The Boomtown That Didn’t Go Bust
The story of our fair town begins with a group of gold-seekers, their pack mules, and a heavy rainstorm.
It was March 1851, and gold had recently been discovered about 30 miles south of here on the Scott River. A group of six men, led by Abraham Thompson, was on its way there from Oregon, and decided to camp overnight on “the flats,” about a quarter-mile from what is today downtown Yreka.
Others before Thompson and his group had camped and even prospected here; gold was found but never in sufficient quantity to spark an interest.
However, while striking camp the next morning, Thompson observed something extraordinary. Because of heavy rains the ground was soaked, and the bunch grass, serving as breakfast for the pack mules, was being pulled out of the ground, exposing the roots. And on those roots, Thompson noticed, were flecks of gold. He and his men decided to stay.
Unbeknownst to Thompson, he had just spent the night on what would soon become known as “the richest square mile on earth.” As well, his accidental discovery set in motion the creation of a new town.
With so many gold-seekers already in California due to the ’49 gold rush, it wasn’t long before word got out, and within six weeks of Thompson’s discovery there were 2000 miners on Yreka flats. In those early days it was known simply as Thompson’s Dry Diggings, and was basically a huge camp full of transient gold miners. By August of that year, as the miners discovered that this area was the “second mother lode,” the population swelled to 5,000. At that time, the town, now called Shasta Butte City, moved to its present location, in order to be closer to the nearest water supply (Yreka Creek).
Slowly but surely, the new town was taking shape, and the first real structures were going up on Main Street (today’s Miner Street). In early 1852, with the population continuing to grow, the State Legislature created Siskiyou County. At that time, because there was another town called Shasta in the region, Shasta Butte City changed names again, this time choosing the local Indian word for Mt. Shasta—Yreka.
Over the next few years, Yreka was slowly transformed from a crude gold-rush boomtown into a bona-fide city. Residents began to commit themselves to a more permanent way of life, and put into place the fundamentals of a strong, durable community. Civic leaders emerged, law enforcement officers were sworn in, and construction began on a courthouse. The first hospital, church and school opened, and Yreka was selected as the seat of government for Siskiyou County.
However, as Yreka matured and became established, the economic incentive responsible for its creation was receding–the gold rush was gradually coming to an end. By 1871, the population had dwindled to just 1,100, and then, on July 4th of that year, disaster struck—a fire burned down a good portion of the town, including most of the business district.
But the town came together and rebuilt, stronger (and more fire-proof) than before. Ranching, farming and timber replaced gold as a more stable and sustainable economic base. And once again, Yreka began to grow, and today is still the most populous city in Siskiyou County.
Why did Yreka manage to avoid the fate of so many other gold-rush boomtowns? Luck and chance of course played a role, but most local historians agree that, once the gold was gone, people stayed here simply because it is such a nice place to live.
Celebrities, Scoundrels, and Scenes from Yreka’s Colorful Past
Typical of a “wild west” town, Yreka’s past is full of colorful characters and interesting events. To name just a few….
Joaquin Miller – The famous writer spent some time here in the early days of the town and described it as follows: “A tide of people poured up and down [Miner Street], and across from other streets, as strong as in a town of the East. The white people on the side walks, the Chinese and the mules in the main street. Not a woman in sight, nor a child.”
Lotta Crabtree – Described as “the Shirley Temple of the 19th century,” this daughter of a miner began her legendary career in the gold-rush towns of Northern California. It is believed that she spent about two years in the Yreka area in the mid-1850s, and frequently performed at the Arcade Saloon on Miner Street. According to legend, local miners, undoubtedly starved for female beauty and entertainment, would throw thousands of dollars worth of gold nuggets onto the stage after each performance.
