Time Machines

On September 14, 1849, Francis Anderson found gold at the confluence of the Yuba and Downie rivers, where the town of Downieville now sits. Within a year, thanks to the abundance of said precious metal, the town had 15 hotels, four butcher shops and multiple saloons. After years of booming and even more of busting, the town now has a population of about 300 people. Photo courtesy of California State Library

Time Machines The Trails of Downieville, California Connect a Gritty Past and Pragmatic Future

For a town of 325 citizens, Downieville, California, is home to a lot of ghosts.

They wander through the 150-year-old buildings lining the scrap of downtown; they haunt the 7,000-foot heights above, silently chipping away in the ruins of countless tunnels from one of California’s most prolific mining booms. They fish the banks of the three rivers that collide at the center of town, pulling in equally ethereal river trout. They chop and saw away at trees of primordial size, many of them destined for mine shoring, bridge abutments, or railway beds.

A decade ago, it seemed as if Downieville would become a ghost itself, rotting then fading from Northern California’s treacherous topography like so many other mining or timber towns. And it would have, if not for one spectral thread: In the Lost Sierra, the ghosts all built trails. Generations after their creators are gone, a group of passionate inhabitants are using those trails to breathe renewed life into a 300-person town that was once home to 5,000.

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The “booming” town of Downieville with the Yuba River at its center, circa 1920. Photo courtesy of California State Library

Born from a maxed-out credit card, a van and one chainsaw, fueled by mountain biking’s rowdiest race, and shaped by a grassroots organization’s unintentional vision, Downieville’s newest trail builders are determined to keep the town away from the afterlife by creating something that will last for generations.

“We had no imagination beyond growing the trail system,” says Greg Williams, founder and executive director of that organization, the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship (SBTS). “But as we started to do that, it really started to be about the people. How do we keep families here? How do we keep each other involved? That’s been the next level of the whole stewardship. The trails are the easy part.”

Draped across the ceiling of Northern California, the Lost Sierra makes for an impressive setting. Covering roughly 40 square miles of Plumas and Sierra counties, the region is a tangle of 8,500-foot-high granite towers, sawtooth ridgelines, alpine meadows and turquoise lakes, fissured by deep canyons. Quincy, population 1,750, marks the Lost Sierra’s north end; Graeagle, population 750, marks the east. At the south end, tucked into one of these valleys at the confluence of the Downie and North Yuba rivers, is the tiny town of Downieville.