Forest City: Sierra County’s authentic Gold Rush ghost town

(Last Updated On: September 16, 2016)

Forest City, appropriately named because of its location in the Tahoe National Forest, was settled in the summer of 1852 when miners discovered gold at the forks of the Oregon Creek in Sierra County. Within a few short years, the town grew to over 1,000 residents and at least 30 commercial businesses. However, like other gold rush towns of Sierra County, Forest City’s prosperity ebbed and flowed with the success of the mining industry, which ultimately led to the town’s decline and current “ghost town” status.

Today, Forest City is listed as a National Register Historic District with over two-dozen original structures remaining. Some of these structures date back to the late 1800’s. Visitors can take a self-guided walking tour to numerous historic points of interest within Forest City and immerse themselves in the rare opportunity of an authentic Sierra County gold rush “ghost town.”

Forest City Marker

Forest City Marker

Settling On a Name

In the summer of 1852, a group of sailors discovered gold at the junctions of Oregon Creek. It was here that they decided to create a camp in a small valley at the base of Bald Mountain. However, at this time, the area was densely covered with oaks to the point that sunlight had difficulties penetrating the forest’s thick canopy.

Initially, the town was named Brownsville after one of the sailors who found gold. In the spring of 1853, the town changed its name to Elizaville after the wife of W.S. Davis who was a prominent resident. Also, around this time, a resident named Mrs. Moody arrived in town and aptly dubbed the place Forest City. One historical account claims that W.S. Davis conceded to Captain Moody who’s wife’s name was Forest.

According to historian James J. Sinnott, other town names included Yomana (a Native American word meaning sacred hill), The Forks at Oregon Creek and Marietta. At some point in the late 1800’s the Post Office dropped the word ‘city’ and just called the town “Forest.”

With a population well over 1,000 people by 1854, a division grew amongst the residents as to what the town’s name should be. So, an official vote was taken and the town was formally changed to Forest City.

Early Description of Forest City

In the spring of 1853, only a handful of miner cabins could be seen in this secluded area between the forks of the Oregon Creek. But, by the summer of 1853, the town was growing at a rapid pace. According to a June 1, 1853, article in the Sacramento Daily Union, Forest City had nearly 100 buildings which included six stores, two hotels, two blacksmith shops and more. The article would go on to say the following about this “new village in the mountains”:

“Never have I seen so happy and contented a community. All are doing well. The evenings are enlivened with dancing and singing. Fun and good humor prevail, after the day’s work is done.”

Reportedly, the first store built in this area was by Samuel Hammond and was called the Yomana Store. (San Francisco Chronicle 10/1/1911)

By 1854, at least 15 mines were in operation. Within a year, the town grew even more. The Mountain Echo reports that by 1854 there were at least five hotels, one school, a restaurant, tin shop, two stables, two meat markets, six carpenter shops, four blacksmith shops, four clothing stores, seven general merchandise stores and saloons.

Crime and Disorder

With saloons comes alcohol, gambling and trouble. Unfortunately, Forest City wasn’t void of its share of lawlessness. On the night of May 30, 1854, “another murderous outrage” took place at a gambling saloon in town. According to a Sacramento Daily Union article dated May 31, 1854, a gambler by the name of Bill Brown stabbed a dealer and killed him in the saloon. He would flee town with a party in hot pursuit.

The article would further describe Forest City as follows: “The town is rapidly improving, but from the influx of idle and worthless hordes from below, results much crime and disorder. “

Within a year, the fervent reform efforts to clean up the town was a success. The Sacramento Daily Union reported the following about Forest City and its reformation:

“Gambling is about dried up in Forest City – little drunkenness and brawling in the street. The work of reform is going on here rapidly and… this pretty little place will be the pride of the mountains.”

Forest City Dance Hall

Forest City Dance Hall

A Continued Rapid Growth

The first post office was also in place during 1854 with William Henry as the first post master. The Forest City Lodge Number 32 for the International Order of Odd Fellows was chartered in November of 1854 with 13 members. They built their own cemetery by the early 1860’s.

