The remains of the one-time booming community of Rich Bar now lays hidden within the steep, serpentine canyon of the Feather River. A handful of residents now live in this beautiful, yet remote area of Plumas County. The hillsides are blanketed with pine, fir and madrones, growing as high as 1,000 feet above the river below.
The seriously overgrown town cemetery is barely visible – one of few tangible remains of a town that was once home to 1,000 people and produced nearly $9 million in gold. A railroad and a highway now wind through the canyon.
The first gold pieces of Rich Bar were found at the Feather River’s edge in the summer of 1850. By the end of the summer, gold-hungry miners descended into the canyon to seek their wealth in gold. Some were lucky enough to become instantly wealthy with finds of $3,000 in gold chunks within a few days. Gold was valued at $16 per ounce at the time. In a year’s time, the gold taken from Rich Bar was valued between $2 and $4 million. The boom years lasted until mid-1853. However, nearly $9 million of gold was discovered between 1850 and 1890 when the mining finally stopped.
Three other smaller mining camps were located within a half-mile of Rich Bar, all sharing the same name bar to illustrate where gold was deposited by the river's flow. By combining the yield of Smith Bar, Indian Bar, Missouri Bar and several other even lesser-known mining camps, the total value of the gold discoveries was estimated to be $23 million.
During its boom years, the residents of Rich Bar built sturdy cabins to live, and makeshift canvas shelters. They expanded to include a board house, the Empire Hotel and several mercantile stores.
Dr. Fayette Clappe moved into town as the camp doctor. His wife Louise wrote a series of letters to her sister in Massachusetts that are now considered classic Gold Rush literature. Among her many observations, she noted in her letter of September 20, 1851, “Those who worked in these mines during the fall of 1850 were extremely fortunate, but, alas! The monte fiend ruined hundreds. Shall I tell you the fate of the most successful of these gold hunters? From poor men, they found themselves, at the end of a few weeks, absolutely rich. Elated with their good fortune, seized with a mania for monte [a card game], in less than a year these unfortunates, so lately respectable and intelligent, became a pair of drunken gamblers.
Source: Louise Amelia Knapp Smithe Clappe. “The Shirley Letters from California Mines in 1851-1852 Being a Series of Twenty-Three Letters from Dame Shirley to her Sister in Massachusetts and now Reprinted from the Pioneer Magazine of 1854-55. San Francisco: Thomas C. Russell, 1922.
The historical marker is located on State Highway 70 (P.M. 18.8) 4 miles SE of Belden, 23.6 miles northwest of Quincy.
El Rio de las Plumas, “The river of feathers,” lends its name to Plumas County. Captain Luis Arguello named the river, having been impressed by the many floating feathers on the water. Plumas County also contains Beckwourth Pass, the lowest summit of the High Sierra, which quickly became a favorite route of wagon trains.