Shasta State Historic Park is one of several ghost towns in California where I would take visitors who have never experienced the "romance" of California's gold rush era. This park has the complete picture. Located literally right on Highwy 299, a mere six miles west of Redding, it has the courthouse and the jail, the guns, gallows and graveyard, old brick storefronts, a working blacksmith shop, an art gallery, Native American history, scales for measuring gold and even a talking holographic ghost in one of the jail cells.
Before I continue, a brief word about the hours for this and other state parks. It is now after Labor Day and many of the parks, especially the ones on the closure list, have reduced hours that may not necessarily be reflected on their websites. Shasta will only be open now on Fridays and Sundays. When planning a visit to any state park, I advise calling in advance to confirm their hours of operation.
Shasta has a familiar California "boom to bust" gold rush story, with one of the largest strikes being in this area. Gold was discovered in Clear Creek in 1848, and within a year the town of Shasta became the commercial center of Northern California.
Patty and I began our tour at the Courthouse Museum, built in 1855 and restored to it's 1861 appearance. The $6.00 museum admission fee also entitles you to a tour of the Weaverville Joss House a few miles down the highway. You can't beat that! The docent led us down a long polished hallway where we passed offices formerly housing the sheriff, attorneys, the tax collector and the assayer. We took a seat on one of the pew-like wooden benches in the courtroom where we watched a short film about Shasta's history. Justice was swift back then, and a convicted criminal was immediately ushered either to the jail downstairs, or to gallows right outside the door. I asked if any famous or notorious figures were tried here, but the guide said no.
Following in the footsteps of past souls who had been convicted in this courthouse, we trotted downstairs to the jail. Here in the common dining area, cards were played and plans for escape were hatched. Today you can rent this room for private events - like your birthday - and celebrate with 13 of your BFFs, perhaps giving the word "forever" a slightly different connotation. Jail cells are on either side of the "dining room," and in one cell a ghost of convicts past makes himself known, telling his story at length, alternately boasting about his escapades and proclaiming his innonence. Fun! Especially for kids!
The jail door leading outside brought us to a lovely backyard area with a high wooden fence for privacy, a lawn for picnicing and the gallows for the less fortunate sons who would not be spending their next birthday with their 13 BFFs. The lyrics to a small portion of the song "Faded Flowers" are on a plaque next to the "tree." In 1874 convicted murderer John Baker was granted permission to sing this song prior to his hanging. The song had many verses and were sung with great feeling, prolonging his life for a portion of the afternoon.
Morbid curiosity satisfied, I went back upstairs to the museum. One room is filled with pistols, rifles and other weaponry of the era. The front of the museum contains much information about the local Native Americans, the gold rush, and how the two fared together. Truly, this afternoon did not allow me as much time as I would like at this historic state park. I would have loved to have read every pamphlet and article, as well as relish the art gallery at a more leisurely pace.
98 paintings by 71 artists depicting California's rich geographic and social diversity from 1850-1950, were collected and donated by Mae Helene Bacon Boggs. So much art, and so many artifacts in this museum. What is to become of them? My conversation with the docent at the front desk provided no more answers than my visits to previous parks. Vague plans to ship everything to storage in Sacramento was all anyone had heard. I learned that while there are very active historical organizations in the area, they were already on overload with commitments made to the museum at Shasta College, a commitment made prior to the announcement of the park closures. These northern California towns are sparsely populated, and while they love their history, they are spread thin as this part of the state as been disproportionately hit with a high number of park closures. Recently, art work comparable to pieces in the gallery had fetched handsome sums at auction. Would it be worthwhile or practical to sell a piece or two if it kept the park open?
I was curious. What about the descendants of someone like Mae Helene Boggs. Surely they would not want the artwork shipped off. But oddly, as seems to be the case with so many of these historic figures, she had no descendants (as with William Ide, the Stanfords, the Bidwells...) With all that must be packed, shipped and stored, Is that truly more cost effective to close Shasta SHP than keep it open for two days a week?
I left the Courthouse Museum and stepped outside. Oh yes! There's still the entire outdoor portion of this park to explore! The remains of brick buildings from Shasta's boomtown days occupy a long block of Hwy 299. After the town burned down in both 1852 & 1853, brick became the preferred building material over wood. Some of Shasta's finer business establishments no longer exist, but signs mark the spots where they once proudly stood.
This part of the park will, by it's design, remain accessible to the public. You can walk along a sidewalk in front of the buildings, or take a brambly path behind the structures. Roxy and I had to forego the back path after we both got stickers in our paws. We returned to the car, waited for the bleeding to stop, swapped my sandals for tennies (Roxy stayed barefoot) and chose the safer sidewalk route.
The 1870s wood-fired oven at The Blumb Bakery, a working blacksmith shop and the Litsch General Merchandise Store continue - for the moment - to be part of the educational activities at Shasta SHP. I suspect that the wine cellar built into the hillside is off limits to the school kids.
Across the highway was a shaded picnic area and drinking fountains. Roxy seemed to prefer the shade of the restored stage coach in the barn to that of the oaks and pines.
We made a quick dash down the street to view the unkempt Pioneer Union Cemetary. I did not have a chance to see the schoolhouse, brewery, spring houses and general store. The late afternoon Redding heat was takng its toll. And speaking of Redding, when the Central Pacific Railroad chose to bypass the town of Shasta and place its terminal in Redding, merchants abandoned or relocated their businesses. In 1888 the county seat also moved from Shasta to Redding, and Shasta's brick buildings quickly fell into disrepair.
What a full, compact little State Park this is. It can easily fill an entire day, and the outside buildings are free to view until sunset. If you're traveling north on Interstate 5, it's just six miles west of Redding.
I hope to see you at the parks.