Photo © Mary Davey
Downieville, the county seat of Sierra County, is located on Highway 49 at the fork of the North Yuba and Downie rivers. Gold was discovered here in the summer of 1849. By May 1850, Downieville had 15 hotels and gambling houses, 4 bakeries, 4 butcher shops, and 5,000 men wintered in Downieville that year. In the following spring, that population scattered into the surrounding hills and canyons in search of gold.
As the population of the area grew, Downieville served as a trading center for the Northern Mines. By the mid-1850s, Downieville was one of California’s largest towns. In the state of California election held on October 7, 1850, Downieville was one of 16 communities vying to be capital. It placed sixth after Vallejo (that won), San Jose, Monterey, Eureka, and Sacramento. While Vallejo garnered 7,477 votes and Downieville 150, it was an amazing feat for the community you see today with a population of some 325 and the fact that it polled ahead of rivals like San Diego (14), and San Francisco (25). The sleepy little pueblo of Los Angeles was not even one of the 16!
Today Downieville is still the county seat with local government offices and a court house. It's the biggest town on the West side of Sierra County with approximately 325 year-round residents. In the summertime the population explodes with the infusion of mountain bikers, white water rafters and kayakers, fly-fishermen, people who love to play in the river, bird watchers, and hikers. Basically, anyone who wants to stay in a place out of this world heads to Downieville.
Main Street in Downieville is narrow, full of character, and lined with trees, wooden boardwalks, and historic buildings. Downieville is considered the least changed of all the gold rush towns in California. Where there are other gold rush towns that are living museums, Downieville is a living town with the gold rush surroundings a part of today's world. Today, gold panning is open to the public in Downieville just behind the Gallows Café & Pizzeria.
Historic Buildings still in use:
The Downieville Museum building dates back to 1852 when it was built as a store by Chinese emigrants. Today it contains informative collections that depict life here from gold rush days to the present. It features a detailed model of turn-of-the-century Downieville as well as logging and mining exhibits. The museum is open weekends mid-May a through mid-October (depending upon weather) 11am – 4pm; daily 11 – 4 from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day.
The Yuba Theatre was built in 1940 as a movie theater. Since 1996, it has been the home of the Sierra County Arts Council. It currently has fixed seats for 184 and has been transformed into a professional performing arts venue. Year-round events include presentations of live music, community theatre, dance, school drama productions, book-signings, slide shows and film showings. The Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour is presented each April. For more info, visit sierracountyartscouncil.org.
There is a self-guided walking tour brochure available for Downieville that details the town’s history and sites. Don't forget to take a look at the Gallows by the courthouse.The Gallows was only used once, but remains today as a reminder of justice in the gold rush era.
For nature lovers, in spring dogwood blooms profusely along the banks of rivers, and massive patches of monkey flowers invade the wet seeps of canyon walls. Scotch broom adds brilliant patches of yellow. Summer provides an abundance of flowers and in the fall the dogwood puts on a second display of fiery orange and deep pink.
At dusk, bridges in Downieville are likely to produce bats and swallows foraging for food. Kingfishers and osprey also feed in the vicinity. If you’re lucky you can spot river otter by the Downie or North Yuba rivers as they flow through Downieville. The Empire Creek Trail near Downieville passes through large areas of older forests inhabited by pileated woodpeckers, northern goshawks, pine marten, and California spotted owl. In the spring, the Downieville deer herd moves to the higher elevations to fawn. Black bears, foxes, and raccoons are also present but not so visible.
Due to the elevation, winter in Downieville is mild with light snow cover during December through March.