Written by dswett1 on 08 May, 2003
Most of the world's gold was locked deep underground -- embedded in hard rock. But California gold was different -- easily accessible to anyone with a few simple tools and a willingness to work hard. Also unique was the political environment. California became a part…Read More
Most of the world's gold was locked deep underground -- embedded in hard rock. But California gold was different -- easily accessible to anyone with a few simple tools and a willingness to work hard. Also unique was the political environment. California became a part of the United States just a few days after Marshall's discovery; and so the Gold Rush came before any meaningful government could be established. It was an unlikely intersection of anarchy and geology. Unlike anywhere else, the gold in California was easy to get and free for the taking.
It was free -- and it was plentiful. Soon there was too much money in California and too little of everything else. The lessons of supply and demand were often painful. A forty-niner who earned a dollar a day back home, could make twenty-five dollars in a day of mining -- but that was often just enough to buy dinner.
Our trip to the gold country took us back in time to another era. Although the evidence of their activities fade with each passing year, the memories of those early pioneers are kept alive through the various museums and displays found in almost every town of the region. Many of the buildings date from the mid 19th century. Towns were born in the heat of gold fever and many of those survive to this day. Similar though they may be, each has their own unique story.
We were in this region for a week. In that time we visited more than a dozen of the 'gold camps' which survived and prospered long after the gold gave out. Here are our impressions of those places we visited.
MARIPOSA--remains one of the most important towns in the Southern Mines. In addition to being the county seat, it is also on the main road to Yosemite National Park, which accounts for thousands of visitors each year. The town has a good number of historic structures still intact, and an excellent museum and history center that should not be missed.
COULTERVILLE--Even though many of the original buildings have been burned, razed or melted away by the elements, a number of ruins and many historic structures still remain. In fact, Coulterville is a State Historic Landmark with forty-seven designated historic buildings and sites located in the town limits. In 1981 its Main Street was entered into the National Register of Historic Places as every building there, with one exception, dates from the 1800’s and early 1900’s.
CHINESE CAMP--Many of the buildings no longer stand but there is plenty that remains to make a visit most interesting.
JAMESTOWN--Several buildings constructed in the 1850's from local stone survive. Also home of the former Jamestown (Harvard Mine) where in Dec. 1962, a 62-lb gold mass was discovered. A smaller one (44 lbs) is on display at Kautz Ironstone Winery in Murphys (which IS in Calaveras County). Railroad museum is nearby.
SONORA--Its location and the activity associated with being the county seat combine to create a busy and prosperous town. It’s easy to miss the historic sites and buildings while driving through town, as the traffic is usually pretty heavy and before you know it, you’re past. Stop, get out of the car, and take a walk along downtown Washington Street. Many of these buildings date from the early 1850’s, making the town a favorite location for film makers requiring an "authentic" western town look. In addition, numerous other historic sites and structures are located on the streets adjoining Washington and can be reached with a short walk.
COLUMBIA--Of all the towns in the Mother Lode, this is the one which can best return you to the days of the Gold Rush. Though only a small fraction of what it once was, the town contains the best collection of Gold Rush architecture anywhere in the world. Evenings or early mornings are the best times to visit, when no one is around to distract the imagination. This is now a State Park.
ANGEL'S CAMP--Lots of interesting buildings and locales still survive to the present day.
Mark Twain was a frequent visitor to Angels Camp. One of his favorite haunts was the Angels Hotel saloon, since it contained a billiard table and Twain was a billiards fanatic. On February 20 of 1865, he visited the saloon where Ben Coon, the bartender, told him a story about a man and a jumping frog. Twain turned this story into a "villainous backwoods sketch" entitled Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog. Published later that year in newspapers throughout America and Europe, the story earned Twain world-wide recognition. Reprinted in 1867 in a collection of Twain’s western writings, the story was re-titled "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," by which it is known today.
MURPHYS--Though a fire burned Murphys down just a few years after it was established, it is considered one of the best preserved of the gold mining towns. Murphys Elementary School is the oldest continuously operating elementary schoolhouse in the state, built in 1860 and a visit to the Old Timer's Museum is a must, if you happen to be there when it's open. Visit the Ironstone Winery and see the 44 pound gold nugget!
DOUGLAS FLAT--Not much left. Although the main industry here was mining, many settlers planted orchards, vineyards, and gardens, because the ground here seemed to be exceptionally fertile. It turned out to be a good thing, because the placers were worked out in a very short time, and most of the camp's population dwindled just as fast. Many of the type of crops planted then, remain today.
SAN ANDREAS--New highway alignments, and other demands of modern civilization, have stripped San Andreas of most of its mining camp character, leaving only a few of the original gold rush era buildings. The remaining examples of early architecture include the dressed-stone Fricot building, now housing the county library; a two-story I.O.O.F. Hall; and the courthouse, which is now home to the Chamber of Commerce, and a museum with a good collection of local historical items. Behind the courthouse is the old jail with a cell marked "Black Bart slept here". Just west of town is the historic Pioneer Cemetery, dating back at least to 1851.
MOKELUMNE HILL--Mok Hill to the locals,it is scattered about the hills, the main portion of the old town is located off Hwy 49, bypassed but worth not passing by. Numerous early buildings still stand as reminders of the town’s past, including the Calaveras County Courthouse and one of the first three-story buildings in the Gold Country.
JACKSON--most of Jackson’s remaining historic buildings were constructed after the fire of 1862 and date from 1862 to 1864. Although many of the buildings on Main Street may look to be of relatively recent construction, they’re "all front," and just for show. A look down the side streets and at the rear portions of these buildings will often reveal their true age. And remember that while walking through Jackson it’s a good idea to keep your eyes down, as there are a number of historical plaques embedded in the sidewalks.
SUTTER CREEK--Many buildings and homes here have survived from the 1800’s. They were built well, built to last, because they thought the gold would last. And as it turned out, it did, although in a slightly different form. Lumbering, and more recently, tourism, now provide Sutter Creek and much of the Mother Lode with its gold today.
Of course, there are many more towns in the "Gold Country" which extends along highway 49 from Mariposa in the south to Sierra City in the north. We only had time to visit these few towns, but wherever you were to go along highway 49, history and adventure await you.