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Falling for Nevada County

Photos By : Dustin Klemann

History and hauntings await visitors to this small California community.

One of California’s small, preserved Goldrush communities is appealing to a new generation of travelers through revitalized history. In Nevada City and Grass Valley, located about 60 miles northeast of Sacramento, a uniquely spooky fall experience awaits visitors – and these towns take it much further than pumpkin spice lattes.

The county seat of Nevada County, a population of about 3,000 people – many of them descendants of miners – calls Nevada City home. During the harvest season, the charming Victorian era town is dotted with orange and red leaves amid window displays of skeletons, witches and bats.

A hub for the spirited fun is The National Exchange Hotel on Broad Street. Built in 1856, the hotel was once the most sophisticated of the gold rush mining camps. As hotel Marketing Manager Erin Lewis explains, the now chic yet historic venue once drew in miners looking for a place to rest their head and, well, a lady of the night to do so with.

The three floors of the red brick building contain much of the original décor from that era. “Original Victorian glass chandeliers, wall sconces, black and white photography, and bank vault,” says Erin. Among the mainstays is an original vanity, which has a face subtly etched into the glass. “They were pranksters back then.”

Tourists looking for a frightsome stay will rejoice in a visit to the National with its slanted staircase and uneven floors, as well as the ghost stories that accompany the nearly two centuries old building. “Since the early 1900s, when a couple checks in to room 211, the guests will complain that they return to their room, the man’s luggage is strewn around the room and the woman’s stuff is untouched.”

 

From the veranda, which was added in the early 1900s, diners of the hotel’s LOLA restaurant can see a starry treelined sky as they indulge in locally-sourced, seasonal menu options. Named after Lola Montez, an Irish entertainer who performed at the bar in its earlier years, the dining room features a bar made from the hotel’s original radiators, moody lighting and velveteen booths. On the fall edition of its rotating menu, LOLA offered a clam chowder, beef cheek with peas and carrots, salmon with coconut curry and lion’s mane mushroom, and persimmon burrata, among other flavorful dishes. A variety of cocktails named after Arrested Development cater to a curious palate, with drinks like the Pop Pop Gets a Treat and There’s Always Money in the Banana Stand. Visit during the holidays and you’re likely to experience a unique dinner atmosphere, like the Phantom of the Opera night in October. Erin says the culture of the area and its proximity to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert have made it a popular stop over for Burning Man attendees.

Just minutes up the road in Grass Valley, the historic Holbrooke Hotel and Golden Gate Saloon is rich with history about underground tunnels, a brothel and speakeasy. The bar came first in 1852, followed shortly thereafter by what was called the Exchange hotel. But both would be short lived when in 1855, the bar and hotel, along with the rest of the town, burned in a fire. When the establishment was rebuilt in 1862, it included a roof made of a foot of dirt and brick – “fireproof.”

Downstairs, the Iron Door presents a speakeasy style façade complete with live music and old-timey cocktails. Behind the bar is a large iron door, which once led to a tunnel that allowed bootleggers and other nefarious characters to move from place to place, unnoticed. Whether it’s the drinks or a real-life ghost story, some guests have reported seeing a disembodied torso of a cowboy wandering around the bar.

Upstairs in the dining room, visitors can sink their teeth into a terrifyingly tasty meal. As one of the longest operating barrooms west of the Mississippi River, this cozy yet western style space includes a Mexican influence menu of sopa albondigas, crispy pig ears, a lentil salad, whole fried branzino, rabbit mole, and lion’s mane barbacoa. Artful presentation of locally and organically grown ingredients helps guests understand why when the establishment burned down in 1855 customers continued to support the business by buying beer and whiskey from a tent alongside the road.

Those customers may have included miners who, working in one of the many mines of the area, likely worked up quite the appetite after 10 hours of hammering in the dark below the earth’s surface. Today, the downtown is replete with remnants of the mining era. Not far from the Holbrooke, tourists can visit the Empire Mine, where miners extracted 5.8 million ounces of gold before it closed in 1956.

 

In this small town of under 13,000 people, the spooky season is a time to play up the haunts, which come easily thanks to placards around town, like one that notes the site of a dual where a man was shot dead. Outside the historic theater, skeletons and frightening creatures line the street. Once night falls, the ghost stories learned earlier in the day come rushing back with the nip of a cool breeze.

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