Gold on the Feather River

Bidwell Bar 1854

After James Marshall told Sutter about the gold discovery, John Bidwell was sent to San Francisco to have a sample assayed. Bidwell must have learned something interesting because by April he was prospecting the Middle Fork of the Feather River, far from the sawmill. On July 4, working with the help of local Indians, he found gold. By now Sam Brannon had made the gold discovery public and it wasn’t long before word of the rich strike at Bidwell’s Bar got out too. Miner’s poured in.

Early Bidwell’s Bar was so full of tents that men called it a rag city. But Bidwell opened a store there with George McKinstry and by 1849 he’d made $100,000. By 1853 the rag city was home to 2000 people. The next year fire destroyed the town but it was quickly rebuilt. In 1852 a bridge was erected across the Feather River. It soon washed away but was replaced by a $35,000, 240-foot long steel suspension bridge in December 1855, the first west of the Mississippi. Soon after that the gold played out and Bidwell’s Bar became a ghost town. The bridge was later moved to higher ground to save it from the waters of Lake Oroville and it is still open to pedestrian traffic.

Big Chico Creek

In 1849 Bidwell bought half of Rancho Chico from his partner McKinstry, and in 1851 he bought the other half. He built a home on Chico Creek and settled down to farm and raise livestock. By 1857 he was selling wheat as far away as London. During the Civil War he was appointed a Brigadier General of the California Militia and in 1864 he was elected to the House of Representatives. President Johnson and General Grant both attended his Washington wedding to Annie Ellicott Kennedy. It is through the accounts left us by this former Missouri schoolteacher that we know many of the events of the California Gold Rush.


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