Pioneer Cemetery had been the primary cemetery for residents and it was located up the hill. Unfortunately, residents believed that it was a little too far outside of town. During the winter months, the cemetery wasn’t accessible. This gave way to the Odd Fellows Cemetery becoming the primary cemetery after it was open to public burials in 1870.

The Methodists created a society in 1854 and also built a church which eventually moved down to Main Street. This church was praised in the papers (Sacramento Daily Union Aug 7, 1855) for being “the prettiest little place… and the finest workmanship displayed by architect and builder.” It was also hailed as “just the place where a Christian might choose to worship the good God.”

In 1855, the first telegraph line arrived in Forest City. A Masonic lodge was chartered in May of 1855 but moved to the nearby town of Alleghany in 1868.

In 1856, The Sierra Democrat was started in Forest City before moving to Downieville a year later.

The Fire of 1858

On April 10, 1858, a major fire swept through town causing massive damages. The Sacramento Daily Union (April 13, 1858) reported that the entire business part of town was destroyed. The damages were estimated at between $150,000 and $175,000. Most of the provisions were destroyed and many citizens were left without clothing and shelter.

The townspeople began rebuilding the very next day and even received support from nearby towns like Downieville.

Forest City Odd Fellows Cemetery

Forest City Odd Fellows Cemetery

The 1860’s and 1870’s

By 1860, Colonel Platt of the Sierra Turnpike Company had a road built from Mountain House which made traveling to and from Forest City much more manageable. James M. Scott ran tri-weekly stages to Mountain House. Prior to the road, all supplies were brought to town via pack mules. The town’s first bank also opened up in 1860.

Unfortunately, by the early 1860’s, most of the mines had dried up. According to the July 4, 1863 edition of The Mountain Messenger, “This once and rich flourishing camp is going into decay.”

Many of the residents were leaving for other mining camps and booms throughout northern-California and Nevada.

1864 saw a small fire take out a few buildings. But, in 1865, a massive fire took out at least half the town. According to one historical source, the fire traveled through town “faster than a man could walk.”  According to one source, the damages were over $60,000 and one woman was burned to death.

The townspeople came together and hastily rebuilt many of the businesses. Despite suffering two major fires up to this point, the residents of Forest City showed their resiliency and desire to overcome the hardships.

The 1870’s

Both the Bald Mountain and Kate Hardy mines struck gold in the 1870’s, which led to a resurgence of Forest City. A few more businesses were built and the population saw an increase from the exodus during the 1860’s.

In 1874, a new schoolhouse was built up the hill at a cost of $2,000. By the end of the 1870’s, the town had two churches, four lodges, a justice of the peace, a news depot, the telegraph system, an express office, six carpenters, two barber shops, two blacksmith shops, a boarding house, four hotels, five saloons and a restaurant. Additionally, there were two millinery stores, two shoe stores, two grocery stores and two dry good stores.

Forest City Schoolhouse

Forest City Schoolhouse

The Late 1800’s

Forest City was once again flourishing by the 1880’s. The population was healthy and the commercial businesses were thriving. Some newer business that sprung up were bakeries, two billiard halls, a brewery, cigar and liquor stores, a physician and surgeon, wagon maker, oyster saloon, planning mill, a theater and a dentist. Additionally, the town was going to run a weekly newspaper called the Sierra County Tribune. (The Record-Union Oct 21, 1881)

Sadly, on March 16, 1883, Forest City suffered arguably its most devastating fire ever – “The Great Fire of 1883.” This catastrophe wiped out over 80 buildings which also included many residencies. The fire spread so rapidly that many citizens were almost swept up in the flames during their escapes. Unfortunately, the fire did claim the life of Ernest Miller as he slipped and fell in Heintzen’s store where he was burned to death.

