By Lee Foster
Author’s Note: This article “One Lucky Day at the Sawmill: How James Marshall Discovered Gold at Coloma” is a chapter in my new book/ebook Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips. The subject is also covered in my book/ebook Northern California Travel: The Best Options. That book is available in English as a book/ebook and also as an ebook in Chinese. Several of my books on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.
In 1848 James Marshall was building a sawmill at Coloma on the American River for himself and his partner, Sacramento entrepreneur John Sutter. One day he discovered a couple of shiny, small flecks in the race of the mill. The metal later assayed out to be gold. Today the Gold Discovery site at Coloma is a must-see for anyone interested in California history.
The Historic Story
The Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park celebrates how the Gold Rush began. At the site the famous logging chute has been re-created. It was here that Marshall came running back to his workers with the news, January 24, 1848, after finding the shiny objects in the settled water, “Boys, I believe I’ve found a gold mine.”
However, nothing happened at once. Marshall waited several days before returning to Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento to tell Sutter. Both Sutter and Marshall made extensive assay tests on the metal and sought to suppress the news once they learned the truth. But the story of gold was too enthralling to keep secret. San Francisco had 460 people at the time, Sacramento 150. It was Sam Brannan, the enterprising Mormon merchant, who paraded the news in San Francisco that there had been a gold strike on the American River.
When the rush of miners arrived, wealth eluded Marshall, who died an impoverished and disappointed man, but others were luckier.
Gold Discovery at State Historic Park
Near Columbia, for example, someone had the good fortune to find a solid gold nugget that weighed 195 pounds. The search for the Mother Lode, that vein of pure gold, was on.
What is impressive about the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park is that the large acreage of the park preserves the entire town area. Most of the buildings are now mere memories, but a few remain, such as the Robert Bell Store. The Coloma Schoolhouse, a white wood structure, shows what a thriving waterfront community once existed here. The Visitor Center has a museum with examples of large gold nuggets, such as miners dreamed of, and an un-restored Concord stagecoach, the plushest of the bone-jarring devices that brought some folks overland to California.
Other gold-mining paraphernalia on display include stamp mills used to pulverize rock into more manageable sizes, from which the grains of gold could be extracted. Recreational gold panning occurs across the river, north of the bridge. On a hill above the site is a statue of James Marshall pointing down to where he discovered gold. Hikers enjoy the Monroe Ridge trail leading away from the statue site. From high points on the ridge you get a panoramic view of the valley.
The Gold Rush transformed the area within a few months. By the summer of 1848 a thousand miners were sifting gravel from the stream.
The monumental discovery of precious metal in California in 1848 provoked one of the most frenzied voluntary migrations in human history and quickly settled what would become a major geographic and cultural entity, California.
Columbia State Historic Park
Other locations in the Gold Country carry the story forward. Columbia State Historic Park re-creates the brief, democratic period when the common man, if lucky, could get rich by panning for nuggets in chilly mountain streams. The Empire Mine State Historic Park is a memorial to the later period in gold extraction, when highly-capitalized companies mined the quartz rock deep underground in search of veins of gold. Malakoff Diggins is a tragic statement to how man can, and will, destroy the environment in the name of greed. At Malakoff the miners employed immense hoses to wash down the hillsides, causing silt runoff in the streams, ruining downstream habitat and causing a yard of silt to accumulate at the bottom of San Francisco Bay.
The Gold Country still conjures up the excitement that James Marshall felt when he first noticed the gold nuggets. Gold Rush Country functions as a massive outdoor living museum, 300 miles long and about 20 miles wide if you begin at Mariposa in the south and drive north beyond Sierraville.
Today you can bathe in the nostalgic memories of the wild mining era while gazing at the many preserved buildings from the Gold Rush. You can lodge in old Gold Rush era hotels and Victorian houses, now B&Bs. You can visit the intriguing museums, poke about the small towns, and, if you are ambitious, even pan for flakes of your own.
The most direct route to Coloma is Interstate 80 east to Sacramento, then Highway 50 east to Highway 49 at Placerville. Turn north on Highway 49 to reach Coloma. Turn south on Highway 49 to Columbia.
Getting there today is easier than it was for the miners, who had three alternatives. From the eastern U.S. they could sail 15,000 miles around Cape Horn. Panama offered a shorter, but hotter and malaria-ridden crossing. The prospective miner could also push overland on wagon train paths, but these were as yet poorly marked. Weather and Indians were equally hostile. The bravado of the mining era can be read in the motto, “The cowards never started, and the weaklings died on the way.”
Be Sure to See
The Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park is at 310 Back Street, Coloma, CA 95613, 530/622-3470, http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=484.
Best Time of Year
Coloma is a good place to visit any time of the year. Each January 24 there is a special Gold Discovery Day festival. In June a Coloma Fest includes costumed re-enactors. Coloma also hosts a 49er Family Festival in October with further emphasis on living history demonstrations.
Eden Vale Inn is a tranquil romantic and modern B&B with private outdoor tubs and its own little lake at 1780 Springvale Rd, Placerville, CA 95667, 530-621-0901, www.edenvaleinn.com. The inn is only a short drive from Coloma.
Café Mahjaic offers new American cuisine, a blend of ethnic influences, in an 1855 building. Cafe Mahjaic is at 1006 Lotus Rd, Lotus, CA 95651, 530-622-9597, www.cafemahjaic.com.
For Further Information
Details: Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, 310 Back St, Coloma, CA 95613; 530/622-3470; http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=484.