The discovery of gold at Bidwell Bar on the middle fork of the Feather River in 1848 drew thousands to create one of the first gold mining towns in Northern California. Originally called “Ophir,” a biblical name for an area of precious minerals, the town was renamed in 1854: Oroville. “Oro” is Spanish for gold.
The town served as a junction for frenzied arteries of transport between steamboats, supply wagons and the miners. The area later prospered with lumber, citrus and olive orchards, the railroad and the labor of optimists. In the 1960s, mine tailings were recycled into the Oroville dam to control flooding.
This year, the main spillway of the dam crumbled and water poured over the emergency spillway, threatening the town and its residents. More than 185,000 people evacuated the area; they returned days later. Residents have lived with the threat of flooding since the Gold Rush.
And even though the town has grown beyond those seeking to strike it rich, the lure of gold continues to be profitable in Oroville. Joey Wilson’s store, Adventures in Prospecting, sells gold panning kits, sluices, apparel and more on Montgomery Street in the historic district. Miner’s Alley Brewing Co. is nearby.
The streets are broad and mostly lined with 19th century facades. Elegant Victorians populate bordering neighborhoods. The old Oroville Inn has been transformed into student residences for the Northwest Lineman College. A charming gift shop and design business features art by talented illustrator Mary Lake-Thompson. From antiques to clothing, merchandise is creatively displayed for treasure hunters.
Lori Pierce represents six Oroville generations and is committed to historic restoration. Across the street from her café, she and her husband are rehabilitating The Washington Building, built 1856, the oldest surviving commercial building in Butte County.
A slogan over Bolt’s Antique Tool Museum says, “remove the dust but leave the rust.” This could apply to Oroville today – a little shabby, slightly vacant, but not neglected … and the gold is still here.
Stephanie Taylor is a Sacramento artist. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at stephanietaylorart.com.