How Volcano Got its Name
When I first moved to Pine Grove in beautiful Gold Country and learned there was a town nearby called Volcano, I immediately wondered if there was an extinct volcano in the area. That, however, is not the case.
The town of Volcano sits in a crater-like valley surrounded by small hills. Sometimes there is a mist that sits in or rises from the valley floor resembling a volcano. When the new settlers began arriving in their search for gold, they dubbed the town Volcano and the name stuck.
History of Volcano
Mi-Wok Indians inhabited the area prior to the arrival of the first white men during the winter of 1848. When the soldiers of Jonathan Stevenson’s New York 7th Regiment arrived and found a few flakes of gold, they decided to make camp until spring when finding gold would be easier. This led to the town’s first name of Soldier’s Gulch.
The soldiers found placers (stream bed deposits) so rich that they were able to mine $100 a day in gold. The value of gold at that time, set by Congress in 1834, was $20.67 per ounce. I couldn’t find an exact amount that soldiers were paid in 1849, but a few years later, during the Civil War, they were paid around $13 per month. It’s easy to see the attraction.
The soldiers mined the gold without taking time out to build permanent structures. As the weather got worse, some of the soldiers left. Without shelter and adequate supplies, the soldiers who stayed died during the winter and their bodies were not found for a couple of years.
By the following year, gold-seekers began pouring in from everywhere and the community quickly grew to a booming 5,000 inhabitants.
As more settlers arrived seeking their fortune in gold, the town became a leading cultural center. Mining was boring, tedious work under adverse conditions so it is no wonder that the residents found many ways to entertain themselves. The town had 17 hotels, 35 saloons, three breweries, two temperance societies, four bakeries, 10 doctors and dentists, 16 lawyers, and a 500-seat theater when the miners eventually gave up and walked away. Another source also includes five churches, a public school, three butcher shops, two express offices and a fire company.
Volcano was one of the first towns in California to have a lending library, theatre group, private law school, debate society, and an astronomical observatory site.
- 1854 First theater group in California
- 1854 First debating society in California
- 1854 First circulating library in California
- 1855 First private schools in California
- 1855 First private law school in California
- 1856 First legal hanging in Amador County
- 1860 First astronomical observatory in California
- 1978 First solar still in California
Japanese Balloon Bombing
On the Volcano Union Inn menu there is a little story about the Japanese bombing Volcano during World War II. There were more than 9,000 balloon bombs launched toward the US during the war. Out of that 9,000, only about 1,000 actually made it to the US and Canada. The only deaths reported were six people in Oregon. The purpose of the bombs was to start the forests on fire, taking precious resources from the war effort. The bombs were very unsuccessful as they were not launched during the dry season. Volcano was a landing spot of one of over 300 unexploded balloons. These balloon bombings were kept pretty quiet and most Americans, including myself, are unfamiliar with this aspect of the war.
Notable Residents of Volcano
- James T. Farley, United States Senator for California (1879–1885)
- Harry B. Liversedge, two-time track star at both the 1920 and 1924 Olympics and later Brigadier General best known as the leader of the regiment figured in the historic Iwo Jima flag raising.
- Angelo Joseph Rossi, 31st Mayor of San Francisco, California (1931–1944).
Volcano is the perfect town for a walking tour. You can pick up a walking tour map at the Chamber of Commerce in Jackson or download it here.
What makes it so perfect? It’s the fact that everything, except maybe the cemeteries, truly is in walking distance. The map is easy to follow and buildings and other places of interest are marked with inconspicuous plaques telling a little of their history.
The amazing thing about Volcano, and what even folks who don’t like history like about it, is that everything in the town is genuine. There are no replicas or restorations.
St. George Hotel
The St. George is the first thing you see coming into Volcano from the south on Pine Grove Volcano Road. This impressive, three-story building with wooden balconies is on the National Register of Historic Places. The original Eureka Hotel (1853) and the Empire (1859) were both destroyed by fire. The main hotel of the St. George was built in 1862 and has 14-inch thick brick walls. Whiskey Flat Saloon was added to the main structure in the 1930s.
The main hotel has 13 guest rooms, two with private baths. There are six rooms with private baths in the annex which was built in the 1960s. In 2003, the Garden Cottage was added and features a private deck and a fireplace among other amenities.
Volcano Union Inn
“The Union Inn Hotel was built in 1880 by four itinerate French Canadians for $400. It was a boarding house for hard-working miners and locals until the 1920’s. It enjoyed a brief reawakening in the 1950’s, and thereafter it was, by turns, vacant and empty, a private residence, and finally it was restored into a lovely destination in 2000 by the David/Burney Family.” Now the Volcano Union Inn is a California pub and four-room bed and breakfast with many amenities.
Old Abe, “the little cannon that could,” lives in a shed next door to the Union. The story goes that Old Abe helped win the Civil War without firing a shot. The Union soldiers wheeled it out in 1863 to thwart Confederate sympathizers planning to divert gold to the Southern cause. Old Abe didn’t have to be discharged which they say is a good thing. River rocks were what they had for ammunition.
The Bavarian Brewery was built in 1856 and is a notable example of early masonry. The precisely cut stones in the front façade are still plumb today. The building is not open to the public but the current owners have preserved the original walls and left them exposed for public view.
The Volcano Jail was built in 1857. It seems quite dilapidated and about to fall down. Its secret is the metal plates sandwiched between the wooden planks of the walls. It is virtually escape proof.
There are two cemeteries at the end of Church St. The oldest grave in the Catholic cemetery is 1852. The oldest recorded internment in the Volcano Pioneer Methodist Cemetery is November 11, 1850. I love the words on a plaque outside this cemetery. “Here rest many of the men and women who first saw the beauty and value of this land and chose to remain and build the Amador County we cherish today.”
One thing you can’t help but notice is how low the doorknobs are. I’m only 5’2″ and even I have to bend down a little to turn the knobs. People were much shorter back then. In castles in Europe, you might even have to duck down to get through a doorway. Thanks to our more nutritious diets, the average human height has increased over a foot since Victorian times (1837-1901).
After your tour, stop into one of the local establishments for some refreshments!
Check out this nice video from Amador Gold.
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Volcano is one of my favorite places to visit. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!