BY LAWRENCE A. CENOTTO
We highly recommend visiting the Jackson Civic Center at 33 Broadway to view the unique murals and photo exhibit which tell the history of Jackson from camp, town, to city, with commentary by each mural artist.
Jackson -- a city which gold, girls, gambling, and government has enlivened for over 160 years -- was born soon after the gold discovery at Coloma. Of course, untold generations of Miwok (Miwuk) Native Americans, and maybe unknown races, inhabited the environs, if not the place. A ford of a creek and adjacent spring accommodated them.
Main Street c 1858
GOLD! The first non-Native Americans here, a few months after gold’s discovery, were probably native Californios of Spanish-Mexican descent. Also arriving that summer were soldiers and sailors who deserted to flock to rich diggings along the Mokelumne River.
Who knows why some Spanish-speaking miner or party dubbed the place Botellas or “bottles” in 1848? We only know that H. H. Bancroft, the legendary state historian, identified the place as Botellas on his 1848 map of northern California’s mining region.
Probably few if any of the camp’s 1848 miners settled in Botellas but a trading post was established on high ground 100 yards or so north of the ford and spring, beneath a spreading live oak which would soon became infamous.
Sometime before the fall of 1849, when more Yankee Argonauts flooded in, Botellas (the creek and camp) became Jackson’s Creek, either after some locally-celebrated or nationally-known “Jackson.” Nearby, other miners named Sutter’s Creek after John Sutter of Sutter’s Fort, Amador Creek after Jose Maria Amador.
When middling placers stopped paying a day’s wages, many miners drifted away. But in spring, 1851, prospecting miners discovered gold in quartz rock ledges near Amador village a few miles northerly. Another rush began for gold in hard rock and Jackson became a market and government center for the region.
Louisian House Hotel at the site of the current National Hotel
INTRIGUE! In 1851, at least three events abetted the camp’s permanency: it got a post office, U.S. mail stage delivery, and political spoils when the upstart won election as county seat of Calaveras.
"Hanging Tree" - Marked with a plaque today on Main Street
Maddened Mokelumne Hill politicians cozened the state legislature to wrest the seat from Jackson in 1852. In retaliation, politicians in Jackson tried to create a new county of Calaveras north of the river. When secession failed to form a county named Mokelumne in ‘52 and ‘53, Jackson incorporated as a town, and resolved to become county seat of a new county by whatever name.
Incidentally, that infamous above-mentioned live oak claimed its first lynchee in 1851 and other lynch mobs elevated nine more victims through 1855 -- Jackson’s live oak was the one of most lethal in the gold country.
Jackson and other northern Calaveras politicians continued to agitate for a new county and in May, 1854, the governor signed a bill giving male Calaverans the liberty to vote to divide Calaveras and create Amador County. That election on June 14, 1854, was so corrupt that no one then, or now, could determine the real outcome.
But northern Calaveras forces won the propaganda war and created the new county. At the first Amador County election that July when voters selected the county’s first officers, they also gave little Jackson (the five-year old village was described as “having over 100 homes, some two-story”) enough votes to become the county seat.
The west side of Main Street after the 1855 fire
FIRE! Now Jackson’s founding merchants and organizations began building in stone and brick. In 1855, fire struck the westerly side of Main. After that fire, several stores were rebuilt in brick, some surviving today. But that fire was mere prelude to the awful conflagration of August 23, 1862, which consumed the court house and most of the stores on Main, Water, and Summit Streets. Within two years, mostly brick buildings rose on southerly Main and survive today.
It took time but Jackson finally reaped riches from three of its gold mines in the late 19th century, decades after other Amador mines made stockholders rich. The Kennedy, Zeile and the Argonaut hit pay rock and became, with government, gaming and girls, the economic foundation of Jackson.
At the century’s turn, Jackson had about 3,000 residents, with three churches, three newspapers, four hotels, five boarding houses, two candy factories, cigar and macaroni factories, eight physicians and two dentists. In 1905, Jackson became the first incorporated city in the county.
A member of the rescue team at the site of California's worst mining tragedy
DISASTER! In 1922 Jackson was in the world’s headlines when the state’s worst mining tragedy smothered the lives of 47 miners deep within the Argonaut Mine. The burial sites of the miners are featured in three Jackson cemeteries today.
World War II ended Jackson’s gold mining industry in early 1942 though ample gold remained. For years after the war there was talk of reactivating the mines but gold’s price did not justify the expense to re-work and de-water their miles of shafts and drifts.
Though mining died, timber harvest and milling continued and intensified circa 1940 with the arrival of Amador Lumber. Can you imagine semi-trucks and trailers loaded with tree sections, bending their way through downtown Main and out Broadway, the state highway then? In 1948, after the war, the state division of highways finally by-passed downtown with Highways 49 and 88.
In the 1950s came the closure of Jackson’s nickel-in-the-slot machines, other gaming, and its “girls dormitories” which name proper insurance maps used for its bawdy houses. To commemorate those wide-open days, certain ad hoc Clamper-types in 1968 implanted in Jackson’s sidewalk a heart-shaped plaque on Valentine’s Day. It, note well, was the first to recognize the utility and role of Jackson’s prostitutes during its halcyon days. As you can imagine, that dedication was read and talked about ‘round the world.
REVIVAL! With such a rich historical heritage and industrious people, Jackson, the county seat of Amador County since 1854, continues to thrive. In recent times, a renaissance of downtown has begun as businesses have been restoring historical facades.