In 1839, when the foothills of the Sierras were open wilderness and the unchallenged domain of the Miwok and Maidu Indians, an adventurous Swiss pioneer wandered into the Central Valley and built a modest fort at the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers. His name was John Sutter. His arrival would soon change the shape of American history, ushering in an era of economic boom from which the Sierra Nevada House, and much of the history of the West, would eventually find its roots.
Sutter’s fort was a modest endeavor at first – a sort of self-sufficient ranch of grazing livestock and fields of planted crops and produce. But after only a few years, the California Trail opened from the east bringing thousands and thousands of emigrants across the Sierras and into the Sacramento Valley. The fort became the trail’s terminus, and it was suddenly thrust into unimagined prominence.
The sleepy ranch became a bustling hub of criss-crossing travelers and pioneers, and Sutter understood that he had to expand the fort to accommodate the rising tide of wagons and people. To supply necessary timber for his growing fort, Sutter hired a skilled craftsman named James Marshall to build a sawmill in the lumber rich foothills of the Sierras.Marshall chose a flat, accessible piece of land along the banks of the South Fork of the American River, and construction of the mill began in the Coloma Valley in September, 1847.
Five months later, on January 24, 1848, while examining the banks of the diversion channel in which the mill-wheel turned, Marshall picked up an odd looking fleck of rock. He looked down at the metallic surface and stood, unknowingly, at the top of one of the most significant watersheds in American history. It was gold. Within four years, a non-native population of 14,000 persons would swell to 250,000 in the massive California Gold Rush.
Mining towns and camps sprang up throughout the Sierra foothills. Coloma Valley, the discovery zone itself, grew especially fast – housing some 4,000 new arrivals by July 1848. And with these new arrivals came, of course, the slew of cottage industries, businesses, and facilities catering to the needs and entertainment of the human population. Saloons were built. Banks erected. Mail carriers summoned. Lawmen hired.
And into this mix, just down river from Sutter’s Mill and right next door to the first Wells Fargo Depot in Northern California, a beautiful hotel was constructed. It was called the Sierra Nevada House.
In the early days of the Gold Rush, Sierra Nevada House was a way station for miners and tradesman. Throughout its heyday, the hotel was owned and operated by Robert Chalmers, a successful businessman who held ‘fancy’ parties in the Coloma area.
The hotel remained in operation until 1902 when it was destroyed by fire. It was rebuilt shortly thereafter and became a silent movie house as well as the local Community Hall. Many local elders still remember times from their childhood spent in and around the Sierra Nevada House. The structure burned again in 1925 and was finally rebuilt in 1963, with a design reminiscent of its original 1850’s heritage.
Sierra Nevada House is a true piece of the Old West, surrounded on all sides by the ancient beauty of the American River and Sierra Nevada mountains.