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  • Writer's pictureDante Mazza

#771 Dogtown Nugget Discovery Site

Updated: Feb 5, 2023

The Dogtown Nugget Discovery Site Marker

March 2015

On April 12, 1859, the Dogtown Nugget was discovered in Butte County, California, across the Feather River canyon from this marker. It weighed an astonishing 54 pounds, giving it a modern-day market value of over $1.5 million. The Dogtown Nugget Discovery Site, marked with the private plaque shown above, has been declared California State Historical Landmark #771.


The Plaque

N.D.G.W. JUNE 12, 1955


The Gold Rush

California's Gold Rush was already over a decade old by the time of Dogtown Nugget's discovery. The "49er" miners for whom Francisco's NFL team is named were called that because of the year of their arrival in the state: 1849.

While men rushed into the state with dreams of striking it rich, they found gold was harder to come by than advertised. The start-up costs of mining were also much higher than most prospectors had anticipated. The men who made the era's real money were the merchants who sold food, clothing, and supplies to the hordes of new and desperate customers descending on their turf every day. Yet every so often, a significant discovery would keep the spark of hope alive and send more miners rushing for the hills and streams with dreams of striking it rich.

The largest naturally-occurring piece of gold found in California history was a nearly 200- pound "mass" of metal discovered near Carson Hill in Calaveras County in November of 1854, reported to be worth over $43,000 in that era's money. While a historic and stunning find, the piece didn't quite count as a "nugget" of gold because it hadn't been adequately shaped by water into the form most widely recognized as a true "nugget." The same was true of another mass of gold found near Sonora in Tuolumne County right at the beginning of the Gold Rush. Despite such blockbuster discoveries, the first large true gold nugget ever discovered in California was still waiting to be uncovered.



Old Dogtown c. 1870

Photo Source: John Nopel Photograph Collection Meriam Library.

California State University, Chico.

A few years after, and a couple of hundred miles north of each of those major finds, two new mining towns were set up near each other along the West Branch of the Feather River in Butte County, California. One settlement was founded by a man who decided to become one of the aforementioned merchants and set up a trading post. E. B. Vinson and Charles Chamberlin formed the other as a mining operation.

One of the towns was originally named "Mountain View," but as time progressed, the name of everything, including the viewable mountain itself, would change. The active trading post and mining town quickly sparked significant growth. Saloons, hotels, stores, and stables sprung up, along with some shanty homes. All of these structures were made of wood cut and measured at the sawmills that sprung up to facilitate the construction boom. The local mountain was named "Sawmill Peak" in honor of them, and one of the communities became known as Mill City.

The other got a more creative nickname thanks to the work of Susan Basset, the rare either wife or daughter of a miner who made the journey to California with him and decided to bring their dogs along too. Legend has it that every lonely miner who saw her dogs wanted one of his own, so she started breeding. Soon enough, so many dogs roamed the area that it became known as "Dogtown."

In the years after the nugget was found, the two towns united as one and took on the unified name of Magalia, which means "huts" or "cottages" or "little tent" in Latin. The story goes that a doctor wanted to set up a hospital in the area where women from San Francisco could retreat to the peace of nature to deliver their babies. The name Dogtown was bad for advertising, so he picked a word from his Latin dictionary.

The area was apparently a great place to find gold, as W.B. Clark of the California Department of Conservation, Division of Mines and Geology wrote a century later in a 1970 bulletin:

"There are a number of south-southwest-trending steep, narrow, and rich channels. The longest channel is the Magalia or Mammoth channel that flowed along the east side of the district. Other productive channels include the Dix, Emma, Little Magalia, Pershbaker, and Nugget channels. In the south portion of the district there are shore gravels. The gold was extremely coarse, and a number of other large nuggets besides the [Dogtown] were taken here. Bedrock is slate and greenstone with smaller amounts of serpentine. The channels are faulted in places with the downstream side being thrown up. Water has always been a problem in the drift mines. A few gold-quartz veins in greenstone are associated with diorite dikes...This is one of the more productive placer-mining districts in the state."

It was into this literal gold mine that Phineas Willard arrived to seek his fortune.


The Discovery

Artist's depiction of Chauncey Wright lifting the Dogtown Nugget after its discovery, as seen on the discovery site plaque

Phineas Willard set up a claim two miles east of Dogtown/Magalia in 1853, hoping to take advantage of the rich natural features of the area described above. He worked it alone for about five years before bringing in two business partners: Ira Weatherbee and Wyatt M. Smith, and transitioning the operation to hydraulic mining.

