What's in a name?

What's in a name?

Jim Murray goes in search of Whiskeytown and encounters more water than whiskey

Travel | 16 Mar 1999 | Issue 2 | By Jim Murray

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One hundred and fifty years ago this year, America’s greatest gold rush began. The Forty-niners headed for California in their tens of thousands, doubling and doubling again the population of this remote part of the continent.With the prospectors came towns, and with towns came bars, and with bars came alcohol. So why was it that local distilleries did not follow? With all the clean water gushing down from the hills, and the plains which soon began attracting farmers, this was surely prime distilling country. Supplies of whiskey from Kentucky and other states took a long time to arrive, and attracted premium prices when they did. Why did no entrepreneur set up a large-scale, long-term distilling enterprise?And yet, on maps of northern California, where the first mining camps were located, there is actually a community called Whiskeytown. I had long wondered if this was the answer to the conundrum: the place where local whiskey was made. Last autumn I finally visited it.The journey today is a simple matter of flying to San Francisco and then driving for four hours or so northwards past Sacramento to Redding, and then taking the mountain road to Eureka. In 1849, without trains or roads, and simply following the setting sun, the journey took anything up to six months from the east across country by wagon or river. Many prospectors took their life in their hands by rounding Cape Horn in clippers or any other vessel they could find that was sailing to San Francisco. As they passed the Golden Gate into the sanctuary of San Francisco harbour, they were perhaps scarcely aware that it had been so named long before gold had been found nearby.The first gold had been discovered at Sutter’s Mill, just north of Sacramento. That was in January or March 1848 (depending on whose history you believe); either way, it was December before the president formally announced the strike to the nation. It was 1849, when winter had abated, that the stampede for California began in earnest.It was the gulches and ravines where creeks cascaded towards the Feather, Sacramento and Yuba rivers that the first prospectors began finding the pure metal that millions of years of erosion had so obligingly left around to be discovered. But they were soon played out, and other areas of California were investigated. One of those was a beautiful mountain area of creek and pine known only to native Indians and fur trappers. By 1849 there were a number of camps dotted around, with men seeking their fortune from sunrise to sunset and not a woman in sight.Some of these camps disappeared quickly. Others lingered on and even fostered communities. On October 15 1862 William Brewer, a scientist who was part of the first team to map a geological survey of California, penned in his diary: ‘After breakfast... Remond and I started on mules for Weaverville, 40 miles distant among the mountains west of Shasta. Over a mountain six miles to Whisky, a little mining place on Clear Creek - once clear, but fowl enough from mining now....’This was Whiskeytown. But the aptly-named Brewer later found another one, of which today there is no trace at all: ‘September 12 [1863] we were off early, passed several little mining towns, Whiskey Diggings, Potosi, Rowland Flat etc.’ This now lost camp of Whiskey Diggings probably predated Whiskeytown as it was found on the other side of the Sacramento River and further south, quite close to the origninal strike at Sutter’s Mill, which forever changed the face of America’s West. However, probably little more than a nest of lean-tos, it was located on a track in much steeper mountain country, and once the gold had vanished it was obvious that the miners did too.But Whiskeytown was different. Being a mere1973 feet above sea level it was in an area much more sympathetic to any possible road engineering for a route between Redding and Weaverville, and then on to the Pacific. But something had happened to allow the town to flourish, despite the fact that being in the very wildest of the wild west, battles with Indians and scalpings carried on into the 1850s. The secret was tht gold deposits were rich enough and lasted long enough for ancillary professtions to begin. First came an hotel, then a store; then as women were brought into the area, sometimes by miners who already had a wife and children, schools and churches. What was noticeable
from my researches was a depressing lack of distillers. In fact it transpires the town got its name by accident.In 1849 those very first prospectors were pan mining every bit of silt and gravel they could find around the Clear Creek region. One of them, Billie Peterson, was crossing another creek which ran into it from the north with his pack mule when the barrel of whiskey it was carrying fell into the water, spilling its contents. From that moment the tributary was named Whisky Creek, without an e. Another tributary nearby was promptly named Brandy Creek, in an exercise of 19th century humour.
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