8. Hyper-Rate Settlement Evolution and Devolution in the Sierra Nevada
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107  Hyper-Rate Settlement Evolution and Devolution in the Sierra Nevada From the start of the gold rush through the ensuing decades of the 1800s, communities up and down the Sierra Nevada transitioned from volatility to stability . As we have seen, the migration attractiveness of the foothill towns rivaled that of the bigger cities to the west. People came to the foothills from all over the world. In this chapter, rather than focusing on instability versus stability, we uncover the geographic factors that brought about differential population change in these settlements—growth versus decline. There is an important question: why did some mining camps survive, prosper, and develop into cities that still exist and even thrive today, while others faded from memory and the map? Or, how did geography and circumstance combine to foster some settlements and efface others? The conceptual model (fig. 1.2) that provides insight here has similarities to that of multigenerational town attractiveness and “stickiness,” with emphasis on the communitylevel scale, rapid initial migration rates, and underlying natural resources of the geographic interface. However, the focus in this chapter is even more on rapid in-migration and out-migration and what geographic characteristics explain differences from town to town (community-scale analysis), and less on family relationships over time. The diffusion of mining camps and villages in the Sierra serves as a rapid microcosm of settlement evolution that occurred across the rest of the state. This initial growth and spread occurred at an exponential rate, a pattern very different from regular settlement diffusion because so many of the communities were highly ephemeral. In any settlement system, there are so-called winners and losers. The winners survive and prosper, while the losers shrink and wither. With the Sierra mining towns and camps, most ended as losers, even if millions of dollars of gold were extracted from the vicinity. One need only survey the current landscape of the Sierra and compare it to the period from 1848 to the turn of the century for proof. Many of the boomtowns no longer exist or are only shells of their former aspect. Chapter 8 108 This chapter explores the booms and busts of the towns and mining camps of four counties in the central Sierra: Nevada, Placer, El Dorado, and Amador. Similar stories could be shared for towns in Calaveras, Yuba, Tuolumne, Sierra counties, and a number of others, but time and space limit analysis. Placerville, Auburn, Nevada City, and Jackson are four cities in the region that somehow succeeded. Ground Hog Glory, Horseshoe Bar, and Fort John did not. What made the difference? Could it be just as simple as what a man shared with me at the El Dorado County Historical Museum in 2007? He said, “Towns that were on the transportation routes or that were supply centers survived.” The hilly, disjointed geography of the foothills has to be part of the explanation . Arriving in California for an extended stay in 2007, I made an important discovery. My family and I had just traversed Donner Pass and the rest of the high Sierra on a particularly cold day in January. As the evening darkened, we encountered a seemingly endless length of ridge tops and valley undulations , finally arriving in Auburn where the topographical hyperactivity relaxes a bit. Although we were heading west on Interstate 80, our final destination was actually to the southeast near the small town of Pollock Pines, up the hill from Placerville. I was pulling a U-­Haul trailer with a twelve-­passenger van. Looking at the map before making the trip, the plan was to take Highway 49 from I-­ 80 south to Placerville, as it was the shortest route. We turned on 49, anticipating the end of a long day of travel, only to make the rude discovery that the steep grades and sharp curves of the road were not kind on our vehicle. After a few miles, I turned around, and regained the relative ease of I-­ 80 until we arrived in the sprawling suburbs of Sacramento, where the connection to eastbound Highway 50 toward Placerville was much more doable for a caravan of my size. Later, I had opportunity to drive that curvy road from Placerville to Auburn and reconfirmed I had made a good decision that dark night. Highway 49 runs through the gold discovery city of Coloma, and its route is at the far opposite end of the spectrum in variation and “white-­knuckleness” from any north-­ south route...


Subject Headings

  • California, Northern -- Discovery and exploration.
  • California, Northern -- History -- 19th century.
  • Frontier and pioneer life -- California, Northern.
  • Land settlement -- California, Northern -- History -- 19th century.
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