent with a tarp to keep them as dry as possible. Still, all winter long, keeping things dry became an impossible battle to win. Moisture commonly beaded on the walls and ceiling of the tent and dripped or condensed on everything stored within it. Condensation inside the car became a problem too. There seemed to be no way around it. Come each storm, everything just got wet, no matter what preventative measures I took. Between storms, I opened the tent flaps and car doors to air things out, and I draped the bushes and trees all around with a colorful medley of sopping clothes, boots, and bedding in an attempt to dry them in the wind—and sunlight too, when it shone. Because of my war against the damp, my campsite often looked slovenly (even to me). However, frankly, I didn’t give a damn; I didn’t have to impress the neighbors; as far as I knew, the only one camped on the river for miles, up or down, all winter long, was me.

North Fork of the Yuba River, Late 1970s

I took the above shot of the North Yuba not far from my camp.

Over my first weeks on the river, I developed a routine; if it rained or snowed (hard), I stayed in camp to catch up on chores and read, but if the weather permitted, I hiked up and down the stream, panning for gold, sunup to sundown while learning my trade. I was as happy and carefree as a bear in a berry patch.

One chilly mid-January morning, I awoke to a dismal, rainy day—the third in a row. Outside, the rising river roared past, angry winds tore limbs from nearby trees, and raindrops pattered in torrents against my car’s tin roof. Curled up in the backseat, comfortably tucked into my sleeping bag, reading a book while puffing on a handmade cigarette, and having not a care in the world, I felt like a king.

About an hour on, seeing no likelihood of the weather clearing, I determined to take advantage of the downtime and make a town run. Laundry was piling up, I needed to pick up a few supplies, and I was running low on books to read. Besides, I hadn’t been to town yet, and while there, I meant to procure a hearty breakfast, find a local gold buyer to buy my little bottle of gold, and, hopefully, give me some sorely needed prospecting and mining tips, of which I was never too proud to accept or solicit.

Grass Valley, the nearest town of any size, was an hour’s run over steep, winding roads. They had a Safeway supermarket, where prices would likely be reasonable. However, Downieville, the Sierra County seat, population below 400, was only a 15 or 20-minute-drive upriver. Though prices in ‘D’ville’ were sure to be comparatively high, I had been looking forward to visiting the old Gold Rush-era community I had read and heard so much about. So, damn the expense! Downieville it would be.

Approaching Downieville from the west, I pulled off onto a bluff that overlooked the town and the North Fork of the Yuba River below. The spot was named Cannon Point by the pioneers after the Civil War Era Cannon was mounted there in 1861 to be used for celebrations and special events such as Independence Day. The old artillery piece was still there, and I got out to inspect it. I ran my hands over its pitted barrel and read the bronze plaque that chronicled its arrival in Downieville, its installation, and the tragic event that occurred at a celebration in 1863 when the cannon fired prematurely and killed two military men.

From Cannon Point, narrow two-lane highway 49 winds downhill into town, fading into its tree-lined Main Street. Picturesque, period buildings garnish the shady thoroughfare along its brief run—some dating back to the gold rush.

I pulled into Downieville Motors on the west end of town and parked; it was the only source of fuel and mechanical services for miles. To my great satisfaction, I learned that the establishment hosted a coin-operated laundromat and showers for the public (yeah, baby!!). A bulletin board tacked to the side of the building was plastered with public notices, handwritten ads, and photos. Among the Polaroid snapshots depicting fishermen and hunters proudly displaying their fish and game, one stood out from the rest—a close-up of a meaty outstretched hand holding forth three breath-taking gold nuggets. The handwritten caption below the photo declared something along the lines: 5 ounces of gold nuggets. He found these while fishing! The name of the lucky fisherman was not given.

Wow! I thought if a guy can snag ginormous nuggets like those while just out fishing, why can’t I, working as hard as I do, do the same or better. I was stoked!