As the ‘great fire of 1883’ progressed up Main Street, the winds changed and the fire jumped the Oregon Creek and eventually burned down the Methodist Church and the Bald Mountain Office. The fire hoses kept bursting which also contributed to the misfortunes of this catastrophe.

When the fire had run its course, nearly all of the provisions in town were gone.  The provisions that were saved reportedly were looted by gangs of Chinamen which led to a posse chasing these men from town (Sacramento Daily Union March 19, 1883).

Additionally, a snow storm was expected to hit and there was a delay in receiving lumber to start the rebuild.

Despite all odds, the townspeople began rebuilding, helping the destitute and even raised money to improve the water hoses for fighting fires. The collective goal was to make this town greater than ever before. Additionally, a new Methodist church was dedicated Sunday Oct 21, 1883, according to The Record Union.

By the late 1880’s, Wm. P. Grant was appointed as the Postmaster. (The Record-Union Nov 11, 1887)

The First Stage Robbery

In 1887, the first known robbery of a stage coach between Forest City and Mountain House took place in late June. According to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, on June 28, a stage was robbed by highwaymen. The driver was wounded by gunfire, but the robbers didn’t get much because the Wells Fargo box contained no valuables. Since the stage route was so short, the stage company “felt so confident of their safety that they never considered a shot-gun messenger necessary.”

The 1890’s

By the 1890’s, there were still many businesses surviving including numerous types of stores, a few saloons, a few hotels, notary office, doctor office, barber shop, post office, telegraph office, a stable and a few other places. C.P. Saxton was appointed the new Postmaster in 1891.

In 1894, another fire ravaged Forest City and destroyed numerous stores, the telegraph office and the Post Office. During this decade, most of the mines had dried up and the town saw another significant decline in population. At the time of the fire, the San Francisco Chronicle (5/15/1894) reports that there was a population of about 250 residents.

In 1897, the residents were proposing to buy the electric plant used by the Bald Mountain Extension Company to illuminate the town. Neighboring Downieville and Sierra City were already supplied with electric light. (Feather River Bulletin Mar 25,1897)

Forest City General Store

Forest City General Store

Early 1900’s

At the turn of the 20th century, Forest City was still on the decline. Many residents had left and many businesses shut down. A few mines reopened and saw some success. This led to a slight uptick in population and commercial growth.

At the end of 1918, what was left of the entire town had been afflicted by influenza (The San Francisco Chronicle Dec 31,1918). Dr. B.J. Laswell came to Forest City to aid in treating this outbreak. The Feather River Bulletin (Jan 23, 1919) reports that there were over 60 reported cases of influenza and that the town was without a physician and a druggist for many years now.

Over the next few decades, the town continued to steadily decline despite short-term success with nearby mines.

Forest City never returned to its glory days and slowly faded back into the shadows of the Tahoe National Forest from which it was born.

The fires of 1936 and 1945 destroyed many of the remaining buildings, essentially leaving us with what we have today.

Modern Day Forest City

In 1996, Forest City was placed on the National Register of Historic Places for being a Historic District. The town was recognized for its historical significance and the effort to preserve this history was in full effect. There are numerous structures that provide glimpses into the different periods of the town’s history. Additionally, you can walk through Forest City and learn more about each structure, view the cemeteries and explore one of the numerous hiking and mountain biking trails.

Map for Self Guided Walking Tour of Forest City

Map for Self Guided Walking Tour of Forest City

A Walking Tour

If you are interested in a self-guided walking tour, the Forest City Historical Association has created a map (supposedly pick up a copy at the Dance Hall) to visit and learn about the two-dozen historic points of interest:

