There were many pioneering entrepreneurs who left their mark on the landscape of the mineral-filled valleys of the Sierra Nevadas during the height of the California Gold Rush, but John and Sarah Kidder were among the heaviest of hitters.
John Flint Kidder was a politician and civil engineer who, in 1875, moved to the booming gold rush settlement of Grass Valley, California to serve as the chief engineer during construction of the Northern California’s Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad (NCNGRR). Soon he was promoted to General Superintendent, and before long, Kidder was President of the prosperous railway, as well as Secretary and Treasurer. He appointed his family as the Board of Supervisors, and between the railroad and the four mines he owned, he and his wife Sarah were officially multimillionaires by 1884.
Along with her ambitious husband, Mrs. Kidder led a busy existence as the richest woman in town. A member of the highest of society that a wild mining town could possibly support, Sarah hosted tea parties and lavish balls at the fabulous Kidder Mansion, a beautifly scroll-saw estate surrounded by luscious flower gardens, located right behind the downtown train depot that paid for it. Residents clamored for invites to the beautiful home that often hosted senators, governors, and frequent visitor Mark Twain, a good friend of the Kidders. When she wasn’t entertaining or doting on her adopted daughter Beatrice, Sarah donated her time to the many orphans left in town by the perilous mining industry, and brought a bit of grace to the rowdy mountain town through her classic entertaining and charitable ways, but it wasn’t until John died in 1901 that Sarah found her true calling—business.
Eulogized as the “most important man to the welfare and progress of Nevada County,” John Kidder finally succumbed to diabetes in 1901 after a long illness. Before he died, he signed his railroad stock over to his wife Sarah, giving her control of three-quarters of the capital stock. Within a month, Sarah Kidder was voted in as the first female president of a railroad ever. Despite never showing much interest in anything outside of her domestic life until this monumental turn of events, her presidency become known as “Twelve Golden Years” due to the line becoming more profitable than it had ever been before or would ever be in the future, outdoing both her husband who built the line and the men who eventually bought it from her in 1913.
After selling her stock, Sarah retired to San Francisco to quietly live out the rest of her days. The railroad eventually closed during WWII, and the mansion was left to decay in the center of town. In 1940, a tank car full of asphalt caught fire at the depot, and the depot building and the Kidder Mansion suffered extensive damage.
Now, all that remains is the foundation of the mansion from which you can barely trace out the formerly grand rooms, and the depot staircase covered in vegetation, both passed by unnoticed by locals on a quiet street no longer considered the center of town.
Know Before You Go
The foundation is located at the corner of Kidder and Bennett St., the depot entrance is on Bennett street a few hundred feet up from the northbound I-80 freeway entrance.