By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: This article is about the California Gold Country’s Small Museums, east of Sacramento. This is also an updated chapter for the next edition of my book Northern California History Weekends. When all the 52 chapters are revised, a new edition of the book will appear.)
The actual world of the Gold Rush was a time of hardship, fueled by the vision of a Mother Lode with rich ore-bearing earth. In short, the miners were willing to endure hours of tedious work in icy Sierra streams to secure a few nuggets. However, for every lucky miner, a hundred failed. Above all, costs were high, with a slice of bread going for a dollar, a shirt for $50, and a plain shovel for as much as $100.
The enduring wealth of the mining era rested in the pockets of shopkeepers, who could charge what the market would bear for their goods. Consequently, illustrious California names, such as Mark Hopkins, started their fortunes here, selling hardware and vegetables. All these details of daily life can be seen in the various Gold Country museums. Visiting museums could be a rationale for approaching the region.
The Historic Story
The small museums of the Gold Country tell a thousand stories, not all of them pretty. For example, the mining era turned brutal and ugly for those not certified as white Americans. Miners from other countries did play important roles in the development of the Gold Country and the West in general. However, prejudice and avarice combined as the white Americans physically forced off—or else taxed off—the Mexican, Chilean, and Chinese miners.
Nevertheless, Mexican miners from the state of Sonora, with their considerable experience in silver mining, were among the first to work the southern area of the Gold Country. Spanish names, like Sonora or Mariposa (butterfly), remind you of their presence.
In 1856 the mining town of Chinese Camp housed about 5,000 Chinese miners. Subsequently, the numerous Chinese miners became part of the workforce that built the railroads over the Sierra.
Now the setting is tranquil. The small towns pride themselves on their underdeveloped status. You can almost feel cares slough off as you drive through these foothills of the Sierra.
Chaw’se Indian Grinding Rock
One special outdoor museum honors the Native Americans who lived here before the Gold Rush. Be sure to visit Chaw’se, or Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park (209/296-7488; http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=553). The park, on the road connecting Pine Grove with Volcano, off Highway 88, is a state park devoted to Indian culture.
There you’ll see how Indians ground acorns into meal for hundreds of years, using 1,185 mortar cups (the chaw’ses). The holes were in the limestone rock. Large valley oaks, once the food producers, dominate the landscape. While women processed the acorns, men hunted for deer in this western Sierra location. Bark tepee structures re-create the homes used by the Indians.
Acorns, roughly half of the Indian diet, cooked after Indians dropped hot rocks into baskets filled with water and acorn meal. Moreover, due to the need for watertight baskets, the craft of making baskets became one of the most advanced skills among Indians in California.
A sweat house approximates their milieu for cleansing and social activity. In addition, another fascinating aspect of Chaw’se is the 383 rock carvings or petroglyphs carved into the rock. Some of these petroglyphs may be 2,000-3,000 years old. They represent the carvers’ depictions of a good hunt, the cycle of life, and the coming of age.
The Chaw’se Regional Indian Museum exhibits artifacts from 10 tribes of the Sierra region. However, only a few Indians survived the onslaught of the Gold Miners. Most importantly, the survivors blended into the new culture.
Museums in the Southern Gold Country
Some of the major worthwhile cultural immersions of the Gold Country are the many small museums. Each receives support from its local community. Museums could absorb several days of your attention. Outstanding choices are:
The Mariposa Museum and History Center (209/966-2924; http://mariposamuseum.com) is at 5119 Jessie Street in Mariposa. For instance, this museum includes a stamp mill used to crush rock in search of gold. In addition, examine a monitor nozzle and several horse-drawn vehicles from the mining era.
There is also a Mariposa Mining Museum at the Fairgrounds, where you can see the famous Fricot Nugget, one of the largest found during the California Gold Rush.
While in town, be sure to see the stately Mariposa County Courthouse, the oldest courthouse still in use in California. The white-frame structure arose in 1854 and cost $12,000. You can tour the inside, including the courtroom with its original furniture.