While my laundry was washing, I grabbed a hot shower, a luxury that would have lasted all day could I have had my way! While clothes were spinning in the dryers, I moseyed across the parking lot to check out an old, white, two-story building. As I approached the west corner, strong, irresistible whiffs of coffee and freshly grilled breakfasts tugged me to the door of the Quartz Café like a tow rope. Okay, perfect! I had a serious hankering for a good-cooked-by-anyone-else meal. True, I only had a few dollars left in my pocket, but I did have my little bit of gold plucked from the river, yet to sell. My mood was jolly and light and my stomach was growling. Prudence be damned!

I took the above photo in Downieville about 1979. The Quartz Café was located on the ground floor of the tall, white building.

Inside the building, the Café was vibrating with activity, energy, and goodwill; the waitresses were rushing around in a blur, whisking steaming trays heaped with food to tables while calling everybody honey and barking breakfast orders at the harried cook. The room was saturated with enticing, rich aromas of coffee, pancakes, ham, sausage, and bacon and eggs. A symphony of clatters, rattles, and rumbles blent together as trays of dishes slammed into the washer, ice cubes clinked against frosty glasses, forks and knives scraped across porcelain plates, newspapers crinkled, and incessant laughter and chatter buzzed merrily throughout the house.

Eagerly, I elbowed into the only seat open at the counter; a saucy waitress took my order and shoved a steaming cup of coffee in front of me. It had been weeks since I had been so close to a woman that smiled at me (and smelled good, too). She was not only friendly, but she was also red-smokin’ hot! Having been camping along the river in quiet and solitude for so long, I was already on sensory overload and giddy from the electric atmosphere in the café. Now, further lifted by the waitress’s allure and proximity, I fought off an urge to jump up, slap the counter with my cap, dance a jig, double my order, and invite the spicy little server to cast off her apron and join me for breakfast.

Reluctant to leave behind the electric high I had going from the charged scene there in the Quartz Café, I hung out drinking coffee and reading the paper for over an hour after eating. When paying to leave, I inquired of local gold buyers and was directed next door to Yoho Downieville Gold Sales (Yoho? For real?).

*The Quartz Café, sad to say, has been out of business now for many years.

This is a more recent photo of the formally white building that housed the Quartz Café. The Quartz was located at the far end of the building. Yoho Gold Sales was next door. The sprawling white building across the parking lot was Downieville Motors, where I showered and did laundry.

Dick and Jim Burrows (brothers) owned and operated Yoho Downieville Gold Sales. They appeared to be in their middle thirties to early forties and had recently arrived in Downieville to dredge for gold. They had been doing so for a short time when they reasoned that it would be easier and more profitable to mine the miners and tourists than to continue to work the river for gold. So the enterprising brothers decided to give their idea a go, and they leased space next door to the Quartz Café to test their hunch. In keeping with Downieville’s austere Gold Rush theme, their cramped little store sported tall, plain walls, worn hardwood flooring, and a weathered boardwalk under a covered porch out front—all reminiscent of and possibly dating back to the Gold Rush days. The brothers bought gold from local miners to sell at a profit; they also stocked mining supplies to sell to the miners and gold-nugget jewelry crafted by a local jeweler from locally mined gold for the lucrative tourist trade.

Hoping to sell gold, I sauntered in and introduced myself to Jim, the paunchy, talkative brother standing stone-faced behind the counter. When I plunked my gold onto the counter in front of him and said that I had heard he bought gold, he immediately started crying the blues. Ruefully shaking his bowed head, he claimed that almost every time he bought gold he lost money; he then fixed me with a sad, imploring stare…seeming to expect commiseration.

My failure to express sympathy for his woes seemed to open a floodgate; ignoring my indifference, he ranted on and on about the everyday hassles of running his business. He claimed his rent was too damn high, business was slow, and every friggin’ day he was losing money! He went on and on. Just when I thought his whine-fest was finally and mercifully over, he slapped his forehead and brought up wife problems and his health troubles, too. At any moment, I expected him to shed a bucket of tears. Lord, oh lordy, I thought, please, pa-lease make it stop!

