Ghosts of the Gold Rush Linger in Tiny (Lava-Free) Volcano

2 min
A sign outside Volcano, California  (Carly Severn/KQED)

A lot of us Californians like to hit the open road, explore miles of highway and venture off onto some back roads. Sometimes, we come across towns with some pretty bizarre and surprising names. For this installment in our series “A Place Called What?!” we head to Volcano, California.

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Let's be clear: There is no volcano in Volcano, California.

Although as resident John Hemstreet notes, “if you're far enough away from here it does look like a volcano."

John Hemstreet sits outside the Whiskey Flat Saloon in Volcano, California. (Carly Severn/KQED)

With a population of barely 100, this Gold Country town in the Sierra Foothills east of Sacramento is so tiny that its Main Street is home to just two residential homes -- and Hemstreet lives in one of them.


He moved here five years ago after 60 years in Sacramento, and says, “I came to Volcano and I knew right away -- I could feel it. That this was the place to be for me."

A view of Volcano's Main Street (Sharon Hahn Darlin/Flickr)

Standing in this bowl-shaped valley, surrounded by thickly wooded hills, it’s easy to forget Volcano lies at an elevation of over 2,000 feet. This spot was settled in 1848 by a regiment led by Col. Jonathan Stevenson, who began mining the area in earnest.

Initially calling it Soldiers Gulch, miners then named their settlement for the formation they thought it resembled: a volcanic crater.

John Hemstreet stands by the sign at the entrance to Volcano, in front of the George Hotel. (Carly Severn/KQED)

Once this spot’s mining opportunities became known, Volcano began to attract gold-seekers from across the country.

“There were probably five or six thousand people here at the time,” says Hemstreet. “Now there's less than 100 -- and there are still people living in this town that were related to those miners that came in the 1840s."

There's more to Volcano's history than the Gold Rush. In 1860, California's first recorded astronomical observatory was established in this town by George Madeira. It was here that the Great Comet of 1861 was first discovered in the United States.

A sign commemorates California's first recorded astronomical observatory -- installed here in Volcano (Carly Severn/KQED)

The Civil War also left its mark on Volcano, in the form of "Old Abe": a 737-pound brass cannon that still sits, undercover, in the town's Union Square.

This artillery was smuggled into Volcano during the war by the Volcano Blues, a pro-Union faction seeking to intimidate a group of local Confederate sympathizers. They were so successful that Old Abe was never even fired -- although as the sign that sits above the cannon today dryly notes, "enthusiastic" overcharging by the Volcano Blues means it probably would have exploded anyway.

John Hemstreet looks at a photo showing Volcano as it looked circa 1874, in the George Hotel (Carly Severn/KQED)

There were said to be 17 hotels here in Volcano during the height of the Gold Rush. Now there are just two, the George Hotel and the Union Inn -- both of which naturally claim to be haunted by the various ghosts of the Gold Rush.

During daylight at least, you're more likely to see Hemstreet's two cats, Big Jake and Squeaky, skulking around the George Hotel. Since his longtime trade ("now more of a hobby") is restoring jukeboxes, it follows that Hemstreet installed the one that sits in the corner of the hotel’s Whiskey Flat Saloon; a mere “12 Steps over, 12 steps back”, as he puts it, from his home.

John Hemstreet with the jukebox he installed in the Whiskey Flat Saloon in Volcano, California. (Carly Severn/KQED)

The outside of Hemstreet’s house is also home to one of Volcano’s more memorable modern-day attractions: a phone booth containing a large photograph of George Reeves in his 1950s Superman incarnation.

Below it, you’ll find this plea: “Please do not vandalize this phone booth. I have no place else to change clothes.” Hemstreet isn’t sure who’s responsible for the Superman decor, but does claim the framed taxi service details in there as his addition. The saloon is, after all, just a few feet away.

The memorable "Superman phone booth" in Volcano, Califoria. (Carly Severn/KQED)

Volcano’s small size might not be for everyone, but Hemstreet says he can’t envision making his home anywhere else.

“People ask me a lot of time, ‘John, how come you never go anywhere?’ I say, why would I want to go anywhere? I'm already here.”

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