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Cave City


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The limestone cave at Cave City is operated as California Caverns and is a State Historic Landmark (Courtesy Wally Motloch).

Located on the original wagon trail from Mokelumne Hill to Murphys, Cave City was an important early placer mining camp.  First known as McKinnie’s Humbug, the camp and creek were named for a miner from Mokelumne Hill who came to the area in 1850 with his associates.  The area boomed, and by 1854 a school, one of the first six in Calaveras County, had been established.  The town’s population reached its zenith in 1855, with over 400 miners living and working in the region.  The area around Cave City produced an enormous amount of gold in the early days from placering in McKinney Creek, as well as in O’Neil Creek to the south, the Treat or China claim to the north, and Humbug Creek (later called Adobe Gulch) to the northeast (Alberts 1967:20-21). 

 The richest placers were exhausted prior to 1860, but the area was still producing about $20,000 monthly, although two-thirds of the houses were empty by that time (Smith 1956b).  The community continued to decline until nothing was left but a ghost town.  By the 1950s there were no longer any extant buildings in the town. 

Cave City’s real claim to fame, however, was its extensive cavern system known as Cave City and now as California Caverns.  The cave was discovered in October 1850 by a Captain Taylor, who was mining with his associates on the creek.  Many newspaper accounts in 1851 recount visits to the cave by correspondents and the general public.

By 1853 a hotel had been built by McGee and Angel, operators of the cave concession, at a cost of $5,000.  By 1854 several merchants were established in the community:  Henry Angel, Burdett and Hudson, Brown, Bean, Clary and Owens, Frazer and Clark, Halsey, Hoyan, McGee and Angel, McCall and Jessup, Riddle, and the Table Mountain Company (Alberts 1967:19). 

The original hotel burned in 1858, the year that George and Johanna Nichols moved to town and began operation of their Cave City Hotel.  George “Greek” Nichols (Nicholls/Nicholas), and his Mexican wife Johanna purchased property in March of 1858 from William Jeff Gatewood.  The deed noted that it was located on the west side of Main Street in the northwest of Cave City, then occupied by Demections (a Greek) and formerly by J.W. Willard and family (Calaveras County Deed Book). 

When Nichols registered to vote in 1867, he stated that he was 40 years of age, born in Greece in 1823, was naturalized in Calaveras County in 1867, having filed a Declaration of Intention in 1861, and was a hotel keeper residing in Cave City (Calaveras County Great Register of Voters 1866-67).  Johanna was born in Mexico in 1826 (San Andreas Protestant Cemetery). 

Between 1859 and the 1880s, Nichols was assessed for property in Cave City, which he homesteaded in 1865, that was described in paces thusly: 

In Cave City near McKinnie’s Creek, northeast boundary, southerly 260 paces on Main Street to the bridge at Henderson’s blacksmith shop on Dutch Gulch, westerly up Dutch Gulch 234 paces to southwest corner, northerly to northwest corner, easterly to beginning, enclosed with a fence except for barn area, also garden opposite dwelling house being a lot enclosed with Ball-room Hall upon the same, garden 90 paces in length and 35 paces wide, bounded westerly on Main Street, southerly by Henderson’s Shop and Italian garden, easterly by McKinnie’s Creek, and northerly by land of one Barney, sometimes called Mitchel, property worth less than $5000 [Calaveras County Homestead Book XX]. 

Popular accounts note that the Nichols continued to operate the hotel through the 1880s, although Charles Turrill’s California Notes, published in July of 1876, mention that the hotel was gone at the time of his visit.  Turrill may have been referring to the old hotel, as in April of 1882 George and Johanna Nichols opened a new hotel “for the convenience of visitors.”  The new Cave City Hotel, a two-story frame structure with several associated buildings, measured 24 by 40 feet, and boasted a dance hall, parlor, dining room, and several bedrooms, in addition to the separate kitchen and cook’s quarters. The Nichols’s nearby residence was a two-story house, beautifully furnished, with six bedrooms upstairs, a living room, kitchen and two bedrooms downstairs (Alberts 1967:19; Cunningham [Marvin] 1983:2). 

By 1890 the property had been sold to James D. Byrnes who was assessed that year for 29 acres with the hotel, stable, garden, store, vineyard, and fence.  By 1900 Byrnes was assessed $400 for the acreage; $200 for the hotel, barn, and fence; and $500 for the Mammoth Cave (Calaveras County Assessment Rolls). 

The building was razed in 1910 by the Baldwin Mining Company in order to build a debris dam to stop the tailings from the Massenhear Mine, a hydraulic operation located about three miles easterly, from flowing into McKinney Creek.

In addition to his commercial enterprise, Nichols was also involved in placer mining activities in the vicinity.  He patented his Greek Claim on McKinney Creek in 1880, although he was assessed for it as early as 1870 (Calaveras County Assessment Roll 1870).  In 1866 he was assessed for the Dutch Gulch Mining Claim (1000 feet long) and a ditch (Calaveras County Assessment Roll 1866).  The 1870 Cave City Gold Mining Company Claim assessment noted that the mine was formerly known as “The Greek.”

In 1879 Johanna was deeded the lands about one-eighth mile southwest of Cave City, by January Lopez (presumably her father) for “one dollar and love and affection.”  After selling the Cave City Hotel property, George and Johanna evidently moved to the Lopez property where they built a new dwelling and barn (see below for Lopez/Nichols property history). 

