The North Fork of the American River

The North Fork of the American River split from the south fork just west of Mormon Island then divides with the middle fork east of Auburn, the county seat of Placer County, and one of the first boom towns that began when a group of French miners, heading to Coloma, found gold in Auburn Ravine. They stayed and a mining camp, first called North Fork Dry Diggings, grew up around the ravine. In 1849 the name was changed and by 1850 some 1500 people lived there. In the early days the small settlement challenged Placerville as the richest dry diggings in the mines. But it was the Central Pacific Railroad that runs from Sacramento through Auburn along the ridge north of the river all the way to the summit of the Sierra Nevada, often hovering some 3000 feet above the gorge of the turbulent river, that kept many of the gold rush towns on its path prosperous long after the gold was gone. One spot on the route, Dutch Flat and its nearby area, was totally denuded of vegetation, literally turned inside out, by later heavy hydraulic mining operations.

Foresthill Bridge American River Confluence, 2008

On the ridge between the North and Middle Forks and near to the North Fork were famous towns like Yankee Jim’s, Illinoistown, Wisconsin Hill and Iowa Hill and closer to the Middle Fork was Forest Hill, Michigan Bluff and Sarahville. Though these are but a few of the many towns that sprang up in the early years they were some of the most active. The terrain of the whole area is extremely rough where the rivers run in gorges thousands of feet deep with many intersecting canyons and ravines. All the above towns were at least 2000 feet higher than the nearest riverbed but were instrumental in the vast yield of gold from 1849 through the early 1850’s that astonished the world.

Colfax, CA, formerly Illinoistown

By 1868 the claims within a rifle shot of the Forest Hill express office, on the ridge between the Middle Fork and Shirttail Canyon, had produced over 10 million dollars in gold. Just a few miles northeast was Sarahville, named so in 1852 in honor of the wife of a boarding house owner, the first white woman to live there. Originally called Alder Grove, it was near Illinoistown where the Reelfoot Williams gang robbed a Nevada City stagecoach of $7,000 in gold that same year of 1852, the first stage robbery in California. Today we know Illinoistown as Colfax, still a bucolic gold rush location along Bunch Creek.


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