Glass of 1852: Auburn excavations reveal buried Gold Rush, pre-WWI treasure

Downtown, Courthouse digs find bottle caches from early 1850s, circa 1910
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Two construction sites less than a mile apart in Auburn have yielded historical finds. Digging up the Placer County Courthouse parking lot, a construction crew discovered a two-foot- deep hole that recently yielded several dirt-encrusted bottles dating back to 1852. Last week, a sharp-eyed backhoe operator saw glass glinting in the light of a mound of dirt at the city’s Central Square Streetscape project. That yielded a sizable stash of soda and beer bottles buried around 1910. Cliff Kennedy, a Penryn historical artifact expert, is now working with the county Museums Division to research the past of the newly found collection of bottles. They’ll shed more light on both Auburn’s Gold Rush days and, with the Central Square find, the A.W. Kenison bottling business. “Auburn is the endurance capital but it’s also a city of bottles,” Kennedy said. The Kenison plant, located next to the now-long-gone Auburn Opera House on Central Square, was at the center of the bottle business from the 1890s well into the 1910s. A.W. Kenison, who also served as opera house manager, died at age 49 in 1904. The business continued on, selling soda as well as beer to parched foothills throats through about 1916. The courthouse bottles were found in a hole that was once at the bottom of a privy. The first permanent courthouse was built over it in 1853, replacing several houses that were located on the knoll. They sat undisturbed until workers resurfacing the front courthouse parking lot discovered them. The half-dozen bottles from the courthouse are made in Philadelphia. They were shipped empty around Cape Horn to California, where they were filled with soda or beer either in Sacramento or San Francisco. From there, they made their way to the gold fields. The privy hole also yielded a broken clay pipe, a lock plate for a trunk, a serrated beam for a scale, a spice bottle base and a chamber pot remnant. “This stuff is exciting because it dates from Auburn’s infancy,” Kennedy said. Herb Yue, a bottle collector whose family roots in Auburn date back to the late Gold Rush period, said a good specimen of a bottle like the ones from the county courthouse recently sold for $56. Bottle finds – particularly from digs in dirt that once made a privy – happen every few years in Auburn. This time, the city and county are the ones that have taken possession of a notable discovery. Melanie Barton, museums administrator, said the city may display theirs at the Civic Center and the county is also looking at some way to share the find. The city collection numbers about 20 bottles. Yue said that the historic locations where they were found adds to their historical value. “It’s neat to hang onto a piece of history that a gold miner probably held in his hand,” Yue said. “If they could talk, you know, what stories they could tell.”