George Nichols died December 26, 1898, and was buried in San Andreas.  Johanna died in 1915 and was buried beside him (San Andreas Protestant Cemetery).  The couple had no children of their own, but had an adopted daughter named Emma who married John Smith.  The Smiths lived in Cave City in the Henderson place (on McKinney Creek south of Cave City) until it burned down (Figure 5).  They then filed on a homestead adjoining the Nichols property (patenting it in 1913) and lived there for many years before moving to Sterling City and eventually to Campo Seco (Alberts 1967:21).

Lopez/Nichols Homestead

Downstream from the hotel and Townsite, George and Joanna Nichols acquired a 160-acre parcel of land where she resided after the death of her husband.  The land had been taken up by January Lopez sometime before 1866, when he was assessed for 160 acres located on McKinney’s Creek about one-half mile below Cave City, when he was assessed for 160 acres located on McKinney’s Creek about one-half mile below Cave City.  The record noted that he had improvements on the property and that the total value was $50 (Calaveras County Assessment Roll 1866). 

In September of 1879, January Antone Lopez deeded to Johanna Nichols for “one dollar and love and affection,” the real property described as the NE ¼ of SE ¼ of Section 15 and SW ¼ of NW ¼ and N ½ of SW ¼ of Section 14 in T4N, R13E, noting that:

As part of the conditions of the above deed, the party of the first part shall live on the land above described as long as he may desire, or as long as he may live.  The party of the second part to take possession on the death of the party of the first part [Calaveras County Deed Book 2:515, filed at the request of George Nichols]. 

The following year Mrs. George Nichols was assessed for the homestead claim of 160 acres with improvements including a cabin (she was also assessed for the hotel property and land in Cave City).  The 1890 assessment noted the same property, but a house, sheds, and fence had been added (Calaveras County Assessment Rolls).  These were apparently located on the north side of McKinney Creek, in an area defined today by rock foundation alignments, a scattering of historic artifacts, retaining walls, and introduced lilac, cedar, and Vinca Major.  George and Johanna evidently constructed the house and barn on the property sometime in the 1880s, after selling their Cave City Hotel property.

The property was homesteaded by George Nichols on November 14, 1895 (Homestead Book C:369).  Nichols’ assessment for the following year noted that the acreage was valued at $400, with a house, barn, fence, and personal property valued at $880.  The assessment also included the Stony Hill Placer Mine, valued at $100, and a ditch taking water from Dirty Gulch to Stony Gulch valued at $30 (Calaveras County Assessment Roll 1896).  The exact locations of Stony Gulch and Stony Hill are unknown, but could have been a small gulch intersecting Dirty Gulch. 

George Nichols died in 1898 and the following year Johanna (who signed her name with an X) deeded a parcel of the Pilot Quartz Mine, which intruded into her property on the east, to W.B. Swank for $40.  The deed included a right for Swank: construct and maintain a ditch to carry water across the lands owned by Nichols, from a point near the northwest corner of said above described land, hereby conveyed to a point on the so-called McKinney’s Creek, above the head of the “Old Gulch” or Tiscornia Ditch – also the right to run and low water and mill tailings down the ravine leading from the tract of land hereby conveyed across the lands of Nichols and down McKinney’s Creek – provided, however, that the digging and maintaining said ditch and running said mill tailings shall not damage the improvements on the cultivated lands of Nichols [Calaveras County Deed Book 37:352].

By 1909 Johanna’s land was valued at $450, with the house, barn, and fence valued at $150 (Calaveras County Assessment Roll 1909).  On June 3rd of that same year Johanna (noted as a widow of Cave City) sold the property and water rights, privileges, reservoirs, and ditches, to Mrs. Charlotte Gottschalk (of San Andreas) for $10.  She reserved the “right to occupy and use two rooms in the dwelling house situate on the premises without rental or any charge” (Deed Book 58:20).  The connection between Johanna Nichols and Charlotte Gottschalk, widow of former Superior Court Judge C.V. Gottschalk, is unknown, but Charlotte was a native of Mexico and may have been a relative or close friend. 

By November of 1909 Charlotte had moved to Stockton and sold the property to James B. Luddy, save and excepting the parcel sold to W.B. Swank.  The deed also granted and conveyed “all of the water and water rights and privileges, reservoirs, and water ditches, used upon, or in connection with the premises conveyed.”  Johanna Nichols, however, reserved the right to occupy and use two rooms in the dwelling without rental for the period of her natural life, which was personal to her and couldn’t be “leased, rented, or transferred or given to any other persons” (Calaveras County Deed Book 35:504).

Johanna died in 1915, presumably residing in the dwelling until that time, when the property was sold by James B. and Ida Luddy to William Hamilton “Ham” Luddy, all residents of San Andreas.  The lands conveyed included “that certain tract of land near the old mining camp of Cave City, commonly known as and called the ‘Nichols Place,’ as well as the ‘Smith Place’” (E ½ of NE ¼ of Section 15 and lot 2 and NW ¼ of NW ¼ of Section 14, T4N, R13E).  The water rights, privileges, ditches, and reservoirs used upon the lands were also conveyed (Calaveras County Deed Book 67:178). 

Another habitation site, located on the south bank of McKinney Creek, was apparently constructed and occupied during the 1910s or 1920s.  Features consisted of a rock-lined well, a concrete wall, a trash deposit consisting primarily of tin cans, Vinca Major, and a prospect cut.  This site may have been associated with mining at the Massenhear Mine upstream, or at the nearby Pilot Mine.  It could also have been occupied during the Depression era, when many people rushed to the foothills to eke out a living by panning gold in the early placer mining areas. 

By Judith Marvin