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Grass Valley, California History

From providing gems, to becoming a gem.


Ever since travelers rested their cattle in the grassy fields after their long trek over the Sierra Nevada mountain range, historic downtown Grass Valley, California has been the hub of this quaint community. But not until quartz gold was discovered one hundred and fifty years ago, did the gold industry blossom bringing hundreds of thousands of eager miners to the area from around the world.

Following the quartz veins deeper and deeper to extract the precious metal-laden rock created a new problem for miners, the need to extract water from the mineshafts. Fortunately, the Cornish miners of the day having the same problem in their native lands, were able to furnish the mining companies with the Cornish pump allowing for continued mining. In addition to the pumps, these miners had many family and friends in the “old country” that were expert deep-tunnel miners just waiting for an opportunity at a better life.

Downtown Grass Valley, California during the winter of 1880

So came the parade of “Cousin Jacks and Jennys” as they were known from Cornwall, England to the young mining fields of Nevada County. It was estimated that in the 1890s, over 60% of the population of Grass Valley, California was Cornish. Mining and logging were historically the mainstays of the Nevada County economy. In fact the town of Grass Valley was literally circled by mines with stamp mills crushing ore to extract gold twenty-four hours per day, 364 days per year (one day each year was set aside for the annual miner’s picnic).

Downtown Grass Valley, California around 1917

The town of Grass Valley, California was the main supply area for the mines, its workers, and the services needed by the local community. It had a strong core of essential businesses and a diverse population of Italians, Cornish, Chinese, Jewish, Native American and African Americans who were in mining or related businesses. After WW II, as mines either stopped production or were merged with other mines, a steady decline ensued until the last major mine closed in the mid 1950s. Over the years as the mines began to fade, the fortunes of the town began to fade as well.

Downtown Grass Valley, California in 1939

But in the early 1960s, an engineer named Dr. Hare chose Grass Valley, California to locate a business to develop a video broadcast mixer and almost overnight, a new local electronic industry was established. Along with him, a glass blowing manufacturer moved to the community and Grass Valley, California was in the midst of diversification.

Downtown Grass Valley, California in the late 1940s

In 1981 the retail merchants formed the Grass Valley Downtown Association (GVDA), and in 1986 they incorporated the National Trust for Historic Preservations model of the Main Street Program. Since that time we have seen an amazing partnership flourish between the Grass Valley Downtown Association, the City of Grass Valley, California and the local Grass Valley, California merchants. All with a commitment to a vibrant historic downtown Grass Valley, California business district that embraces the incredible legacy of our past while implementing our vision for the future.

Downtown Grass Valley, California in 2004

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