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Gold rush era city of firsts

The tiny yet charming 209 community of Volcano in Amador County is perhaps the only town in California that can lay claim to witnessing a Civil War battle.

At least that’s the legend of this unique Gold Rush era community that was a bustling place of more than 5,000 inhabitants in 1860 and home to only 40 persons 161 years later.

Many a visitor has been duped by the town’s name. There is no volcano rather the town was named so because early settlers and miners thought the bowl-shaped valley resembled a large volcano.

Although small, Volcano is a town of many firsts in California. Volcano had the first:

Thespian group, debating society and circulating library in the state (1854);

Private school and first private law school in California (1855);

Legal hanging in Amador County (1856);

Astronomical observatory in California (1860);

Solar still in California (1978).

Volcano was founded after several immigrant trails were forged through the Sierra Nevada at Carson Pass. The area was settled in late 1848 by a New York regiment of soldiers commanded by Colonel Jonathan D. Stevenson. The soldiers suffered through a hard winter and some died. Their bodies were discovered by Mexican miners after spring melted away their tombs of snow and were buried in the ground. The survivors began mining in what is now known as Soldiers Gulch and their discoveries of gold drew thousands and a town quickly popped up.

In 1851 a post office was established in Volcano and by April 1852 there were 300 homes. By 1853 the flats and gulches swarmed with men, and the business community consisted of 11 stores, six hotels, three bakeries, and three saloons – a requirement for any respectable gold camp. Hydraulic mining operations began in 1855 and brought thousands of fortune seekers to form a town of 17 hotels, a library, a theater, and courts of quick justice.

Volcano almost became the county seat in 1854 and again in 1857, but the town quickly declined as the mines were tapped out. The town newspaper folded in 1857.

For a brief few years, the community became wealthy because of gold.

It was the gold bullion that was the center of a skirmish that is dubiously billed today as California’s only Civil War battle.

Volcano was split right down the middle during the Civil War, with half supporting the Union and the other sympathetic to the South. Because much of the wealth created by the $98 million worth of gold coming out of Volcano’s claims went to support the Union war effort, the Confederates in town hatched a diabolical idea to even the score – they plotted to interrupt the shipment of gold and divert it to the South. Word leaked out and, as legend has it to ward off any attempt a small troop of Union militia called the Volcano Blues petitioned the arsenal in Benicia for some artillery. All that could be spared was a 737-pound, Boston-manufactured brass cannon from the Mexican era. It fired a 6-pound ball and could do a great deal of damage to the quickly built wooden structures in Volcano.

The large gun, manufactured by Cyrus Alger & Co. in Boston in 1835, was transported by riverboat to Sacramento and smuggled up the Carson Pass Road into Volcano at night by means of a hearse.

There are different versions of what happened next. One story is that when the rebels started marching down the street to intercept the gold, the Blues unveiled the cannon and the sight effectively warded them off.

The other more dramatic version is that the Volcano Blues fired one warning shot after warning all the pro-Union businessmen to open their windows to keep them from breaking. A blank charge with lots of powder was detonated along Consolation Street, the blast shattering the windows of the rebel-owned businesses.

The original Old Abe cannon is displayed in a shelter along the main street in town. It is the first of two six-pounders made on the same day to be stamped with serial number 4. Its twin cannon is on display at Shiloh Battlefield in Tennessee.

The cannon isn’t the only Volcano relic dating back to the 1860s. Hoisted high on a towering metal frame, the Thomas Starr King bell was donated to the town by Unitarian preacher Thomas Starr King in 1862 in gratitude for its support of the Union and the election of Abraham Lincoln. The bell is Vickers cast steel and was manufactured in Sheffield, England.

Next to the bell is the Volcano Union Pub & Inn, built in 1880 by four French Canadian miners.

Other points of historical significance are best appreciated by visitors who walk down Main Street where many buildings, dating back to its zenith, are identified by signs. The three-story, 14-room St. George Hotel, commands the most awe. The structure was built in 1867 after the two previous hotels, Empire Hotel and George Hotel (originally built as a boarding house in 1852) burned to the ground. Its 1983 National Register nomination asserted it was “the most impressive building in Volcano, and noted that it appeared “much the same ... as it was in 1880, 13 years after it opened.”

Next to the hotel is the Whiskey Flat Saloon where a marker claims it is where the concoction of Moose Milk was created. Moose Milk, as served in this saloon, consisted of a generous shot of bourbon, an equal measure of half-and-half cream, and some rum. Served over ice, and topped with nutmeg, it may be an acquired taste. It is said that it had the property of improving in flavor, the more it was consumed.

The 1871 jail, which resembles a wooden shed, still stands on Charleston Road near Consolation Street. It was reportedly built by the first two inmates.

Built of brick and native limestone, the General Store in town has been in continuous use since 1852.

Next time you’re in the area and want to revisit a quieter Gold Rush era town, Volcano will certainly whet your appetite. If you want to see the town the easy way, check out an episode of “History Hunters” on YouTube filmed by the author by visiting