The first discovery of gold in Tuolumne County occurred in August of 1848 at Woods Crossing, one mile southwest of Jamestown. A prospector named Wood (identified by De Ferrari as Benjamin Wood) is given credit for discovering the rich fields that for a time, with only a knife and pick as tools, reportedly yielded between $200 and $300 a day in gold to Wood and his companions. (Some accounts credit a Reverend James Woods as the discoverer of Woods Crossing, but records show that he did not arrive in California until 1850.) Many of Wood’s companions left the area early on to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Wood was no different, he continued on his way, ever prospecting, and in April of 1849 was murdered by marauding Indians on the Middle Fork of the American River.
The first merchants to arrive here did very well trading with the local Indians. They would buy gold dust from the Indians, paying them the gold’s weight in beads, raisins and other items. One man obtained $6,000 worth of gold for a small lot of beads that cost $2.50 in San Francisco.
Woods Creek turned out to be one of the most important gold streams of the area. Located between the Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers in the midst of an auriferous region of the Sierra foothills, the surface diggings were among the richest in the county, only those of Columbia proving richer. To illustrate, a quartz lump weighing 150 pounds, of which seventy-five pounds was gold, was found here in 1848 by William Gulnac, a partner of Charles M. Weber.
The big strikes drew many miners to the area, all eager to stake their claims and make their fortunes. One such man was Colonel George F. James who heard the news in San Francisco. Packing up his possibles, he headed for the mines, arriving at Woods Creek toward the end of 1848. As the physical aspect of mining held little attraction to the lawyer, James set up his tent a short distance from Woods Crossing and commenced operations of his combination trading post/hotel/saloon. Before long, a sizable camp had grown up around the trading post. When it came time to choose a name for the camp, legend has it that James treated the entire camp to champagne, which may have influenced the christening, as the name chosen was “Jamestown.”
James was a man of imposing stature. Standing six-feet, three-inches in height, he dressed in the style of a Spanish caballero and lived a life of luxury with his wife, a Mexican lady of rare beauty. During this time, James “speculated largely” in various mining activities, financed by local miners who were to be repaid when the projects were completed. Unfortunately, James “speculated wrongly,” losing all his investors’ money and causing more than a modicum of concern among the miners. As things began to look grim, James and his wife left town, under cover of darkness.
The miners were irate. At a meeting they decided to rename the town American Camp, to wipe Colonel James out of their memory for good. “Jimtown,” however, was too firmly established to fade away and after a short time American Camp was replaced with its original name.
The Jamestown post office was established on August 16th of 1853. By this time most of the placers had been worked out, but the town continued to prosper, aided by rich quartz deposits that produced great quantities of gold for many years. The town’s population is said to have reached several thousand during the early 1850s, at which time there were some thirty different stores and businesses serving the community, including two churches, numerous saloons, a bowling alley, Masonic Hall, hotels, butcher shops, bakery, bank, livery stables, drug store, doctor’s offices, school and several lawyers.
Jamestown survived several major fires over the years, the most disastrous occurring in October of 1855, with loses estimated at $75,000. One thing about the early mining towns, they were quick to rebuild what the flames had taken away, providing there was still gold in the ground. So it was with Jamestown. After each fire the town rebuilt, bigger and stronger, and many of these Gold Rush buildings still serve the citizens and visitors of Jamestown today.
The Emporium, a handsome, two-story brick structure with a wooden balcony and front, has stood on Main Street since 1897. Serving a variety of functions over the years, its main business has always been that of a general emporium, where goods of all sorts were available to the miners and townfolk. The intricate wooden trim along its balcony, and its imposing size make the Emporium one of the main attractions in town.
The National Hotel stands on the site of the Hotel Europe, which was built in 1859 by Heinrich Neilson. Offering lodging, meals and a salon, the Hotel Europe was renamed the National in the early 1900s. The wooden structure was severely damaged by fire in 1901 and 1927, and was rebuilt in 1928.
The Hotel Willow was established in 1862 and at one time had a gold mine running directly underneath its floor. Over the years it has housed numerous dignitaries (President William McKinley was a guest in 1901) and served in many capacities, including a restaurant. Although the present structure bears little resemblance to the original Willow, its history cannot be changed.
The Methodist Church was financed in part by gamblers, no doubt wishing to cover all their bets. Established in 1852, the present church was built in 1861 for “the use of all sects on Sundays and for education purposes on week days.” It is located on Seco Street, on a slight rise one block east of Main. The building has a rather unique design, making it one of the finest Gold Rush era churches in the county.
One of my favorite California State Historic Parks is located in Jamestown, Railtown 1897. It’s home to the historic Jamestown Shops and Roundhouse, “an intact and still-functioning steam locomotive repair and maintenance facility, portions of which date back to 1897.” Many Hollywood films and TV shows have shot here on location, such as Unforgiven, Back to the Future, Pale Rider, High Noon, Dodge City and Bound for Glory. The opening shot of the TV show “Petticoat Junction” features a water tower along the tracks.
Train rides are available during most of the year, check with the Park headquarters.