The men apparently did well enough to hire workers to mine the claim for them when they couldn't themselves. The hired hands were overseen by superintendent Dr. Amos K. Stearns. On April 12, 1859, Chauncey Wright, likely a recent Irish immigrant, was working the claim. Wright was part of a crew that was shifting through the remains of a landslide on the claim when he found gold in the mud. Further excavation revealed the Dogtown Nugget: 54 pounds in one solid piece.

Ira Weatherbee, who would become, for whatever reason, the most famous of the three owners of the land where the nugget was discovered, was in Dogtown when a few of his men rushed him to a saloon and lifted him on the bar. Weatherbee wondered if something terrible had happened, but the men refused to share anything with him until he bought a round of drinks for everyone in the building. Once everyone had a glass, the news was broken: Weatherbee co-owned one of the largest pure gold nuggets ever found in the state. He was now a wealthy man.

By some accounts, it took his buying rounds at up to three bars for the workers to finally tell Weatherbee the news, but once they did, whenever they did, celebration broke out throughout Dogtown. The nugget was brought up from the claim on a donkey and put on public display. People danced in the streets. Saloons did record business. Far from being jealous of the find, the other miners in town were joyous over the prospect of another such nugget hiding in the hills they were working. The mineral productivity of the area had just been proven beyond a doubt.

Assayers determined that the nugget was pure gold, free of other impure metals or minerals. It was promptly taken to San Francisco. One story recounts that the nugget was placed in a gunnysack and thrown on a wagon, but by the time its escorts arrived in the county seat of Oroville, it was nowhere to be found. They had to stop and retrace their steps, where they found the nugget and sack lying in the middle of the road.

Upon arrival in San Francisco, the mighty nugget was melted down into a 49-pound gold bar, as was common practice then. Unfortunately, that means the nugget itself has been lost to history. It also does not appear to have ever been photographed. The gold bar was sold at the U.S. Mint in San Francisco for $10,600. The fine gold yielded from the rest of the nugget was worth $3,000. Despite the large payout, the proceeds from the nugget were as fleeting as its time in the hands of its discoverers.

Those discoverers did, however, enjoy their profits and some fame in the immediate aftermath of their big find. Dr. Stearns reported that people he encountered on the East Coast "approached [him] with awe" when they learned what he had found. Ira Weatherbee used his share of the proceeds to build the Chico Hotel, which opened on January 1, 1861, in downtown Chico, the largest city in Butte County that's now home to a campus of the California State University System. The hotel became a popular stopping point for travelers on the road from Portland, Oregon, to San Francisco, but twice burned to the ground and was not rebuilt after the second fire.

Weatherbee died in 1910. His obituary states that he made other fortunes in life but that "His generosity was proverbial." Weatherbee was apparently extraordinarily generous, as he was reportedly working as a watchman at another mine until his death. His obituary headline said it all: "IRA WEATHERBEE IS DEAD Man Who Found 54-Pound Gold Nugget in 1859 Dies in Reduced Circumstances."



The Dogtown Nugget has captured the imagination of almost everyone who has heard its story since the very day it was found. As previously mentioned, the Dogtown wasn't the first gold discovery of California's Gold Rush. It wasn't even California's largest ever found. In 1869, an entire decade after the famous discovery, miners in Sierra County uncovered a 106-pound monster gold nugget, the largest true gold nugget ever discovered in the state. Even so, the site of that discovery hasn't been granted landmark status as this one has. Further complicating the legacy of the Dogtown Nugget is the fact that it was melted down and, therefore, literally disappeared quite soon after it was discovered, in an era before photographs were common. One report states that it was roughly shaped like the continent of Africa. It's also known that the nugget fit the physical description of a "nugget" of gold rather than a "mass." Beyond that, however, details are scarce.

What's most unique about the Dogtown Nugget is how intertwined its discovery has become with the identity of the local area. For one thing, the nugget is an irrefutable endorsement of the mineral richness of Butte County. The area was so productive that it was commercially mined until the 1890s. A 1916 article in the Sacramento Daily Union reports large amounts of gold found on the same claim where the Dogtown was discovered. Even in the years since WWII, amateur miners have been able to find gold in these same hills. As recently as 2014, a 6-pound gold nugget was found in Butte County, named by the San Francisco Chronicle as "the biggest nugget of its kind found in modern times in Gold Rush country."

