The immense Fricot nugget from the California Gold Rush, now in Mariposa
The immense Fricot nugget from the California Gold Rush, now in Mariposa
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By Lee Foster

Author’s Note: This article “Rambling California’s Historic Highway 49: Starting with Columbia, the Preserved Gold Rush Town” 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.

See Lee’s four Northern California books/ebooks on his Amazon Author Page.
See Lee’s four Northern California books/ebooks
on his Amazon Author Page.

In Brief

The gold vein ran all through the foothills, roughly along Highway 49 of today. From Mariposa in the south to beyond Grass Valley in the north, the search for precious metal persisted. A good place to start your discoveries would be the preserved mining town of Columbia, known earlier as the “Gem of the Southern Mines,” now a State Historic Park. Then peruse all the small towns, each with its interesting historic buildings and mining sites.

In Brief

The gold vein ran all through the foothills, roughly along Highway 49 of today. From Mariposa in the south to beyond Grass Valley in the north, the search for precious metal persisted. A good place to start your discoveries would be the preserved mining town of Columbia, known earlier as the “Gem of the Southern Mines,” now a State Historic Park. Then peruse all the small towns, each with its interesting historic buildings and mining sites.

The Historic Story

Columbia State Historic Park, just north of Sonora off Highway 49, amounts to an entire Gold Rush town preserved and restored. There you can actually pan for gold today at the Matelot Mining Company and receive a demonstration of how it was done. You can peer in through the iron shutters of the Wells Fargo Express Building and ride one of the stagecoaches that carried a half billion in gold dust and nuggets (at today’s prices) back to San Francisco 1850-1870. Along your route the legendary robber, called Black Bart, may relieve the stage of its fortune.

On March 27, 1850, Dr. Thaddeus Hildreth and his brother George made camp here and discovered gold. Within a month several thousand miners converged on the site, then known as Hildreth’s Diggings, later Columbia.

While strolling about Columbia, you get a sense of what life was like for the 25,000 miners who lived here at the peak of mining. A museum in the brick Knapp Building exhibits the different mining techniques. At the Old Franco cabin you’ll see what a typical miner’s domestic life was like. A walk through town will take you by a Mexican fandango dancing hall, a blacksmith shop, and the 1861 schoolhouse. Free public tours led by docents leave the city museum at 11 a.m. on weekends.

Live performances entertain at the Fallon House. Columbia is a major festival site in the Gold Country. There is a Columbia Diggins living history event in May and a Big Band Street Dance in July.

Start in Columbia

If you have time to visit only a single Gold Country place, besides the Gold Discovery site at Coloma, start with Columbia. In 1854 the town had four banks, eight hotels, two fire companies, 53 stores, and 40 saloons.

Beyond Columbia, the pleasure of the Gold Country is partly that it meanders in an undefined manner, perfect for the explorer temperament of many travelers. Many discoveries, like hidden nuggets, await the visitor.

Here are a few to whet your appetite as you drive Highway 49:

Jamestown boasts a special rail attraction from the era after the Gold Rush. Called Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, the entity includes steam locomotives and cars from the Sierra Railway Company. You can board the train, the Mother Lode Cannonball, for an hour-long scenic ride along 12 miles of track in an oak-laden terrain.

Mariposa

In Mariposa, you can see trophy gold nuggets and other stunning state minerals at the California State Mining and Mineral Museum. This lavish collection of the state’s gold and other mineral specimens languished for decades in the Ferry Building along the San Francisco waterfront. Now it is installed in handsome quarters just south of Mariposa at the County Fairgrounds. The collection benefits both from the aesthetic sense of an appropriate locale for mineral celebration, the Gold Country, and from a decent, modern (and secure) display space.

The immense Fricot nugget from the California Gold Rush, now in Mariposa
The immense Fricot nugget from the California Gold Rush, now in Mariposa

The collection includes some of the finest examples of gold nuggets found in California, such as the 203-ounce Fricot nugget. California leads all states in non-fuel mineral extraction, amounting to several billion dollars per year. The collection boasts museum-quality specimens in all mineral categories. So vast is the collection that only about ten percent of it is actually on view. Begun in the 1880s, the Collection’s mandate is “to acquire, catalog, and display the important minerals of California.”

Mines at Jackson

At Jackson you can see two huge wooden wheels used to carry buckets of water and debris from the Kennedy Mine. Originally there were four such wheels in place, each 58 feet in diameter. Together they could carry 500 tons of water and debris from the mines each day. The wheels can be seen at a park north of Jackson on Jackson Gate Road. The Kennedy and Argonaut Mines, among the richest and deepest in the Mother Lode, produced about $60 million in gold.

Architecturally, the Chew Kee Store in Fiddletown is unusual because it is of rammed earth construction. The walls are 2-1/2 feet thick. Built in 1850, the structure was a Chinese herb shop and home of Fiddletown’s last Chinese resident, Jimmy Chow, until his death in 1965.

Getting There

Reach Columbia, which is just off Highway 49, by taking Interstate 580 east from the Bay Area to Tracy, then Highway 120 east to Highway 49, the Gold Country highway. Turn north on 49 to Columbia, which is three miles north of Sonora.

Be Sure to See

Amble around Columbia, looking for all the details mentioned. Then pursue a couple of the other suggested stops.

Best Time of Year

One of the more unusual festivals in these parts is the annual Fireman’s Muster in late April/May at Columbia, celebrating Gold Rush era firefighting brigades. Fire was the great destroyer of wooden Columbia on more than one occasion. Another festive contender is the annual Calaveras County Fair and Jumping Frog Jubilee, held in May. The Jumping Frog Jubilee honors Mark Twain and his story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” You can visit the cabin, on Highway 49 three miles south of Angels Camp, where Mark Twain lived while gathering California material for his stories. A statue at Angels Camp recalls the author, who came west with his brother, Orion, failed at mining, and took up the pen to earn his livelihood.

Summer is the busiest time here. Autumn offers the attractive colors of the red oak and yellow maple leaves. Spring entices with an outpouring of wildflowers and a cultivated show at one site, Daffodil Hill (13 miles from Sutter Creek via Shake Ridge Road).

Lodging

The historic City Hotel, 22768 Main Street, Columbia State Historic Park, Columbia, CA 95310, 800/532-1479, www.cityhotel.com, is a premier Gold Country hostelry. There are 10 guest rooms furnished with antiques, plus another 14 rooms in their sister hotel, Fallon Hotel, 11175 Washington Street, Columbia State Historic Park, Columbia, CA, 95310.

Dining

Christopher’s, the dining room at the City Hotel in Columbia, would be the place to eat. Try the 10-ounce porkchop or the lemon risotto salmon. A post-dinner live performance at the nearby Fallon House Theatre would complete the evening.

For Further Information

There is a State Historic Park website for Columbia at http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=552.

Columbia State Historic Park address is 11255 Jackson Street Columbia CA, 95310, 209-588-9128.

Contact the chambers of commerce or the designated visitor bureau from the respective Gold Country areas for more detailed information. Some resources are:

Yosemite Gold Country, Tuolumne County, www.yosemitegoldcountry.com.

Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau, www.go2yosemite.net.

Calaveras Visitors Bureau, www.visitcalaveras.org.

Amador County Chamber of Commerce, www.amadorcountychamber.com.

El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce, www.eldoradocounty.org.

Placer County Visitor Information Center, www.placer.ca.gov.

 

 

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