Cory’s Historical Corner

By Cory Peterman

Downieville – 1861

Photo of Downieville and footbridge

I thought it would be interesting to once in a while share historic photographs that were taken in Sierra County, and then to describe them. To start out, I am sharing the following photograph, courtesy of the California Historical Society in San Francisco, which depicts a view of Downieville in December of 1861, looking south down Commercial Street. This is one of the earliest known photos of Downieville.

At first glance, one may notice a temporary footbridge erected across what is now the Downie River. This photo was taken after the flood of December 1861, which took out the Jersey Bridge (along with several others along the Yuba River, including the bridges at Goodyear’s Bar, Foster’s Bar, and Bullard’s Bar). The Sacramento Union reported that Downieville flooded on December 7th and 8th, with seven inches of rain on the 8th, and 12.5 inches of rain on the 9th. This mass accumulation of rain lent to the Great Flood of 1862 (which took place in December 1861 and January 1862), which was the largest flood in recorded history in the states of California, Oregon, and Nevada.

In the background of the photo can be seen Jersey Flat, along with numerous structures that were built in the 1850s (many of which still decorate Commercial Street to this day). On the left side, the steeple of the Methodist Church (completed in 1856) can be seen, and the pyramidal roof of the residence of Dr. Alemby Jump (the present Hostetler residence) next door is visible. Across the street, the roof of the Fetter House (the present Villareal residence) is viewable. This building was converted into the county hospital in 1858, serving patients until 1880 when a new hospital was constructed on Zumwalt Flat that year. Next to the Fetter House is the original residence of Attorney William S. Spear (the present McFetridge residence), who was killed in a battle during the Paiute War near Pyramid Lake in Nevada in 1860. Spear was also the prosecutor during the “trial” of Josefa on July 5, 1851. Next door is Elmwood Cottage (the present Reed/Sinnott residence), which belonged to Doctor Cyrus D. Aiken, who tried to prevent the hanging of Josefa. One may wonder how well Spear and Aiken got along as neighbors, considering their opposing roles during the trial of Josefa. Closer to the river can be seen the slate and stone building (constructed in 1858) that was the Congregational Church and later the Clamper’s Hall (see my article of secret societies of Downieville). This building was torn down in 1919.

In the foreground, a large wood-frame structure sits on the corner of Main and Commercial Streets at the present-day location of the St. Charles Place bar (this photo helps prove my point that the current brick building wasn’t constructed until 1865 by P. A. Lamping). Behind this structure, a sign reads “A. S. Haxter” with another sign nearby reading “Iron and Steel.” Across the street, a sign says “S. Purdy Blacksmith.” Solomon Purdy was Public Administrator for Sierra County from 1862 to 1866. He constructed the Downieville Foundry in 1855 and was also a seller of “Jewelry, Watches, and Cutlery” according to newspaper advertisements. The former settlement of Purdy, in the southeast corner of the county in Long Valley, was named for Solomon Purdy and his brother Henry, who served as Deputy County Treasurer. A presumed relative of the brothers, Thaddeus Purdy, was Sierra County’s first District Attorney, and was accidentally shot and killed in the Craycroft Building during a mob riot in 1853.

Next door to the Purdy blacksmith sign can be seen the brick and stone building that for many years was known as the “Miner’s Drug Store.” Sadly, this building was heavily damaged in the 1937 flood and had to be torn down. Today, the Carriage House Inn is at this location.

I hope my readers enjoyed this piece of Downieville history!

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