West of Redding, California a scenic drive of less than twenty miles on highway 299 leads to the recreational paradise that is Whiskeytown Lake, the heart of Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. The 42,000-acre recreation area is an urban escape of hiking trails through rugged mountain wilderness with waterfalls and deep forests to awe-inspiring scenic overlooks. And it is one of the gems that make life in Redding special.
Whiskeytown Dam began filling with water in 1962 and was dedicated by President John F. Kennedy the following year. Before construction of the dam commenced, some remnants of historic Whiskeytown were moved to higher ground. This included the general store, the school, and the historic cemetery that was relocated to a site south of the dam.
Fur trappers were the first Americans to enter this mountain wilderness that was home to the indigenous Wintu. Then with the discovery of gold in the late 1840s and early 1850s, miners and prospectors flooded into the valleys.
Rough and tumble mining camps in Shasta, Trinity, and Siskiyou counties became boom towns. Counted among them was Whiskeytown, a village with a curious history that purportedly had a population of more than 1,000 people by 1855.
Fueling the towns growth were rich gold discoveries made along Whiskey Creek. In 1851, according to legend, a 56-ounce gold nugget was discovered by a lucky prospector. The following year a stunning seven-pound lump of quartz richly veined with gold was discovered nearby.
In 1853, the stylish Mix’s Franklin House, a hotel, dance hall and saloon that later was known as Whiskeytown Hotel was built. It was a manifestation of the town’s prosperity and promising future.
After a disastrous fire in 1858, an even more luxurious hotel was built. It was razed shortly before creation of the lake. The hotel also served as the post office that was first established in 1856. But for reasons unknown the United States Postal Service refused to allow use of the Whiskeytown name. And so, the Whiskeytown post office operated under various names including Whiskey Creek, Stella, and Blair. Finally, in 1952, the Whiskeytown name was approved.
As with many gold rush era mining towns, the town suffered from ebbs and flows. And it was also known by many names over the years including Whiskey Creek Diggings, Franklin, and Franklin City.
The mining camps of the western frontier were often given odd but descriptive names. With the passing of time local folklore often obscures the origins of those names and Whiskeytown is no exception.
Local legend has it that Billie Peterson, an itinerant prospector, and miner, was hauling supplies to his mine when a pack mule began trying to shuck his pack. When the packsaddle straps broke, a cask of whiskey tumbled down the hillside, bounced over the rocks and shattered in the creek. Hence Whiskey Creek was christened, and the town the blossomed on the creek banks was dubbed Whiskeytown.
If your vision of California is the traffic, the congestion and smog of the Los Angeles metropolitan area, Redding will truly be a surprise. It is at the heart of a scenic wonderland where the sense of history is tangible. Come for a visit and discover a great place to call home.
Written by Jim Hinckley of Jim Hinckley’s America