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You can see today evidence of the rich history of Jamestown, in the architecture of the buildings and homes along Main Street, at Railtown 1897, the state park that has preserved the turn-into-the-20th century beginnings of the steam Sierra Railway, and at Woods Crossing, the gold discovery site just west of town.
The first gold in the county discovered by whites (Indians knew about the gold, but did not value it) was found at Woods Crossing, pictured at left as it looked only a few years ago. The site had been preserved, even to the point of allowing Woods Creek to flow directly over the roadway, rather than building a bridge or culvert. Finally, a few years ago the county repaved the road after a storm and installed a culvert underneath.

That first gold was discovered by Benjamin Wood, from Oregon, and the crossing, and Woods Creek, which runs through Sonora and Jamestown, were named for the discoverer.
This was in the early summer of 1848, a few months after the famous gold discovery at Sutter's Mill that started the Gold Rush, about a hundred miles north of here at Coloma. Miners quickly came to the area, and for years afterwards, Woods Creek was filled with miners washing dirt that they dug out of the creek, seeking flakes or nuggets.

Many made significant finds in that first year. The gold at Sutter's Mill was discovered in January of 1848 and Sutter initially tried to keep it secret. This failed, and a large proportion of the settlers then in California traveled to the Gold Country to mine. However, that year--when the gold was easiest to find--mostly involved those already in the West. Although accounts of the gold discovery were published in Eastern newspapers, they were not widely believed, and it took time to get to California from the east. Finally, in December of 1848, President McKinley made a speech to Congress about the gold discovery, having received rich samples. In 1849, the mass migration of miners from the east began, by wagon, by ship around Cape Horn or in the two-stage ship journey via the jungles of Panama.

Jamestown, like many other such towns, went through a succession of booms and busts. Many towns in the area simply disappeared after the easy pickings of the Gold Rush ended. Jamestown survived, going through two major boom periods, although both eventually fizzeled out, and it never grew as large as its bigger sister, Sonora, which became a business and government center and also sustained itself after the placer mining ran out by rich underground "pocket mines" beneath the city.

Jamestown was named for a man named Col. George F. James, a flamboyant attorney who came here from San Francisco with an entourage. He set up shop in a tent near Woods Creek and sold groceries, mining equipment. (The tent at the far right of the drawing here may have been James') He became the town's first alcade, a sort of combination mayor, judge, city clerk, and advisor to all that was part of the Mexican legal system in force at the time. James persuaded the town's population to invest in various schemes that did not pan out, and disappeared overnight, leaving many unhappy residents.
Jamestown enjoyed a second boom beginning in the late 1880s. It was known that gold could be found underground, but most of it was embedded in quartz rock. Although some of it, like that in the "pocket mines" of Sonora, was concentrated gold, most of it was lower grade, with relatively little gold per ton of quartz rock. There were a few quartz mines in the 1850s, but the effort faltered because of the difficulty of getting the quartz rock out and of extracting the gold.

However, in the late 1880s, pneumatic drills became available that made it easier to place blasting materials. Better techniques for extracting gold from the quartz rock were also developed, including chlorination, and another process, in which gold combined with chemicals, known as sulpherets, were shipped by wagon to furnaces in the San Francisco Bay Area that could recover the gold.

Jamestown was at the center of most of the new underground quartz mines, and it boomed again. This boom grew larger for Jamestown when, in 1898, a stream railroad was built to connect the relatively isolated foothills area to the Valley. The railroad first connected Jamestown to Oakdale, 35 miles to the west, which was already part of an extensive railroad network. Jamestown was picked to be the headquarters for the railroad, and many of the workers for the railroad lived in Jamestown, and a roundhouse (which can still be seen today) was built a few blocks from today's downtown.
The railroad made it easier, faster, and cheaper to transport quartz ore for processing to the chlorination plants and furnaces, and lumber, which began to be cut and shipped out in greater quantity in the early 1900s, to the rest of California. Supplies were shipped back to the county. Passenger service was also popular, with high school students traveling to school from all over the county to the train station in Sonora, and then walking up the main street to the new Sonora High School north of town.
Branch lines for the railroad were built from Jamestown to Sonora, to Angels Camp, and to Tuolumne City. Additional rail lines, financed by the same people who built the Sierra Railway, were built to extend the railroad deep into the forest. From Tuolumne City, where there was a lumber mill, a railroad was built by the West Side Flume and Lumber Company (they abandoned the idea of using a flume to transport logs, but kept the name). From Standard, a few miles east of Sonora, another lumber mill was built, and the Sugar Pine Railroad was built, again deep in the forest through what is now Twain Harte and extending to Lyons Reservoir and to branch lines in many parts of the forest where there were lumber mills.

Jamestown's boom persisted into the nineteen teens, but higher costs and shortages of needed supplies--many caused in part by World War 1, made mining more difficult, and mines began closing down. By the end of World War 2, only a few mines were still operating. The Sierra railroad's extensive rail network begain shrinking, faced by competition from motor trucks. The lines to the forests were abandoned, as was the line to Tuolumne City and to Angels Camp.
However, the Sierra Railway itself, unlike the vast majority of other short railway lines, survived, and it continues today, mainly hauling (with diesel locomotives) lumber and lumber products from mills in Standard and Chinese Camp to Oakdale. Jamestown itself has also survived. It was the area's Red Light District until the 1950s, when Governor Pat Brown, then Attorney General, shut that form of entrepreneurism down. Jamestown's economy today is mainly tourism.

See also the history of the nearby town Sonora CA.