Memorabilia promoting the 2022 edition of Gold Nugget Days, on display at the new facility of the Gold Nugget Museum in Paradise in December 2022

The Dogtown Nugget has also become the core of the region's cultural identity. Over the century that followed the discovery, a settlement was founded adjacent to the Dogtown/Magalia area that in 1979 incorporated as the Town of Paradise. That incorporation had been preceded in 1973 by Gold Nugget Days Inc., an organization that started an annual festival to celebrate the Dogtown Nugget's discovery. The festivities grew over the years to include a parade of homemade floats, the crowning of a Golden Nugget Queen, and the Donkey Derby, where residents fitted donkeys with 54 pounds of load and raced them from the Willard Claim up the hill into Magalia, just as Chauncy Wright would've done.

When the late public television host Huell Howser visited Paradise in 1997 for an episode of his travel series "California's Gold," his visit and the episode focused exclusively on the discovery of the Dogtown Nugget (which Howser re-enacted with local history buffs) and the Gold Nugget Days celebration. The middle portion of the episode is focused on and shows the Donkey Derby.

TV host Huell Howser holds a replica of the Dogtown Nugget at the Gold Nugget Museum on a 1997 episode of "California's Gold." Photo credit/copyright: Chapman University and the Huell Howser Archives, Leatherby Libraries

Howser's last stop in Paradise was the Gold Nugget Museum. Opened on April 23, 1981, and founded during the Gold Nugget Days celebration, the museum was locally funded and run by volunteers from the community who were passionate about their area's history. Exhibits included a replica blacksmith shop, miner’s cabin, assay office, schoolhouse, a replica of the Dogtown Nugget, and artifacts from the indigenous Maidu tribe.

The failed C-hook that sparked the Camp Fire on display at the new facility of the Gold Nugget Museum in Paradise in December 2022.

The item description states: "when the hook failed, the insulator it was supporting fell, coming to rest on the aluminum and steel tower. The metal liquefied from the 155 kilovolts running through the line, dropping onto the dry brush below and igniting the fire."

A different C hook headed toward failure, on display at the new facility of the Gold Nugget Museum in Paradise in December 2022. This is what the one that sparked the fire looked like before it failed

Recently, the Paradise area has become best known for a great tragedy that took place there. On November 8, 2018, faulty Pacific Gas & Electric Company powerline equipment sparked the Camp Fire in Butte County. The blaze was the single deadliest wildfire in California history and the deadliest American fire in 100 years. 85 people were killed. The damage was enormous. The Camp Fire was one of the most destructive fires the state had ever seen and was at or near the top of the list of costliest natural disasters in the world for 2018. Roughly 240 square miles were burned, and the fire was not fully contained until a rainstorm hit the area 17 days later.

The burn scars of the Camp Fire are still visible in this canyon near Paradise four years after the blaze.

18,804 structures were destroyed by the flames, including a large portion of Paradise and the Gold Nugget Museum. Because Paradise was such a tight-knit community, multiple generations and branches of single families lost their homes, from parents to children to grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. One of the few relics of the area's history to survive the fire was the museum's replica of the Dogtown Nugget, a reminder of the possibilities and promise the region has so long been recognized for.

The new location of the Gold Nugget Museum, seen in December 2022

Since the fire, the Gold Nugget Museum has relocated to a new space across the street from its original location. The failed C hook that sparked the Camp Fire stands along with the Dogtown Nugget replica as the headlining artifact of the collection. The museum plans to rebuild and expand into a complete cultural and commercial center worthy of the region's rich history. Its first full-scale exhibit in the new space will be about the Camp Fire.

The spirit of discovery, hope, and possibility that the Dogtown Nugget discovery brought to the region all those years ago will continue to inspire its modern residents as they rebuild from the fire. Recognizing that spirit, the 2022 edition of Gold Nugget Days was themed "Our Golden Future." As many places in America reckon with or attempt to right the wrongs of their past, this California enclave is blessed that it can draw inspiration from history to build a brighter tomorrow.

The past inspires the future as the Dogtown Nugget replica lies on top of the Master Plan for the rebuilding and expansion of the Gold Nugget Museum in Paradise.


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