Up The Road: To Old Shasta, 'Queen City Of The Northern Mines'

Jun 7, 2017

Today we head up the road to Shasta or Old Shasta, a ghost town and state historic park flanking the highway just a few miles west of Redding. Beyond Old Shasta—not to be confused with Mount Shasta, the town on the mountain farther north—the highway becomes quite an adventure, narrow and winding. (Watch for oncoming shadows, most likely fully loaded logging trucks.) This isn’t everyone’s favorite road to the coast. On the other hand, when valley heat gets suffocating, the fog rolls in all along California’s north coast, nature’s air conditioning. This is at least a fairly direct way to get to the coast, and paved, if you’re not in a big hurry. And scenic, way out there in the woods. You might even find yourself wondering: Am I still in California? Yes, you are.

Shasta Courthouse Museum
Credit Photo by Matthew Lee High

Back to Shasta. This was once the leading gold mining center of California’s far north, celebrated as the “Queen City of the Northern Mines.” In the early 1850s Shasta was definitely lively, with up to 100 freight wagons, 2,000 pack mules, and countless drunken miners in the streets any day of the week. But it became an overnight ghost town when area mines played out and Shasta was bypassed by both stage and rail lines. Now evocative red-brick buildings, ruins, and cemeteries connected by paths and trails on both sides of the highway, Shasta revived in 1950 with its initial designation as a state historic monument.

If you have time for nothing else, explore the Old Courthouse of Shasta, beautifully restored and now a fine museum, noted for its impressive California art collection—a gift to Shasta from Mae Helene Bacon Boggs, who lived in Shasta as a young girl. She had been asked to donate the art to San Francisco’s de Young Museum. But Boggs—who later pushed for the land and buildings here to be purchased, for protection—decided to leave her collection to Shasta, with the only designated art gallery in the state park system. The 100-some historic California paintings include work by many well-known California artists: Thaddeus Welch, Grace Carpenter Hudson, Helen Katharine Forbes, and Rinaldo Cuneo.

Shasta Masonic Lodge, the first in California
Credit Wayne Hsieh

Downstairs in the courthouse is the jail, inhabited by representative Shasta lawbreakers. Early California writer Joaquin Miller, who’d been living among Indians noted for horse theft and was no doubt guilty himself, had the good fortune to escape from the original log jail. (Miller “smoked three cigars at once and bit the ankles of English debutantes” while touring London’s literary salons, according to Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia. Oh, those Americans!) Out back, perhaps to remind visitors to behave themselves, is a replica double gallows, complete with gallows poetry. Farther back behind the public restrooms in the park area is a Pioneer Barn, reassembled here to display old farm implements and technologies. The brick Masonic Hall just down the highway is the state’s oldest, built in 1853 and, at last report, still in use; Peter Lassen brought the charter here from Missouri by ox train. The Litsch General Store, stocked with 19th-century essentials, has also been restored, along with the Blumb Bakery.

To help support the park and its further protection in these times of embarrassing state parks budgets, participate in fundraisers organized by the Shasta’s local friends, including the annual “Dinner in the Jail for You and Your Thirteen Lucky Friends.” Also fun: special events such as living history days, full moon cemetery tours, and Shasta Starlight Theater productions. Otherwise the park and its two museums are open Thurs.-Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., though you can still wander the grounds at other times.