Jamestown: Sierra Gateway to 1897

In some parts of the Sierra foothills, the Gold Rush is still alive and well. But in Jamestown, you can step back into a town that embraces a little more civilized time. In this small Sierra town, only a few miles from the 1850’s Gold Rush town of Columbia, history has focused on the later time period of the 1890’s, when the Railroad was king, and Jamestown was exploring a new era.

From the recently returned and restored jail to the Railtown 1897 Historic Park, Jamestown connects the best of its past with an inspired vision for its future.  Jamestown lures fans of steam trains and vintage railroads with its Sierra Railroad and Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, but the rest of the town comes as a pleasant surprise, after you’ve explored the trains.

On a Friday evening, we arrived in Jamestown too late to even see the Railtown 1897 roundhouse, which is open for tours on a daily basis. However, a great volunteer named Ray was closing up the park buildings, and let us follow him on his rounds and check out the locomotives parked in the round house. The dim light of the late afternoon streamed through the windows and lit up these amazing “iron horses” of the past. They smelled of oil and metal and steam, and transported you back into the past glory of the Age of Steam almost instantly. And there She was, Engine 3, their “Movie Star” engine with many appearances in movies and TV, parked in the near end of the roundhouse, her brass gleaming, flags proudly positioned to either side of her boiler. She was frankly gorgeous, and I look forward to riding on her in the future.

Checking out the town itself, we found a large selection of restaurants and the Gianneli Vinyards Wine Tasting Room, offering tastings from a local winery that specializes in Italian-style wines. Local shops such as Here’s the Scoop and Barendregt’s Grocery offer local organic treats, from olive oil to meats. The local area prides itself on grass-fed beef from the Montezuma Ranch, and even sponsors an annual “farm trails” tour, where you can find everything from goat milk soap to lavender, being raised locally.
After stopping for a milkshake (yummy dutch chocolate with Brazilian coffee chip) at Here’s the Scoop, with its elaborate saloon bar back, we explored the local park and bandstand. We were checking a pathway of commemorative bricks at the 1897 jail when we heard someone comment that he wasn’t sure when the jail was actually open.
That’s when we met John the Taoist.

Actually, his name was John Yim, a local chef, who was reading a book on Taoist philosophy in the park. He had moved back to Jamestown from the Bay Area. His family had originally raised eggplant in the area, and he now explores vegetarian and organic cuisine in the local restaurant circuit. We hit it off with John, and chatted for a while, and got a recommendation for a new natural foods store outside Sonora. We also arranged to get back together with him later in the weekend, to explore more of the town.

On Sunday, we met up with John for a couple hours, and he took us on a tour of the local antique shops, which have some amazing items, from Civil War militaria to decorative antique kitchen items. One of the antique shops sports a hanging “outlaw” outside, obviously a victim of frontier justice!

The historic jail was open this time, and we ventured inside. Like the railroad, the jail was built in 1897. It featured two nearly lightless cells (one now lit by electricity) and a reception area where a deputy once manned the desk and did paperwork. Paperwork was now done by a volunteer by the name of Terry Brejla  From her, we learned about everything from the Chinese gardens that once existed in the heart of town, to the fact that Jamestown owed its continued existence to services provided to the lumber industry (the Sierra Railroad built for the lumber industry) by “female boarders.” In short, the town had a large and thriving Red Light District, which existed until the 1940s! The jail itself had an interesting history. It was used until 1940, when the functions of housing miscreants moved to Sonora. Then, in 1964, the empty brick building was sold and moved to Pollardville, a “ghost town” theme park near Lodi that started as backdrop for a restaurant. After Pollardville closed down, the town repurchased its historic jail and moved it back to Jamestown again! Quite a journey for an old brick jailhouse! Now restored according to its original blueprints, the jail is open to visitors on an irregular basis, when there are volunteers to man it.

However quaintly 19th century Jamestown may seem, it’s not behind the times. The National Hotel and Jamestown Hotel offer B&B accommodations with period atmosphere and 21st century amenities, including wireless internet. You can have your Victorian charm and 2010, too!

Our time in Jamestown was unfortunately limited, so we bid it adieu, but with a new friend in John the Taoist, who promised to show us some of the foodie attractions the next time through. We look forward to seeing where he takes us!

Want to stay in town in a historic hotel? Find out details at:

The Jamestown Hotel


The National Hotel


Jane Beckman

Jane Beckman is a reformed workaholic who has been writing since she was old enough to hold a pencil. Her passions are food, wine, cooking, travel, and history, in no particular order. In fact, they tend to feed into each other. She might be found cooking over a fire at a historic adobe one weekend, eating crabcakes at a 19th century hotel in downtown Gettysburg on another, or getting lost on a back road, only to find an amazing park or hidden gem of a winery. Her family's love of exploring back roads has always influenced her, as did her father's love of exotic foods. Living in Hawaii at the age of 5, she acquired a taste for poke, pickled octopus, and poi. Japan hooked her on mochi and udon noodles, as well as Japanese kimono. When she was growing up on the Central Coast of California, her parents taught her how to be a "resident tourist" and find things even the locals didn't know about. She continues in that tradition, keeping an eye out for the unique and unexpected.

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