A woman’s account of Rich Bar

Bidwell Bar 1854

Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe, the wife of a doctor who wrote under the pen name of Dame Shirley, arrived in Rich Bar from Bidwell’s Bar after a rough trip on mule back in the middle of September 1851. She found the town charmingly fresh and original. It lay in a narrow valley or gorge 800 yards long by about 30 wide where flowed the blue-bottomed North Feather River, and was surrounded by high, almost perpendicular hills covered with fir trees. Through the middle of the valley ran the main street with about 40 houses, cabins, hovels and tents on it. The most elegant was the Empire House and the least a booth of tree limbs covered in calico shirts.

Rich Bar 1851

The doctor’s office, the only one on the river, was so touted as extraordinary for this region that Clappe’s hopes were high, but when she arrived the stark reality almost crushed her. The office was ten feet long and not quite so wide with a bench of two rough planks along two walls and a floor of dirt. On a table in one corner sat the six volume medical library and on shelves above it an array of medicines. Letters painted on the canvas window in the front announced the building as the Doctor’s Office.

Rich Bar Marker

The only two-story structure was the Empire House. Built of rough planks with several glass windows, the only ones in town, and a canvas roof. Almost the whole front was covered with an enormous canvas sign. Inside the barroom was trimmed in crimson calico that surrounded a large mirror flanked by decanters, cigar cases, and jars of candied fruit. On top of a table covered in green cloth were a deck of cards, a backgammon board and a pile of trashy novels while a couple of uncomfortable looking benches completed the room’s decor. Up a flight of four steps one came to the parlor, the floor covered in straw matting, where there was a 14 foot long red calico covered sofa, red calico curtains, a round table with a green top, six cane bottomed chairs, a cooking stove and a rocking chair.

Feather River Canyon

Up four more steps was a narrow hall with four bedrooms on each side, each eight by ten feet and carpeted with more straw matting with wood latticed windows draped in still more crimson calico. Each room had an oilcloth-covered table and a bed so heavy that only a giant could move it. The doors were made of a slight wooden frame covered in a blue cloth and hung on leather hinges. The floors were so off level that even in a tiny bedroom there was a noticeable rise or fall from one side to another. The dining room and kitchen were equally primitive and yet the Empire was considered one of the fine houses of the early mining days, and there was certainly none better or more pretentious in the more remote regions.




  1. What a great description. I can just see the building. Oh the joys of the early ‘gold’ hunting days.

    • I really took a shine to her description too, Doris. I used a lot of it in a short story that should come out soon called Clarence Clapper’s Capricious Caper that takes place in the fictional town of Richman’s Bar. I muddled the women around a bit and used them too. I did leave Dame Shirley out. I tried but could never find a picture of her.

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