Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Jacksonville: A Good and Bad Luck Town

Jacksonville Tavern
It must have been on a Friday the 13th when two prospectors discovered gold in Rich Gulch, Oregon Territory, in 1851. The mining camp of Jacksonville, which quickly grew to serve the needs of the gold miners flooding into the area, rapidly transformed to a booming community full of saloons, gambling halls, and shops. The future looked promising for this southern Oregon town, but bad luck cast a shadow over much of its history.

It wasn’t long before the easily accessed gold was gone, and the boom faded to bust. But Jacksonville continued to thrive as an agricultural center, seat of Jackson County, and, in the late 19th century, was southern Oregon’s largest town. In 1869, a smallpox epidemic struck. Later years brought ravaging fires that destroyed many residential and commercial buildings as well as the town’s newly constructed brick schoolhouse. The worst bad luck happened when the new north-south railroad, connecting California and Oregon, by-passed Jacksonville in favor of nearby Medford. At this point, many merchants and residents moved away; but, the final blow was in 1927 when the county seat transferred to Medford. The Great Depression hit hard and many residents turned to the town’s original source of wealth, gold, and began digging tunnels and shafts under city streets. In 1935, after particularly heavy rains, the tunnels’ supporting timbers gave way and parts of the town began collapsing. All this misfortune left Jacksonville a ghost of its former self, but never a ghost town.

The Presbyterian Church dates to 1881
 At last the town’s luck changed with an ironic twist. While other area communities continued growing and developing, Jacksonville, a little too off-the-beaten path, benefited from being ignored. It retained its old brick buildings, wooden houses, and 19th century appearance. In 1966, the entire town became a National Historic Landmark with over 100 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Along with its lovely setting in the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains, Jacksonville offers today’s visitors an authentic glimpse of an Old West town with a main street straight out of central casting. The brick buildings running along both sides of California Street now house an array of shops, restaurants, inns, and galleries. A self-guided, walking tour map from the tourist bureau directs visitors to 101 of the town’s historic sites and such architectural treasures as the Nunan House, McCully House, Presbyterian and Methodist churches. In summer months, living history tours at the Beekman House reflect the lifestyle of a well-to-do, 19th century family. The handsome Italianate county courthouse is now home to the Museum of Southern Oregon History and the jail serves as a Children’s Museum. Another must-see on the tour is the hilltop cemetery with pioneer tombstones dating back to the 1860s.

Beekman House
 Every summer for the past 49 years, Jacksonville has played host to what has become the Northwest’s premier, outdoor musical event, the Britt Festival. Set in a natural amphitheater on the former estate of pioneer photographer Peter Britt, the festival includes world-class performers of classical, jazz, pop, bluegrass, and country music. The 2011 schedule will be available April 6.
Cottage garden at McCully House Inn
Jacksonville, with its supply of excellent restaurants and charming bed and breakfasts in historic landmark buildings, is a great spot to headquarter while visiting Southern Oregon. Outdoor enthusiasts will find miles of hiking trails, white water rafting and fishing on the Rogue River, and, in season, skiing at nearby Mt. Ashland. It’s an easy commute from here to Ashland and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

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