Bidwell's Bar

California Gold Rush Camps

The Book Club of California 1991 Keepsake

His home a village rudely built upon auriferous soil
His life is one of changing scenes - of hard, unceasing toil.

Bidwell's Bar

SUBMERGED UNDER LAKE OROVILLE lies a mining town that flourished in the I850s. Bidwell's Bar served as the Butte County Seat, saw the construction of the first suspension bridge in California, and from its sail grew the seedling that became the "Mother Orange Tree" of California. Located on the Middle Fork of the Feather River and a few miles east of Oroville, Bidwell's Bar boomed and then busted, making it one of California's first ghost towns.

John Bidwell, that famed "Prince of the Pioneers," friend of John Sutter and leader of the first overland emigration train to California, known as the Bidwell-Bartleson Party, was at Sutter's Fort shortly after James Marshall discovered gold at Coloma. Learning that the rocks and crevices of Sierra streams and rivers trapped gold, Bidwell set out for his Rancho Chico to organize a gold-hunting expedition. On the way, he stopped near Hamilton's Bend on the Feather River, found small flakes of gold, and reasoned that even larger flakes could be found upriver. With four cronies, Bidwell prospected along the Middle Fork of the Feather, finding more particles of "oro." One evening, while camping at a place called White Rocks, he dipped his wash pan into the water, swished it around, and pulled out about an ounce of the golden flakes. Two of his companions, expecting to find the precious metal in large chunks, scoffed at this "light gold" and took off. Bidwell and his remaining amigos knew better and reaped their reward. The story goes that the pioneer made this discovery July 4, 1848, but according to Bidwell biographer Rockwell D. Hunt, no evidence exists to support that patriotic date.

About 1854, an unknown artist painted a tranquil Bidwell's Bar. In the foreground, a miner wheelbarrows a load of paydirt, a hunter returns to town with his dog, obviously headed towards Pratt's Exchange for a libation, and a woman walks with a small child towards the plaza with its two high-flying flags, Miner's Store, National Hotel, and stable. Meantime, Joseph Glucknaff agent for Anan Fargo & Co's Daily Express to Marysville (connecting with Wells, Fargo & Co's Express) stands ready to ship gold dust or send letters. Across the river, in pro-bridge days, a mule train arrives with supplies. [Courtesy California State Library]

Seizing the moment, Bidwell put to work a host of Native Americans (Indians). Learning the rudiments of gold panning, they labored for him for two seasons in exchange for food and clothing. As others heard of the "strike" and poured in, the enterprising Bidwell opened a store selling supplies to fellow miners at a neat profit. Just how much gold Bidwell's work force pulled out of the natural riffles of the Feather River is not known, but his patience with "light gold" and profits from his store yielded enough to finance his great agricultural empire.

Like dozens of other mining centers, this auriferous spot near the junction of the North and Middle forks of the Feather River took on the name of its founder. Bidwell's Bar attracted a horde of gold seekers, and on July 10, 185 I, it demonstrated enough stability to warrant the establishment of a post office. By 1853, the bar boasted a tributary population of 3,000 and began taking on "cosmopolitan airs." With its growing importance, it wrested the Butte County scat from Hamilton, while three stage lines from Marysville made daily trips. Substantial buildings rose and all kinds of businesses, ranging from hotels to saloons to drug stores, lined its streets. Besides satisfying more prosaic needs, the town offered theatrical performances, frequent balls, and a book store. Reflecting the need for fraternal support, the Masons and Odd Fellows organized lodges. On November 12, 1853, the county's first newspaper, the Weekly Butte Record, began its long and distinguished run of publishing.

Demonstrating that no place was off limits when it came to gold seeking, the rich deposits found in the middle of town proved to be a mixed blessing as described by Harry L. Wells in his History of Butte County (1882):

It was not very pleasant to have an eager gold-hunter exploring subterranean caverns directly beneath your store, or sinking prospect holes at its rear entrance. Even the streets were not exempt from invasion, and blockades occurred daily on nearly every thoroughfare.

For several mining seasons, Bidwell's Bar jumped, but that scourge of mining towns - fire - roared through the streets on August 2, 1854, destroying much of the town. With more gold to be had and fortunes to be made, its residents rebuilt the town in a short three months.

The problem of getting men, freight, and cattle across the river caused the residents to agitate for the construction of a bridge. Reliance on a ferry, particularly during the winter when the Feather turned into a torrent, did not suffice, and ambitious townspeople raised sufficient funds to undertake the project. Manufactured in Troy, New York, the bridge parts were shipped around Cape Horn to San Francisco, brought upriver to Marysville, and freighted by wagon to the bar. Ironically, in 1856, the same year that Bidwell's Bar began its decline, the 240-foot-long span opened. It ranks as the first suspension bridge west of the Mississippi and remained open to vehicle traffic until I954. With the building of the Oroville Dam and impending loss of this landmark, the state legislature provided funds to dismantle and move it to high ground. The span now graces the south side of Lake Oroville at Bidwell Canyon and accommodates foot traffic.

A living landmark also survives from those rough and ready days. Sometime in 1856, a Judge Joseph Lewis planted an orange seedling imported from Mazatlan, Mexico. Known as the "Mother Orange" of California, this Mediterranean Sweet brought to the region a new form of gold, the citrus industry. Lewis's tree grew to the astonishing height of sixty feet, survived frosts and floods, and preservationists rescued her from the waters of Lake Oroville, as they had the bridge. The "mother" tree still lives, and a "daughter" tree (grown from a cutting) at the visitor's center ensures hot continued legacy.

As quickly as Bidwell's Bar rose, it fell. An article in the December 1856 San Francisco Bulletin called it "Another Deserted Village." Its seemingly inexhaustible supply of gold petered out, and miners stampeded to the rich diggings in nearby Ophir (Oroville). By 1857, the population dwindled to about zoo, and by 1882, to thirty! In 1968, with the completion of that great earthen wall known as Oroville Dam and the creation of Lake Oroville, the last remaining remnants of John Bidwell's town wore doomed to a watery grave.


GARY F. KURUTZ is Curator of Special Collections at the California State Library and author of The California Gold Rush: A Descriptive Bibliography (The Book Club of California, 1997).

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Last updated 12/1998 by Christian Steimel.