Downieville in early 1960s.

When Santa wept — Downieville’s bittersweet Christmas


Bob Wyckoff


(The following true story is a well-traveled Christmas family favorite. The basic facts were related to me by the late Alvin Trivelpiece, Nevada County’s unofficial Poet Laureate, newspaper reporter and raconteur without peer. Al died in 1969, and to honor his memory I was prompted to research and write this story. It was first published in the San Francisco Examiner and has appeared in other daily and weekly newspapers down through the years. Some 71 years after this magnificent unselfish event, the story continues to evoke a warm holiday feeling and relates truly man’s humanity toward his fellow man and reinforces the classic Christmas tale of “Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus...”)

HRISTMAS is the time for telling the traditional stories of man’s humanity toward his fellow man. This is the story of how on Dec. 21, 1937, the Christmas Spirit came to the tiny gold mining town of Downieville, nestled high in the rugged northern Sierra Nevada.

On that date loving kindness was showered on the flood- stricken people of Downieville with a force more powerful than the deluge that two weeks before laid waste to the town.

Downieville, the county seat of Sierra County, is located at the confluence of tributary streams that most of the year flow gently into the North Yuba River. The place was first called “The Forks” by the gold-hungry Argonauts who pitched their tents on the stream banks and river bars.
The diggin’s proved rich. Often rewarding the miner with a tin-cup full of gold a day. Civilization came to The Forks and with it a new name to honor the town’s foremost citizen, Major William Downie. The town prospered and, as the 20th century rolled around, Downieville became a trading center for myriad gold mines that dotted the upcountry.

Early in December 1937, the good people of Downieville were preparing for Christmas. Red and green decorations crowded store windows as scores of tiny faces pressed against frosted window panes peering longingly at the goodies on display. Blue-gray smoke rose silently from the chimneys of the neatly painted houses that lined the hillsides and huddled together on the flats. Inside, family members smiled at one another as they hung shimmering strips of tinsel on trees freshly cut from the evergreen hills surrounding the town. Woodsheds were full and spirits soared in anticipation of the holidays.

Then it happened; slowly at first, then with a speed that seemed to shout impending disaster, the skies blackened and rain began to fall.

In San Francisco, the weather bureau said a storm front was moving in from the Pacific; it arrived as promised, buffeting Northern California with vicious winds and torrential rains. It scored direct hits on the mountain counties of Placer, Plumas, Nevada and Sierra. The storm seemed to single out Sierra County. For two days and nights, heavy rains whipped by increasing winds washed entire trees and boulders into swirling, mud-clogged streams. The debris tumbled wildly in the current until it was stopped abruptly by the bridge that carried State Highway 49 across the North Yuba River through the center of town.

A gigantic debris dam was formed and as the river rose, muddy water spilled in great torrents at either side of the dam, inundating low-lying homes and stores.

Residents of Nevada City and Grass Valley, some 40 miles downhill, opened the Morning Union for Dec. 11, to an eight-column front page headline:


Additional headlines read: One Missing and Scores Homeless; 15 Buildings Collapse; Four Bridges Lost.

Downieville was isolated, all telephone and power lines were down. The town was in darkness and had been divided into three is- lands by the rampaging Yuba River.

The town’s 450 residents faced a bleak future.

Christmas was two weeks away and Grass Valley was preparing for the annual Donation Day parade in which children march to a central location bearing gifts of food to be distributed to the town’s needy. Children helping children, but what of the children of Downieville, who watched their dreams of Christmas and Santa Claus washed away by the irresistible flood? What would Christmas hold for them?

As the flood waters began to recede, the hearts of the good people of Grass Valley, Nevada City, Auburn, Marysville and Sacramento filled to overflowing with good will for the children of Downieville.

In Auburn and Sacramento members of the Gold Rush fraternity of E Clampus Vitus- whose black trousers and red shirts and long been synonymous with fun and horseplay- went into action, there was no horseplay when little children faced the prospect of no Christmas. Cash, food, toys and candy were collected by the brothers of the Order to assure Santa’s arrival in Downieville. In nearby Marysville, service clubs and civic groups combined forces. In Nevada City and Grass Valley the Downieville Children’s Christmas Tree Fund was subscribed to generously.

Dec. 21, rather than Christmas Eve, was chosen for Santa’s arrival in Downieville. Special permission had been obtained from the North Pole for an early arrival by St. Nick.

An automobile caravan would carry the gifts and would commence in Marysville and Auburn; then to Grass Valley and Nevada City where- rain or shine- it would travel the last 45 miles on the “Road of A Thousand Turns,” as that section of Highway 49 was then called. California Highway Patrol units would convoy the group.

Brightly wrapped packages were loaded into cars along with food baskets and strings of colored lights; no matter there was no electricity, the lights would add a festive touch. Singers, musicians and dancers volunteered their talents and Santa, of course would ride in the lead car. The group was joined by newspaper reporters and photographers. Downieville’s plight had attracted statewide attention. All was ready.
On Dec. 21, 1937, the expedition began its trek to bring Christmas to the children of Downieville.

Past Smartville, through Penn Valley and on to Rough and Ready, the Marysville contingent traveled. At every crossroads more automobiles joined the procession. At Grass Valley, the Auburn group fell into the ever lengthening line. By the time it reached Nevada City, the Morning Union reported 200 automobiles carrying some 600 people had joined the cavalcade.

Up Highway 49 through North San Juan and Camptonville; on to Goodyear’s Bar, six miles from its goal, they went. With horns honking and musicians playing the cars triumphantly entered the town. People wept at the sight of smiling children waving and singing amid the rubble that was recently their town.

Santa, his flowing white beard wet with tears, emerged from the lead car as the caravan came to a halt in front of the venerable St. Charles Hotel. Stranger embraced stranger. Little children were snatched up by eager arms and hugged and kissed.

Christmas had come to Downieville.

Published in the Union Monday December 22, 2008