Chances are you’ve heard of John Sutter and the discovery of gold on his ranch in Sacramento, California. This world-famous event escalated into a full-scale gold rush with tens of thousands of immigrants flooding into what would soon become the State of California. The shape of history was changed forever as the miners, and those who supplied them, came.
But have you heard of Trinity County? Before 1830, there was not a single westerner in this remote region of California. The hunter and trapper Jedediah Strong Smith, trailblazer extraordinaire, was most likely the first white man to be seen in that region. It wasn’t until 1848, however, that Major P. Reading found gold in what would be named the Trinity River.
Major Reading thought that the river ran to the coast, to Trinidad; Trinity is the English translation of that settlement’s name. He made an error, but the name stuck in the names of the county, its mountain range (the Trinity Alps) Trinity dam, lake and of course, the river.
The news spread and the peaceful mountains started to be overrun with immigrants. Towns such as Weaverville, Helena and Junction City sprang into life. Among the new arrivals where three thousand Chinese miners who endured hardships and were treated poorly by the other miners. In 1873 they created one of Trinity County’s most enduring beauties, the stunning Joss House in Weaverville.
The gods chosen for this structure, now a state park, represented fortitude and protection from the frequent devastating forest fires. It’s well worth paying the minimal fee to go inside and look at the lavish decorations.
The Trinity County miners used placer mining to extract their gold. It ranges from panning and sluicing right up to environmentally destructive hydraulic mining. The largest placer mine in the world was La Grange mine, on Oregon Mountain just west of Weaverville. Operating until 1942, a historical marker and interpretive signs on the eastbound side of highway 299 tell the story of the mine and you can still see the scars where ore was blasted out of the river bed. The La Grange mine is a California state historic landmark.
Today, Weaverville is still the county seat for Trinity County, with a full complement of accommodations and restaurants plus an interesting history museum. But the other towns, once thriving, are either ghost towns or have only a few year-round residents. You can still pan for gold if you know where to look, and many do subsidize their income in this way.
Trinity County was one of the original counties when California was granted statehood in 1850, and remains one of the most remote. It is the only county in California with no traffic lights, and no freeways run through it. Among local residents, this is a point of pride!
These days almost nobody makes their living from gold panning, and the region’s gold rush days have given way to a different sort of treasure. Trinity County is a wonderful venue for recreation– there are beautiful lakes for water sports, hiking trails and opportunities for river exploration, fishing, wildlife spotting, history-hunting and hiking.