The upbeat spirit I had brought with me from the restaurant was fading fast. Shifting my feet as a sinking, trapped feeling washed over me, I glanced meaningfully at my watch, hoping to send a message. And all the while, Jim’s younger brother, Dick, the shy, thin one, studied a spot on the floor behind me, idly scuffing at it with his boot, never looking up or speaking a word.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity of sour grapes, we got down to business, and I was able to negotiate what I thought was a reasonable price for my gold. Before leaving, I shoved some cash back across the counter, and Jim handed over a three-foot-long, Keene-engineered—aluminum sluice box.

I was as excited by and as proud of my new acquisition as a kid getting his first bicycle. I could hardly wait to start sluicing spots on the river where I had had good luck panning gold. When I finally got outta there, pulling the door shut behind me, Jim was still whining in the background. Brother Dick hadn’t uttered a single word the whole time I had been there—he was still contemplating the floorboards.

Over the next few years, I spoke and dealt with Jim on many occasions, and he never seemed to be happy. He always had something to grumble and fret about. Case in point, he won a large sum in the State Lottery and never once thanked his lucky stars (that I know of). When I congratulated him on his big win, he put on a serious, long face and complained that he had been robbed and made to split half his damn winnings with some jerk who had picked the same numbers as he! Jim insisted that nothing ever went right for him and he seemed compelled to add a negative spin to anything that even tried!

However, in fairness to Jim, despite his doom-and-gloom posture, over time, he turned out to be a positive influence on me. Beyond the business of buying my gold, he often gave me prospecting tips and turned me on to spots on the river that he thought might pay better for me. He also demonstrated how I could do a much better job of separating my gold from black sands so that I could get the best price for it. And at our first meeting, Jim was responsible for boosting my gold recovery by convincing me to start using my gold pan only as a prospecting tool and to begin using a sluice box to mine the hot spots that I found with my pan. All good advice that I used to my benefit.

I haven’t seen the brothers in many years. I hope they’re both still above ground and prospering. And I hope Jim has found something in his life by now to be happy about. He was unquestionably a sour character, more solemn and negative in his thinking than anyone I’ve ever known, nevertheless, in time, I came to shrug off his idiosyncrasies and count him a friend.

Across and down the street, at the little brick-walled post office, with its cheerful village feel, I scanned the bulletin board for community news and checked general delivery for my mail—nothing. (I had sent a Downieville forwarding address to my post office in Seattle.)

Main and Commercial Streets. Photo by Yngvadotti.
*The post office is on the left with a flag out front. The hardware store is next door going away.

 
At the hardware store, I strolled up and down the aisles. Wow! They had an impressive stock of diverse, professionally displayed inventory…something I didn’t expect to find in such a tiny town so far from the main supply routes. I purchased a gasoline-fueled Coleman lantern, flashlight batteries, and a sturdy, sorely needed pair of knee-high rubber boots. (I had fallen into the river twice; my leather boots had become thoroughly soaked, and I had been unable to dry them ever since.)
   

The Downieville Grocery Store

Next, I visited the Downieville Grocery Store catercorner from the Quartz Café. Out front, against the wall under a covered porch, were a couple of long, timeworn wooden benches, and there were several kindred benches around town, similarly placed.

Over the winter and into the spring, I got to know a few people in town. One day a friend’s wife told me, with a wry smile on her face, that because a cadre of Downieville’s old-timers lounged on the benches for hours every day, boasting, smoking, chewing tobacco, cracking off-colored jokes, appraising the tourists walking by, and, not infrequently, dozing off, the seats had been dubbed the Dead Peter Benches.

