Sutter Creek

Sutter Creek’s Magic Is Hope for the Future.

I was in my teens when my dad and I first discovered Sutter Creek, although I don’t remember exactly how old I was, or how exactly we found it. At the time my dad was working in Ione, so he had grown familiar with Amador County, and every once in a while on a Saturday morning we would drive from Elk Grove south, through Wilton, into Amador County.

Ione was fun, but at some point we discovered Sutter Creek, and it very quickly became our place. Its old storefronts, charming shops, narrow back streets and alleys, and closeness to nature all drew us in.

One of the first places I remember visiting was the Sutter Creek Ice Cream Emporium. We sat at one of the small round metal tables eating hot dogs, then got fudge to go. Over the years we tried out other, newer restaurants, like Sina’s Backroads Café, Buffalo Chips, and Cavana’s Pub and Grill, which were all excellent. But the Emporium was the first restaurant we ate at in Sutter Creek, and its ragtime music, player piano, rickety metal tables, toys and board games on the shelves, and friendly service kept us coming back. The first time we ate lunch there, we asked one of the servers about the history of the emporium, and she kindly told us its story. I was very sad to discover that it closed last year, and only hope its memory will live on.

Back outside, seasonal events, often advertised on banners stretching across Main Street, intrigued us: the Parade of Lights in December, the Ragtime Festival and Jug Band Fest in July. We seemed to consistently visit the town right before or after these events, when the decorations and banners still hung from storefronts, and always wished we had experienced them ourselves. While these events and others have been postponed for 2021, I hope and believe they will continue in 2022, as they provide more reasons to visit this unique town.

Dad and I would occasionally wander in and out of shops, but our favorite thing to do was wander the streets. The old, twisty alleys were my favorite part of the town: they spoke to me of an age gone by, when automobiles rumbled over bumpy cobblestone between wooden buildings and people walked to the market and church. More than once my dad and I marveled at the Union Mine Boarding House on Spanish Street, then climbed the slope up to the Immaculate Conception Church and slipped into the graveyard, reading headstones and stumbling our way around to the other side. On the east side of Main Street, we discovered the Monteverde General Store and museum, the Emerson Shaft ruins, the Knight Foundry—which we both loved—as well as an old garage and service station, the historic Cap’s Garage. The bright red stripes on the roof overhang and the old rusted pumps were magical to me; reading those gauges was like learning (and never quite mastering) a new language. We made it a point to walk past it and the foundry every time we came to see what progress had been made and if anything had changed.

But what my dad and I did without fail every time we visited Sutter Creek was to climb Randolph Street. I say “climb” instead of “walk” because climb is literally what you have to do. The first third or so of the street is sloped but not severely; however, the higher you go, the steeper the street gets. It dead-ends into a grove of trees and, on the other side of a wire fence, cattle fields. From the top of the street we would watch the cows in the field, spy on the Emerson Shaft, listen to the breeze blow the delicate green leaves of the trees, and look out over the town. That’s the best part of Randolph Street: from the top, it affords a fantastic view of the town of Sutter Creek down in its small valley, and of the hills beyond. This spot at the top of Randolph Street is not only breathtaking but peaceful, lifting one high above the town and cars so all noise fades to a hushed hum. It’s as if you’re in another world, all to yourself.

And indeed, that’s what Sutter Creek is like as a whole. With its cobblestone, cracked asphalt sidewalks, old wooden structures, and slow pace, history waits around every corner and emanates from every pore. It is as if you have gone back in time, or to another world, one very similar but not quite the same as your own, and much slower paced.

Of course, my dad and I knew we were still in the 21st century: flashy new cars, people’s clothing, and upscale restaurant food reminded us. And we were grateful for these things. But the history and other-era-ness of Sutter Creek overpowered them, temporarily transporting us not so much back in time but to a world out of time—a world in which we could wander, discover, and relax. It was a welcome haven. Every time we drove the curving Highway 49, turned left onto old Route 49 and dipped down into the valley, passed Amador City and saw the town up ahead, my heart settled squarely in my chest, anticipatory and glad and most of all, at peace. 

This is the joy of Sutter Creek. Businesses have come and gone, and people have moved on with their lives; my dad and I have not been to Sutter Creek in several years, and now that he’s moved out of state, we may never return. But I will make it a point to return, and when I do, despite any closures or changes, I know I will feel that same sense of peace, the sense that undoubtedly draws many others to the town. Maybe it’s only internally-generated; maybe it’s a sense of nostalgia for my youth. But maybe, when I, and we, are truly present and aware of life—buildings standing tall, grass and dirt under our feet, the people passing by, the river, sidewalks, graves, ghosts—it is also a sense of being connected: to the past, the present, and the future.