Some of California's best-known Gold Rush towns feel like museums that are operated for the benefit of tourists and transplanted retirees. Although the towns are genuinely historic, they may or may not be genuine places today.

Yreka is different. The historic district in the county seat of Siskiyou County can match the historic qualities of just about any Gold Rush city in California. But it's no museum. Downtown Yreka is very much a functioning and evolving district.

Gold was discovered in the area in 1851, and the City of Yreka (the name comes from a Shasta Indian term for northern mountain or Mt. Shasta) incorporated in 1857. Like many original mining towns, Yreka evolved over the decades into a logging town and regional trade center. St. Joseph'sThese days, government agencies and the leisure/hospitality industry provide the vast majority of jobs.

Yreka is surprisingly spread out for a city of only 7,300 people. It has the obligatory Wal-Mart and, because of the location on Interstate 5, more than its share of chain restaurants. But downtown appears to remain the center of the community.

I wouldn't call downtown Yreka thriving. It has too many empty storefronts and second-hand stores. Yet on Monday, people were coming and going from professional offices and government buildings. People in business attire, blue-collar work clothes and vacation duds were on the sidewalk of Miner Street. The two-chair barbershop in the front of the 142-year-old Franco-American Hotel (now closed, but renovation is promised) was busy. At lunchtime, mom-and-pop restaurants and coffee houses were doing decent business.

Plaques located all over Yreka's designated historic district commemorate events at certain buildings or on certain locations. It's great stuff for anyone interested in the Old West. These days, many old buildings serve new purposes — Mexican restaurant, law office, beauty salon, sporting equipment sales, bookstore. (The 132-year-old St. Joseph's Catholic Church pictured here is still a church, with weekday mass at 8:30 a.m.) The T-shirt shops, art galleries and overpriced antique stores that dominate some Gold Rush towns are noticeably absent. And I bet that is just fine with the locals, who still need and use a real downtown.

- Paul Shigley