  1. Dance Hall – built after the fire of 1883. It was originally three stories with the top floor housing the Knights of Pythias lodge, the second floor being the dance area, and the first floor housing the barber shop, saloon and billiards hall. In the 1930’s, the top story collapsed due to snow.
  2. Drill Boulder – From the Bald Mountain Mine, this boulder was used for drilling contests during homecoming celebrations in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
  3. Penberthy’s General Store – originally used as an office, this structure was brought down to Main St. in 1902 and used as a dress shop, general store and fountain.
  4. Fire Bell – with so many fires throughout the town’s history, this fire bell has become a symbol of the perseverance and resiliency of the townspeople.
  5. Forest City Meat Market – was built after the fire of 1883 and is 20×40 feet.
  6. Wallis House – a side gabled T plan that was built in 1883. The only significant alterations to this home was the replacement of the original roof with a gabled roof over the front porch and a more modern front door.
  7. McGregor House – constructed in 1883.
  8. Owens Garage – this structure was built in the 1920’s and is 15×15 feet.
  9. Slaughter House
  10. School House – built in 1874.
  11. Fuller House – built in 1864 and has had no major alterations.
  12. Forest City Waterworks
  13. Forest City Waterworks
  14. Baseball Diamond – home to the Forest City Ball Club and also used for other recreational activities.
  15. Pioneer Cemetery – created in 1852, this cemetery was used until the early 1870’s. Eventually, the townspeople began using the Mountain House cemetery due to Pioneer Cemetery being very difficult to access in the winter. There are 30 known gravesites found in this cemetery.
  16. Bald Mountain
  17. North Fork Mine – founded in the 1870’s, this mine lasted until the 1920’s with a few years of inactivity in between. It reportedly produced over $125,000.
  18. China Ranch
  19. Mountain House Cemetery (Oddfellows Cemetery) – originally established by the Oddfellows, it used to include the lodge which collapsed many years ago. It was open to the public by 1870.
  20. Chinese Cemetery – a symbol to the town’s significant Chinese population.
  21. Campbell House – constructed around 1867 and has a ground plan of 30×40 feet. Very minor alterations have been made over the years.
  22. The Track – a rail line that was used by the Bald Mountain Mining Company’s locomotive.
  23. Bald Mountain Mine – opened in 1872 and was one of the region’s most successful mines.
Forest City Wallis House

Forest City Wallis House

Final Words

Forest City is an awesome ghost town experience for visitors, historians, photographers and outdoor enthusiasts. The town sign says that there’s a population of 40 people, but on the day I visited there was only a population of 1. I had the entire town to myself and enjoyed every peaceful moment soaking up the history.

Upon arrival, you can see how this once “pride of the mountains” was seemingly carved out of the forest nearing the base of Bald Mountain. The Oregon Creek provides a soothing background noise while viewing the various structures as you stroll down Main St.

This is a destination that you can visit multiple times and I certainly plan on doing so. The drive out to Forest City is a peaceful one and there’s a lot to see along the way as you travel through Nevada and Sierra Counties. I suggest giving yourself a full day to travel and explore all that Forest City has to offer. If you have some extra time, then head over the hill to the neighboring “ghost town” Alleghany. A special thanks to my friends at Gold Country Explorers for inspiring me to get out and explore this historical town.

Check out more of my articles on California’s Ghost Towns

This is the first installment in a series of articles that I will be writing on Forest City.

 

This  article wouldn’t be possible without the following tremendous resources:

  • Farris and Smith, Illustrated History of Plumas. Lassen and Sierra Counties with California from 1513 to 1850, Published in 1882
  • Sinnott, James J., History of Sierra County Vol 3 Alleghany and Forest City Treasure Towns, Volcano, California, The California Traveler, Inc., 1975
  • http://focus.nps.gov/pdfhost/docs/NRHP/Text/96000942.pdf
  • The brochure for the self-guided walking tour of Forest City – Forest City Historical Association

Directions

From Highway 80 take Highway 49 North to Nevada City. Continue through town and on Highway 49 toward Downieville. At roughly 18 to 19 miles, turn right onto Ridge Rd. This road will take you to Alleghany and beyond. There are signs along the way pointing toward Forest City. At roughly 13 miles, turn left onto Mountain House Rd. and take it a few miles to Forest City. You will cross over the Oregon Creek and arrive at Main St.