Created in 1851, from portions of Yuba County, Nevada County was named after the mining town of Nevada City, a name derived from the term “Sierra Nevada.” The word Nevada is Spanish for “snowy” or “snow-covered.”

Nevada City was the first to use the word “Nevada” in its name. In 1851 the newly formed Nevada County used the same name as the county seat. The bordering state of Nevada used the same name in 1861. The region came to life in the Gold Rush of 1849. Many historical sites remain to mark the birth of this important region in California’s formative years. Among them is the Nevada Theatre in Nevada City, the oldest theater built in California in 1865. It operates to this day and once hosted Mark Twain among other historical figures. The Old 5 Mile House stagecoach stop built in 1890, also operates to this day as a provider of hospitality spanning three centuries.

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Nevada County Timeline: 1838 – 1880


Grass Valley’s history is part of the colorful lore of the California Gold Rush. The first notations about the area are from the late 1840’s when a party of men searching for cattle came upon a “grassy valley”.

Grass Valley’s claim to historic fame is embedded in the vast amounts of gold discovered and extracted from its rich underground mines. In more than 100 years of mining, the mines of Grass Valley made it the richest of all California gold mining towns.

In December 1848, President James K. Polk declared in a State of the Union address that large quantities of gold had been discovered in California. As word spread about the gold rush, prospectors flooded the foothills. The small settlement began looking like a village. Then in 1850, a settler by the name of George McKnight discovered gold in the quartz rock along Gold Hill and the real boom began.


By 1851, thousands of people were living in the bustling town now known as Grass Valley and in the nearby town of Nevada, (later renamed Nevada City when Nevada became a state). Grass Valley suffered a disastrous fire in 1855, and Nevada City burned in 1863, but the towns quickly rebuilt and continued to grow.

The Empire, Northstar, Pennsylvania, Idaho-Maryland and Brunswick mines became known around the world, attracting hardworking miners and would be millionaires. As the underground mines grew, skilled hard-rock miners from Cornwall and Ireland arrived. They settled into their new hometown of Grass Valley while mine owners and managers lived in nearby Nevada City. Over the next 100 years, the mines extracted more than $400 million in gold, making Grass Valley California’s most prosperous mining town. Unfortunately, gold mining declined in the 1950’s and eventually all of the hard-rock mines were closed.

Both Grass Valley and Nevada City are on the national register of historic places and have multiple buildings on the national register. The National Hotel in Nevada City and the Holbrook in Grass Valley are reminders of the grandeur of California gold rush hotels. The Golden Gate Saloon in the Holbrook is known as the oldest continuously operating saloon west of the Mississippi!

For more information on the California gold rush and mining in Nevada County download a pdf of “Gold Mining History of Nevada County”. For more California gold rush facts, including “Who was president during the California gold rush?” see California Gold Rush Facts.

“High Tech” Industry

In 1953, Charley Litton, founder of Litton Industries and vacuum tube manufacturing pioneer, moved his engineering labs from San Francisco to Grass Valley. A few years later, Litton lured his friend, Dr. Donald Hare to the area. In 1959, Hare founded a company called Grass Valley Group and introduced a solid state amplifier for the flourishing motion picture industry.

The two spawned a new economic basis for Western Nevada County. In the following decades, additional “high tech” companies have been launched or have transferred to the area. Today, Nevada County is home to numerous related technology companies. The area hosts a diverse talent pool of well educated, professional engineers, scientists, technicians, and management.

Our Community Today

Today, the towns thrive and the beautifully restored historic buildings in the downtown areas remind us of the days gone by. Because of the combined beauty, the community’s commitment to preserving its rich history and the attraction of a talented arts community, the Sierra Foothills is a popular destination for visitors and conventions. Tourism has become a fundamental economic base. Our community and its economy are still emerging, thus requiring nearly all of our major industries to retool for greater competitiveness in a global marketplace. Our demographic profile is changing dramatically.

Trends for the Future

Population growth and economic change are occurring at a rapid rate. With the onset of economic recovery, the next few years will give rise to land-use decisions of fundamental importance. The right decisions will help our community succeed in establishing the economic and social vitality that have made the quality of life and the environment a successful place to live and work.