The little grocery had a typical country vibe. Yummy aromas of cheese, pastrami, and spices filled the air and made my stomach juices gurgle as I passed the deli, where jumbo pickles swam in a giant jar on the counter. Walking the aisles over ancient plank flooring, I grabbed a few things off the shelves: a can of Top Tobacco and some rolling papers, two jars of peanut butter, a small jar of jam, a dozen eggs, and a two-pound bag of Jolly Time popping corn. (Salted popcorn and books went so well together when cooped up for long days in my car during rain and snowstorms.) The prices were high (as expected), so I promised myself to save money by traveling to Grass Valley for all of my major supply needs. Only one thing was left to do—rustle up some books!

The library was perched high up on the slope behind the grocery store.

Everywhere in my travels, whenever I stopped near a town for more than a couple of weeks, I joined the local Library. I wish I had kept all the library cards I’ve had over the years, issued from institutions all over the country; it would be a fascinating collection (to me, anyway) and make it easier to remember all the many towns and cities across the country I’ve landed in, and when that was.

Asking for directions to Downieville’s library, I learned it was being run by volunteers out of a stately family home perched high on the south-facing slope above town. Though it wasn’t during their regular operating hours, the gracious woman of the house answered the door with a warm, easy smile and invited me in to register for a library card and check out a few books.
Because I was a stranger—a roughly dressed drifter without local references, whose mailing address was a post office box, and whose residence was an isolated camp somewhere along the river—she struck me as uncommonly kind and trusting! I have never forgotten her kindness. I believe her name was Mrs. Sinnott; someone told me her husband was the local schoolmaster.

My business complete, I putted up the hill and out of town in my Datsun wagon, feeling good about the events of the day. I could hardly wait to run buckets and buckets of gravel through my new sluice box and learn how my gold recovery compared to that of a long day of panning. My hopes were high! Images of big, gnarly gold, inspired by the photo on the bulletin board, flashed through my mind. “I wonder who that lucky bastard who snagged those nuggets is,” I mumbled aloud, “Maybe I can get lucky and pull out a few beauties like that myself.” Little did I know that the finder of the nuggets in the photo would soon come to play an important role in the direction my life would take.

It was getting dark and raining hard when I arrived back at camp, and the river was rising (nothing new). After carefully backing my car into its spot so that the tires settled into the depressions I had excavated for leveling purposes, I quickly put everything away, slapped peanut butter and jelly between two slices of bread for dinner, and tucked into bed.

The last fading light was used to read from one of the books I borrowed. It chronicled Major Downie’s life and Downieville’s early history; he was one of the first prospectors to arrive at the Forks on the Yuba in 1849 and is purported to be Downieville’s namesake—sounds plausible to me.

The book was an interesting read; from among its pages, I even gleaned a few gold prospecting tips and names of remote streams where large nuggets had been recovered during the Rush—knowledge that would one day pay off. When it got too dark to read, I cracked a window and fired up my new Coleman lantern. Wow! Utilities!

Sometime after midnight, I tried to get some sleep, but it was difficult because I couldn’t stop visualizing my new sluice box, every riffle brim-full of shiny, yellow nuggets. I was aching to set up the sluice in the river and give it a go! Finally, in the wee hours, lulled by the now-familiar patter of raindrops bouncing off my car’s thin skin, combined with the river’s gurgling lullaby as it whooshed past camp, I drifted off to a fitful sleep. Could life have been any better? Not in my world!

* While spending the next many years adventuring, I chased after gold while hopscotching all over the west, including Alaska.

**Small, country towns have always been special to me; My best in town years were lived in tiny communities—where I always felt I belonged. That year of ’79, I fell in love with Downieville, and I have always hoped to return someday to become a bona fied local and see for myself if living there full time would be as fun and rewarding as I have imagined it to be. Maybe someday yet I’ll get that chance.

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Me and best buddy, Yubalee. The photo was taken in 2006 while filling in as a ranch hand in Nevada’s Rees River valley.

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JQK