Why do we need to keep Shasta SHP open?
by Pat Carr and Jennifer Pooley
Shasta State Historic Park represents a significant part of our area history and cultural landscape. Many travelers, and Shasta County residents, are surprised to discover that the California Gold Rush Era was vigorous in the north state. Admittedly, I drove through the park numerous times thinking, “What could possibly be there? It looks like it is falling apart…” When I finally slowed down, parked the car, and stepped back into time, I found the park beautiful with so much to see and learn about.
Shasta Historical Society has recognized Shasta’s historical significance for a long time, and has launched an effort to keep the park open with the help of the community. Part of the Society’s mission is to spread the knowledge of local history and enjoyment to the public. Old Shasta provides a rich setting and a variety of conveyances to learn about Shasta’s history.
What is the historical significance?
Pearson Barton Reading was the first major land holder in northern California. He established dual citizenship (Mexican and American) to establish his Rancho Buenaventura. Reading was friends with John Sutter, and was working for him as a clerk in Coloma. After John Marshal discovered gold, Sutter tried to keep it quiet, but shared the discovery with two friends, one being Reading. Reading witnessed the discovery site, and then reflected that he had seen placer deposits on his Rancho Buenaventura.
Reading returned to his Rancho and discovered gold in 1848 on Clear Creek. The rush to the “northern mines” began, and between 1850 and 1852, $2.5 million in gold had passed through Shasta. People came from all over the world, including the Chinese who were fleeing extreme hardships in their native countries. People had claims that included both placer and hard rock mining.
Businesses boomed as miners and their families flooded into town. At first, the newcomers were primarily bachelors who had the freedom to chase their fortunes, but in only five years, more women and families were influencing the town development. Many immigrants found supplying the miners more profitable than mining itself, and returned to their vocations before coming to Shasta to support their families. Schools and churches were developed to serve this growing community.
After two disastrous fires in 1852 and 1853, the town’s wooden buildings were reduced to ashes. Merchants started building with brick and iron shutters to make their buildings more fire safe. The row of stately brick buildings was the longest north of Sacramento, and earned Shasta the name “the Queen City”.
It was literally the “end of the road” where stage coaches and freight wagons could go no further. The stage coach and freight businesses were very lucrative as Shasta became the center for commerce.
At Shasta’s peak, there were 70 businesses along Main Street. It was a lively town with book stores, billiard parlors, a bowling alley, saloons, and bakeries. They had big town parades celebrating the Fourth of July and even bull and lion fights. With the influx of people, there eventually come a need for law and order and the courthouse was established.
The landscape began to change
Local gold deposits were playing out, and mining areas began moving farther out beyond Whiskeytown and into the wilderness. Businesses to support miners began developing closer to the active mining areas. Shasta still remained the commercial hub of the north state, and many of our contemporary Redding families have roots in Shasta’s early history.
In the 1870s, the town’s economic state was becoming shaky. Shastans eagerly awaited the decision of the Southern Pacific Railroad, hoping that the railroad would help diversify Shasta’s economy and revive the town. Railroad engineers & surveyors chose Redding for the terminus, beginning the shift of the center of commerce away from Shasta.
In the 1880s, Shasta’s governmental center also shifted away as the county seat was relocated in Redding. Some business owners took their bricks as well as their business, and rebuilt in Redding.
By the 1920s old Shasta was in ruins.
Rescue of the Ruins
Mrs. Mae Helene Bacon Boggs was raised in Shasta by her uncle in the 1870s and 1880s. As an adult she lived primarily in San Francisco, and in the 1920s she was visiting a childhood friend in Redding. The two ladies decided to talk a drive up their old hometown.
Mae Helene was very upset about the ruinous state of her old hometown, and in her determination she decided something needed to be done to preserve what was left of this once important part of the region. She started making arrangements to purchase property that very day.
In the 1920s and 30s, Mrs. Boggs rallied the support of local groups to save this important part of our area history. She worked with many groups, including the Shasta Historical Society and Native Sons of the Golden West, in this conservation effort. They began purchasing land and restoring buildings for the purpose of one day turning it into a park.
Mae Helene’ efforts paid off: her drive to preserve history, and the support of the community, began the development of a treasured keepsake for everyone. She rallied for Shasta for the rest of her life, and in 1950 the Courthouse Museum opened and Shasta became a historic monument. The park has continued to grow and flourish since then.
The blossoming of the park
The Courthouse Museum is one of the focal points for the park. It had a major exhibit renovation in 2000, bringing it to a higher museum standard that attracts visitors from all over the world.
The museum exhibits begin with the local Native American people, the Wintu, and their relationaship to the land. Then the exhibits turn to life during the Gold Rush, and prominent people of the town.
