Volcano, California, is certainly small, but exactly how small is hard to say. The sign on the south end of this little Gold Country town—the one you see if (like most visitors) you drive up from the nearby hub of Jackson—originally read, "Population 100," but at some point, someone crossed out "100" and wrote in "103." On the other hand, if you drive in from the north over the twisty backroads from the Shenandoah Valley wine district, as my wife and I did on a recent rainy weekend, the sign says Volcano is home to only 88 souls. Either way, the place is tiny.
But it wasn't always so. Back in the 1850s, more than 5,000 gold-seekers crowded the town and its environs. (Some $90 million worth was eventually extracted from the surrounding hills.) The town claims to have had the first private law school, the first theater group, the first circulating library, and the first astronomical observatory in California; at one point, it nearly became the capital of the new state. It was also the site of the only Civil War "battle" to be fought in California, which wasn't much of a fight: According to one account, Union loyalists, seeking to protect the area's gold from the other side, smuggled a cannon—dubbed "Old Abe"—into town in the back of a hearse. Its appearance in town was enough to scatter the local Confederate sympathizers.
Old Abe is still parked behind a fence along Consolation Street and marked with one of the 25 red plaques posted around town signifying historical sites and artifacts. It doesn't take long to see them: Downtown Volcano is about a block and a half long. It runs from the St. George Hotel (number 1301 in the National Register of Historic Places) past the Cobblestone Theater (where we saw a surprisingly good production of Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers) to the general store (whose cheerful proprietor encouraged us to browse the extensive collection of antique beer cans, biscuit tins, and beautifully colored glass bottles).
Around the corner from the store is the Volcano Union Inn, where we spent the night in a huge upstairs room, complete with clawfoot bath and access to the veranda outside. Downstairs, we tucked into some excellent food at the Union Pub: I loved the fried chicken (crisp on the outside, juicy within, served with some gussied-up mac and cheese), while my wife enjoyed her simple sautéed salmon with beets and ricotta gnocchi. An expansive breakfast the next morning was included in the room price.
The folks who visit Volcano these days likely come to see Daffodil Hill when its 300,000-plus bulbs bloom in the spring or to explore Black Chasm Cavern just south of town. But we were quite content just to hang out in town.
At one point in our wanderings, we stopped to chat with a friendly fellow sipping a beer in front of the general store. He said there's no danger that Volcano will ever be overdeveloped: Apparently one family owns most of downtown, and they have no plans to expand. And, to be honest, as isolated as it is now, I can't imagine anybody looking to strike it rich by building there again. What was once a bustling metropolis 150 years ago has mellowed into a lovely little getaway today.
When the guy behind the counter at one winery we'd stopped at heard we were spending the night in Volcano, he said, "Well, that should be . . . quiet." He was right—and we couldn't have been happier.