The Tuolumne County Museum and History Center (209/532-1317; http://www.tchistory.org), at 158 W. Bradford Street in Sonora, was once the county jail. As with many Gold Country structures, flames consumed it in the 1850s. Miners needed to build many iconic structures twice.
Fire was the scourge of the hastily built wooden mining towns, which explains why the fire company was such an important civil and social entity. The museum, which has an outstanding gold nugget collection, also shows period clothing, historic photographs, and the restored jail.
Columbia, An Article in Itself
Near Sonora is the town of Columbia, which I’ll discuss as an article in itself. Columbia is an entire town as a preserved museum, one of the great California State Historic Parks. In this article, I’ll concentrate on all the smaller museums of the California Gold Country.
The Calaveras County Museum (209/754-1058; http://www.calaverascohistorical.com/museum.html), 30 N. Main Street in San Andreas, resides the county courthouse. Here the infamous bandit Black Bart was tried, convicted, and jailed. You can visit the jail cell where Bart spent four years before being transferred to San Quentin to serve out the six-year term he was given for the final robbery, the only robbery for which he was convicted.
The Amador County Museum (209/223-6386; https://www.amadorgov.org/departments/museum), at 225 Church Street in Jackson, flourishes in the historic Brown house, a brick structure from 1859. The museum’s tour de force is an intricate working scale model of local mine structures. Among the museum holdings are clothing, household utensils, furniture, musical instruments, and literary evidence of mining-era culture.
Museums in the Northern Gold Country
The El Dorado County Historical Museum (530/621-5865; http://museum.edcgov.us/), is at 104 Placerville Dr. in Placerville. Permanent exhibits include Native American baskets, a restored sheepherder’s wagon, logging tools, plus a re-creation of a turn-of-the-century store and kitchen. New exhibits occur on a yearly schedule. In the Museum Yard, there is a narrow-gauge Shay Locomotive, recently restored; mining equipment; antique engines; and a Native Plant garden. The Museum Research Room specializes in local historical photographs, maps, documents, and archives.
The Placer County Museum (530/889-6500; https://www.placer.ca.gov/departments/facility/placermuseums/placer-county-museum), is at 101 Maple Street in Auburn. The museum resides an architectural gem of the Gold Country, the Placer County Courthouse.
This gold-domed structure stands forth regally, as befits the town through which the Central Pacific Railroad headed east into the mountains. Within the museum, savor the gold nugget display in the Treasury and the elaborate Indian basketry in several cases.
Be sure to visit the historic Sheriff’s Office. Inside you’ll observe the jail ledgers with names of all those incarcerated, including a line describing their offense.
Beyond the Courthouse, stroll Auburn to see its antique stores and the statue to Claude Chana, the founding miner.
All these towns are along Highway 49.
Be Sure to See
The listed museums, organized south to north, are treasures awaiting you. Don’t forget to include a stop at the Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park known as Chaw’se.
Best Time of Year
The Gold Country is a year-round destination. The Big Time celebration at Chaw’se in September is an interesting time to learn about the Miwok and other tribes.
Many Gold Rush hotels continue to function as such. For instance, the Hotel Leger, built in 1851 at 8304 Main Street in Mokelumne Hill, originally was the Hotel de France. Details: 209/286-1401; https://www.hotelleger.com.
The local dining room in the historic hotel is often your best bet. The Hotel Leger in Mokelumne Hill features southern fried chicken.
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 St., Columbia, CA 95310; phone 209/588-9128.
Contact the chambers of commerce or the designated visitor bureau from the respective areas for more detailed information. Moving south to north, some resources are:
Yosemite Gold Country, Tuolumne County, www.yosemitegoldcountry.com.
Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau, https://www.yosemitethisyear.com/.
Calaveras Visitors Bureau, https://www.gocalaveras.com/.
Amador County Chamber of Commerce, http://amadorcountychamber.com/.
El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce, https://www.eldoradocounty.org/.
Placer County Visitor Information Center, http://www.placer.ca.gov/.