Cheryl Anne Stapp
First Great Gold Camp on the Feather
In July 1848, a young man named John Bidwell discovered gold on the Middle Fork of the Feather River. His discovery was not by chance. Bidwell, formerly a clerk at John Sutter’s trading post, had also, for a time, managed Sutter’s agricultural farm on the Feather River; and he was among the first to know of the gold discovery at Coloma the previous January.
By the summer of 1849, the mining camp known as Bidwell’s Bar had become a bustling hub community as hundreds of prospectors flocked to Bidwell’s site or set up other camps along the nearby rivers and streams. Merchants established stores to supply the miners’ needs. Soon The tent village mushroomed into a small town of wood and stone buildings, although the place remained rustic, with no suitable accommodations for travelers.
Ferrying people and supplies across the river proved to be difficult, especially during the winter months. Townspeople raised funds to construct the Bidwell Bar Bridge, the first suspension bridge west of the Mississippi River. The bridge was destroyed in the 1852 flood, yet by 1853 the population had swelled to 2,000, and a post office opened. The state moved the Butte County seat to Bidwell's Bar, re-naming it simply “Bidwell.” A fire destroyed much of the town in 1854—although it was quickly rebuilt—and a new suspension bridge was completed in 1856. By then, however, the gold was nearly depleted. Miners moved on to nearby Oroville, which became the new county seat in 1856. Thereafter the population of Bidwell’s Bar dwindled to 200, and by 1882, only 30 people remained. The post office operated until 1900.
The last remnants of Bidwell’s Bar were submerged beneath Lake Oroville in 1968, but the 1856 bridge is still there, relocated to the south side of Lake Oroville by preservationists. John Bidwell was a member of the 1841 Bartleson-Bidwell Party, the first organized group of American settlers to cross the Sierra Nevada.