Samuel P. Fair – Elected sheriff in 1855 and re-elected in 1857, Fair was apparently a well-liked and efficient sheriff, until a pair of unsolved murders clouded his reputation. In 1858 a “notorious” women named Chere Pata. locally known as “the Cherry Picker,” was robbed of a large amount of gold and murdered in her house on Miner Street. Then, in January 1859 a local merchant was also robbed and murdered. Several months later, Fair left Yreka without notice, and was never heard from again until 1874, when it was discovered he had died in Peru under an assumed name, and had made his living there as a gambler; it later came out that he had over $11,000 in debts when he left Yreka.
Dr. J. Lytle Cummins – Arriving in Yreka in 1852, Dr. Cummins opened the first hospital in Yreka, and built (in 1855) what is now the town’s oldest surviving house (122 Third Street). He became one of Yreka’s most prominent and active citizens—sitting on the first city council, part-owner of the town’s first newspaper, and a member of one of the first parties to climb Mt. Shasta. However, in 1861, while his wife and daughter were on a trip back east to visit relatives, Dr. Cummins left town suddenly with a young woman, later found to be his niece. Nothing was heard of him until March, 1889, when it was reported that he had been found, homeless and without any possessions, family or friends, on Market Street in San Francisco. He was put in the Alms House and nothing further was ever heard of the once admired and prosperous physician.
President Rutherford B. Hayes – The year was 1880, and it would turn out to be the last long-distance stage-coach trip ever made by a president of the United States. He was on a trip up the West coast and at that time there was still no rail lines north of Redding or south of Douglas County, Oregon. President Hayes stayed one night in the Franco-American Hotel (this building is still standing but no longer a hotel), Traveling with him were his wife Lucy (nicknamed “lemonade Lucy” due to her strong support of the temperance movement) and the famous Union General William T. Sherman.
Indian Peggy – About a year after gold was discovered here in 1851, relations between the local natives and the white settlers was bad and getting worse. The miners had started killing Indians who objected to their rapidly encroaching presence, and in response the local natives planned a surprise attack on Yreka. A woman known to the town as Indian Peggy, who often came from her village to trade and peddle her wares, learned of the plans and immediately set out to warn all the residents of Yreka and Humbug, where the attack was to begin. When the Indian attackers arrived in Humbug, they found the town had emptied and, realizing they had lost the element of surprise, called off the attack. Whether Indian Peggy made this decision for fear of the retaliation against her own people, or her concern for the white settlers, will of course never be known, but she came to be highly respected by both communities. Until her death in 1902 at approximately 100 years of age, Indian Peggy was constant visitor to town, often to get food and blankets for her people, and she was never refused. In 1951, the Siskiyou County Historical Society dedicated a marker embedded in a spherical boulder at her grave, reading “Indian Peggy, born about 1800. Died October 26, 1902. Beloved member of the Shasta tribe. A friend of Indians and Whites. Saved Yreka by warning them of an Indian attack.”
The Fire of 1871 – Of all days, it happened on the Fourth of July, and was thought to be started by firecrackers. It soon jumped from the north side of Miner Street to the south side, and before it was finally extinguished the heart of Yreka was a smoldering ruins. Many of the structures that burned dated to the gold rush era and were thus made of wood. The fire consumed about 13 blocks of buildings, including many stores, a hotel, theatre, Odd Fellow’s Hall, foundry, all the livery stables, the Catholic Church, a schoolhouse. and numerous dwellings. Although of course a huge setback for the town, it also resulted in the many substantial brick buildings that today line Miner Street and other downtown streets.
The Necktie Party of 1895 – Late in the evening of August 26, 1895, about 250 determined men from various parts of Siskiyou County gathered for the purpose of lynching four men who were in the county jail accused of murder. So secret were the plans that the sheriff and his deputies received no warning whatsoever. At midnight the mob secured an old rail at the Yreka depot, carried it to the northwest corner of the courthouse square and placed it in the forks of two locust trees. At the same time, a fight was staged as a ruse to call away the city marshall. The men entered the jail, broke the padlocks off the cells, and led the accused to the square where, giving no heed to their appeals, strung them up. It was said that subsequent to this event, not a single murder occurred in Siskiyou for decades to follow.