YREKA, Calif. -- The last time so much gold was pulled out of this town, the place was known as "the richest square mile on earth," a Gold Rush jewel north of California's Mother Lode.
By the mid-1850s, the town so glittered in gold that miners showered the popular child dancer Lotta Crabtree with buckskin bags filled with nuggets at the Arcade Saloon.
Now Yreka is feeling violated by an audacious heist that has stolen its history and wounded its pride.
Earlier this month, two men with cloth hoods, socks for gloves and a crowbar apparently slithered in through the window of a men's restroom at the Siskiyou County courthouse and reached a fortified lobby display containing one of California's most revered gold collections.
A security alarm failed to activate around 1 a.m. Feb. 1 as the thieves hacked away at the inch-thick bulletproof glass. They punched a hole big enough to grab as much as $1 million in nuggets, including a treasured, 28-ounce find, discovered in 1913, known as "the shoe," then stuffed the riches into a backpack and escaped hours before the theft was discovered at 7 a.m.
Yreka, population 7,500, is one of a handful of California mining communities that has proudly and steadfastly kept precious trophies of its golden heritage on public display, even as gold prices have topped $1,750 an ounce.
Yreka's gold was shown off at the 1939 World's Fair in San Francisco and kept most recently in the glass and flagstone case at the courthouse. The thieves made off with 351 ounces of a 624-ounce collection valued at up to $3 million due to its specimen quality.
"People are incredulous," said Siskiyou County Museum director Michael Hendryx, who had helped arrange the courthouse exhibit with nuggets of gold flowing out of mining pans. "They say, 'Why didn't they rob a bank?' You can replace money. You can't replace a heritage."
Declaring the thieves "stole a piece of our Siskiyou County history," Sheriff Jon Lopey announced a $15,000 reward for information leading to their arrest and prosecution. The suspects were described as two men in their early 20s dressed in blue jeans, black T-shirts and black shoes.
As the mystery mounts, some townspeople mask their fury with humor.
At Palace Barber Shop, in business on downtown Miner Street since the 1850s, Earl Alves, 80, joked that he pulled off the heist and sold the gold to his dentist. Barber John Lyle, 55, mused about whether a nearby storekeeper who went on vacation came into a sudden fortune. He wondered if the mystery would be solved when some local residents unexpectedly "retired in Belize or somewhere."
"I think there's more anger about it when you come down to it," interjected fellow barber Richard Pease, 69. "You feel violated. Some greedy people wanted some money. But they didn't know what this area was made from."
Gold is woven into the character of the region, where a mule packer named Abraham Thompson made the first local discovery in 1851 and mines called the Black Bear, Golden Eagle and King Solomon flourished. Some residents insist they can see a nugget and tell by its color or texture what local stream or mountain it came from.
In 2010, with the county facing a budget crisis and employee layoffs, officials rejected suggestions to sell off some of its gold, which was donated by local residents and purchased over generations.
The heist fuels suspicions over why an alarm, which was supposed to go off if the top of the case was disturbed, didn't work. A second alarm -- triggered to heavy sliding panes of glass that weren't moved by the thieves -- was still functioning.
Theories of a clumsy inside job consume the town.
"There are rumors that make no sense," said county Treasurer Wayne Hammer, who said so far there is no evidence the alarm was tampered with. "That it was an inside job, that the county was trying to have it stolen for the insurance. It's just silly. I can tell you there is absolutely no truth to that."
In the wake of the heist, Marci Moore, curator at the California State Mining and Mineral Museum in Mariposa County, said dramatically high gold prices are forcing museums housing Gold Rush treasures to review security.
"Many communities that are part of the Mother Lode are very proud of their history and they do like to put their collections on display to tell the story," she said. "But in doing that, you have to be conscious about the risk."
Siskiyou treasurer Hammer said the county may use its anticipated insurance settlement to upgrade the local museum, a consolation that seems to satisfy no one.
The courthouse display is boarded up, with the remaining gold now stored in an undisclosed location. It is unknown when -- if ever -- it will be put out again.
"It was a beautiful display, unique," said Drake Davis, owner of Roy's Sporting Goods, who took pride in directing tourists to the exhibit. "That gold was a wonderful thing for our community. No settlement can bring the gold back."
(c)2012 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)
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