Deep in the foothills of the 209 sits, quite literally, a gold mine. Located in the heart of the California Mother Lode, Columbia State Historic Park is a real, living gold rush town featuring the largest single collection of existing gold rush-era structures in the state. Visiting Columbia is much like taking a step back in time; from the shop owners dressed in nineteenth century attire to the sounds of the stagecoach pulling up to the station, the sights, smells and sounds of Columbia bring the historic park’s rich history to life.
The discovery of gold by the Hildreth party in 1850 put Columbia on the map during the California gold rush as one of the hundreds of settlements that sprang up during the state’s richest years. At 1860’s gold prices, Columbia yielded nearly $90 million in gold.
On March 27, 1850, Dr. Thaddeus Hildreth, his brother George and a small group of other prospectors made camp near what is now known as Columbia. Soon, their digging and panning led to the discovery of gold, bringing in streams of miners from all over the state. By the end of the month, what had originally begun as a small camp was now a tent and shanty town housing several thousand miners.
The small town’s first year was nearly disastrous, with water – a necessary resource for mining placer gold – in short supply. There were no natural streams in the area, and the town’s only water supply came from gulches carrying rain and snow runoff. This led to the formation of the Tuolumne County Water Company in June 1851, which brought water into the area. Due to high water rates, the miners in Columbia came together to form the Columbia and Stanislaus River Water Company in 1854 to build a 60-mile aqueduct to supply the mines. The new system was completed in 1858, but by that time, the easily recovered gold deposits had been depleted and miners had begun to move out of the area. So, the Tuolumne Water Company was able to acquire the new system, valued at over $1 million, for under $150,000.
Columbia miners used hydraulic mining methods to recover their gold. Using nozzles to shoot water at high pressure, miners show powerful streams of water at the gold-bearing rock, washing out the gold that hid in its layers. This method was effective, but destructive. The area that now surrounds the town’s main parking lot was once ten or more feet below the earth’s surface before the miners arrived.
Away from the mines and in the town, the tents and shanties were soon replaced with more sturdy, permanent structures. Streets were created and by the end of 1852, more than 150 shops, saloons, stores and other businesses were thriving.
Many of the buildings were constructed with wood, and in 1854 a fire ravaged the town, destroying everything in the town’s central business district except for one brick building. The town was rebuilt shortly after, with red brick, iron doors, iron window shutters and reinforced brick roofs on many of the new buildings adding fire protection.
In July of 1855 piped water for firefighting and domestic use was provided by the New England Water Company. Seven cisterns were built under the town streets, able to hold a combined capacity of 98,000 gallons. These early pipes were in service until 1950 when a new water system was installed.
In 1857, disaster struck yet again when a second fire destroyed all of the frame structures in the 13-block district, as well as a few of the brick buildings. Once again, the town was rebuilt. This time, however, the town decided to form a volunteer fire department to avoid any more devastating fires. In 1859, the town acquired the Papeete, a small, decorated fire engine, followed by the Monumental, a larger hand-pumper, a year later.
By 1860, Columbia began to decline. All of the easily-mined gold was gone and many prospectors had left. In the 1870s and ‘80s, many of the vacated buildings were demolished and their sites mined. The Columbia population fell from its peak of about six thousand to a mere 500.
Although the town survived, it did not prosper for many years. Many of the settlements that were built during the gold rush now have nothing to show for themselves, save for perhaps the shells of what once were buildings that have since succumbed to fire, vandalism and the elements. Unlike these other mining towns, Columbia has never been deserted, standing the test of time. Through the years, it has remained the same active town that it was when miners walked its streets nearly two centuries ago. This led the State Legislature to jump on an opportunity to preserve a typical Gold Rush town as an example of one of the most exciting times in America’s history, creating Columbia State Historic Park in 1945.
Since becoming a State Park in 1945, Columbia has become quite the tourist attraction. The streets are lined with a variety of shops and boutiques, many of which specialize in nineteenth century goods. Restaurants, ice cream parlors, candy shops and book stores are available for those who truly want to take trip into the town’s history. Visitors can pan for gold, take a ride on an authentic stagecoach and even take professional photographs in nineteenth century garb.
Since Columbia is a real town, it never truly closes. But, most of its businesses are open year-round from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Conveniently located off Highway 49, Columbia is three miles north of Sonora and is an easy, scenic drive that neighbors other historic towns in the Sierra Nevada foothills including Sonora, Jamestown and Angels Camp. Admission into the State Park is free, as are the parking and town tours.