The courtroom and jail have been restored to their appearance in 1860s. George Albro started working in the jail when he was 13 years old, doing janitorial work. He worked into adulthood in the Old Shasta courthouse, and during restoration he was consulted to make the courtroom and jail as authentic as possible.
The jail is one of the favorite parts for children. The ghost is a spooky favorite, and the dark jail cells give visitors a glimpse into grim jail house life .The gallows in the exercise yard are a stark reminder of severe justice in times gone by.
People enjoy looking at the weapons collection in the old sheriff’s office: from the older firearms to the ship canon.
Before Mrs. Boggs died, she gifted her 300 piece California fine art collection to the park in honor of her uncle, Williamson Lyncoya Smith, who raised her in Shasta. Two galleries display 98 pieces of the collection, furniture, musical instruments, and objects of entertainment. The pioneer barn and adjacent parkland make a great place for picnics and outdoor weddings.
Frank Litsch tried mining and bartending, until he founded the Litsch General Store. Even after the economic center shift after the Gold Rush years, the Litsch store remained in business. It advertised the Free Museum to travelers while still selling some necessities. When the park acquired the Litsch store in the 1960s, there were still pioneer era store items in their original boxes. This is one of the finest examples of a Gold Rush era general store in California. Today, volunteers help present the Litsch General Store, and also operate the adjacent Leo Store which sells memorabilia.
The ruins have a new boardwalk and interpretive panels. They are structurally beautiful, and give people a feeling for the size of the old town. Photographers love the red brick buildings, and some of the original store names can still be seen.
A short walk from the courthouse is the Washington Brewery building, which was built in 1855 and is still standing. The Catholic Cemetery is on the hill to the brewery’s west. The Catholic Cemetery was transferred to the park in 1986, and provides a unique opportunity to explore pioneer lives. The park staff have applied for Proposition 84 funds and received the resources to conserve the cemetery’s masonry and ironwork. These restoration efforts have brought the cemetery back an honorable monument in history.
The newest addition is the blacksmith shop which offers both demonstrations and classes for adults and older children. What started as an empty building has now grown into a full blacksmith shop where volunteers teach the craft that was vital to the pioneer times. The blacksmiths also provide demonstrations and fabricate pieces for the Leo Gift Shop.
Introducing Students to Local History
Shasta has a junior docent program with Stellar Charter School and Shasta Elementary School. The docents select a character from Shasta’s history and then present school programs while in character. Primarily third and fourth graders participate in school programs, but scout troops and home school groups also come.
The junior docents train during the fall semester, perfecting their living history character and learning how to do activities with students. The docents learn how to play different games that were popular during the Gold Rush Era. The field trips help local schools fulfill curriculum requirements while the students have fun learning about life during the Gold Rush. The Shasta Miners set-up a Gold Rush game where visiting students have a ‘claim’ they mine for gold. Then they “go to town” and learn about what settlers spent money on.
Other junior docent students learn to give tours of the Courthouse, and give art lessons in the galleries. Junior docents also help with special events and add youthful energy to the park. Adult docents also assist with school tours at the courthouse, and teaching about ‘shopping in the old days’ at the Litsch General Store.
All the volunteers like to help with the Holiday in the Parks event that Shasta and Whiskeytown coordinate every December. Cookie decorating in the bakery is a favorite activity, and visitors enjoy making candles and stopping at the pioneer camp. Heritage Day is a Spring event where all the docents present special activities to students from Shasta Elementary School, French Gulch Elementary, and Stellar Charter School.
The park’s involvement with other community groups are conservation projects with the McConnell Scholars and Earth Day projects removing invasive species from the park. In the fall, local residents enjoy the October Full Moon Cemetery Walks that explore personal histories of people interred.
What we stand to lose if the park closes and the collection is shipped to storage
There are several different collections at Shasta, which include over 23,000 items. The items in this collection come from over 200 donors who generously share their pieces of history with Shasta County residents to international visitors.
In addition to the art collection donated by Mrs. Boggs, she gifted a portion of her library which included early California and Nevada History, rare books, and historical documents from significant events.
Throughout the museum there are period pieces of furniture, clothing, toys, and courthouse life. The weapons collection has pieces from different wars, and the art collection is an extraordinary representation of Early California Fine Art. The park archives are extensive with photographs, correspondence, newspapers, courthouse records, and financial documents. The vehicles and machinery collections give visitors a sense of work and activities during a time when power resources were quite different. The park has such a variety collections that visitors are bound to find something they enjoy. The museum is a great year-round destination for guests, since it is cool in the summer, and warm in the winter.
It’s importance for all of us to keep the park open. We need to keep our history and collections here as an essential part of north state culture.