Downieville sits in a magnificent, rugged, wooded natural amphitheater surrounded by lofty, pine-covered peaks. The town, founded in late 1849 by Major William Downie, was originally known as “The Forks” for its location at the confluence of the Downie River and North Fork of the Yuba River. It was soon renamed after its founder, a Scotsman who had led an expedition of miners up the North Fork of the Yuba in the autumn of that year. They struck it rich in gold, built some log cabins, settled in to wait out the winter . . . and of course, the word spread. By 1850, Downieville boasted 15 hotels, 4 bakeries, 4 butcher shops, and numerous saloons. It was the center of a wide circle of mining camps extending up and down both rivers and their tributaries—all very rich in placer gold. By 1851, the population had increased to more than 5,000, and the values of the extracted ores brought vast wealth to a few prospectors. In 1853, Downieville vied with other contestants to become the state capital of California. It lost, but has remained, as it was then, the county seat of Sierra County. Like other early gold towns, its population declined as the gold supply dwindled. At its prime, Downieville was an active business and cultural center, but it may never live down its notorious historic reputation as the only town in Gold Rush California that hanged a woman, in 1851, for murder. Today, tourists come to Downieville to pan for gold in the streams, enjoy outdoor recreational activities, and visit the Downieville Museum, housed in a stone building dating from 1852.
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