Three Handsome Gentleman from Helltown

Who are these three gentlemen? The photograph was taken at the Chico photography studio of H.H. Frye, but the three men are not identified. The photo was brought to a committee meeting of the Association for Northern California Historical Research (ANCHR). A mystery! Time for some historical research!

On the back of this photograph, in tiny neat pencil writing, it reads, “Helltown, Ca.” A clue! I knew that the man to share it with was John Rudderow — if anyone would recognize them he would.

And he did. John lives in Butte Creek Canyon, near the site of the mining camp known as Helltown. The history of Helltown, Diamondville, and Centerville are his domain.

These three gentlemen are two brothers and their cousin, who was raised with them as a brother. On the left is Charles Francis Nicholl (1858-1921) and on the right is John Gault Nicholl ( 1854-1920), sons of John Nicholl and Helen Gault Nicholl. In the center is James Milton Brotherton Nicholl (1866-1947). James, or Jimmy as he was known, was the son of James and Ellen Brotherton. Ellen, who was sister to John Nicholl, died giving birth to James and he was raised by his uncle and aunt.

Chico Weekly Enterprise 7 July 1886

John Nicholl, the father, was an immigrant from Ireland who came to California in 1849. In 1852 he went back east and in 1853 he married Helen Gault.

He returned to California and to mining. Helen and their little son John joined the father in 1857. By then John senior had a homestead and mineral claim in Butte Creek Canyon. He raised cattle and grew fruit on a lovely little ranch he called “Sunnyside.”

John Nicholl became famous in the county for his outstanding fruit orchard, especially his citrus fruit.

His three sons kept the ranch going after his death in 1890. None of them ever married. I’m told their mother kept a tight rein on her boys.

For more information, and their obituaries, see the Find A Grave entry at

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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