The defining historical event that changed California forever was the 1849 Gold Rush following the discovery of gold at Coloma by James W. Marshall in 1848. When newspapers published exaggerated accounts of how easy it would be for ambitious young men to pluck gold from streams of the Mother Lode, California saw an invasion of miners that was unparalleled in world history.
As those from eastern states, England, Europe, China and other points worldwide flooded creek beds for gold, towns like Auburn, Placerville, Sonora, Sutter Creek, La Grange and Mariposa sprang up overnight. Ports in San Francisco and Stockton saw a steady stream of ships ushering in miners and supplies headed for the gold fields.
But most quickly became disillusioned from the back-breaking toil of panning or sluicing for gold with little payoff. The desire for female companionship was palpable and the lawlessness that infested the mining camps was something to be reckoned with. Some returned home, while many switched occupations such as store keeping and freighting. A great many like Daniel Whitmore of Ceres and Charles Weber of Stockton became wealthy by farming in the Central Valley.
The dream of striking it rich is gone but residents of the 209 have a plethora of 209 localities where the discovery of gold is easily revisited.
The California State Mining and Mineral Museum, 5005 Fairgrounds Road, Mariposa, offers a fascinating view of gold and minerals. One of the newest of state parks, this museum houses the official California State Mineral Collection of over 13,000 minerals, rocks, fossils, gems and historical artifacts. The big draw is the Fricot Nugget, found in 1865 in El Dorado County. At 12.5 pounds, it was the biggest piece of crystalline gold found during the Gold Rush.
The museum is currently open Thursdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and closed Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Phone (209) 742-7625 ahead to get seasonal hours.
Ironstone Vineyards, (1894 Six Mile Road, Murphys) has on display the “Crown Jewel,” which is larger than the Fricot “nugget.” The 44-pound hunk of gold was unearthed at the Sonora Mining Corporation’s mine in Jamestown in 1992 and is worth millions. The location also has an outdoor gold mining museum complete with miner’s shack, water-powered wheel and stamp mill used to crush gold and silver out of ore.
The small town of La Grange – originally called French Bar due to a settlement of French gold miners – in eastern Stanislaus County was another settlement that popped up quickly due to the influx of gold seekers. Nearby were the gold mining towns of Don Pedro Bar and Jacksonville, both at the bottom of Don Pedro Reservoir.
On display outdoors at the east end of town is a bucket which was part of the La Grange Dredge. The 1937 dredge was partly dismantled by Canadian Bud Hennings but most of it remains on county property less than two miles south of Highway 132. Adventurous souls can take the short hike from the Clampers’ monument on La Grange Road to view the dredge but the dredge itself is off limits.
La Grange has a museum at 30178 Yosemite Blvd., which is open Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is free. Call (209) 853-2082 for more information.
The Northern Mariposa County History Center in Coulterville offers visitors a glimpse of early California, including the 1849 gold rush and the post gold rush era. Mining and farm equipment, old photographs and bits of local history are included in exhibits which are updated each January.
A variety of old wagons, mining and farm equipment is displayed. Adjacent to the museum is “Whistling Billy,” an eight-ton Porter Locomotive shipped around the Horn and brought to Coulterville by mule team to bring gold ore from the Mary Harrison Mine four miles to the mill. The locomotive stands under the town’s Hanging Tree, from which the likes of Leon Ruiz was hung in 1856 for robbing and killing two Chinese miners.
Hours are Wednesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call ahead of time at (209) 878-3015 to be sure about hours.
Woods Creek in Jamestown made many miners happy during the Rush. While gold panning is off limits for most of the creek, a must stop for anyone interested in modern-day panning is Gold Prospecting Adventures at 18170 Main Street, (209) 984-4653.
The business offers the experience of panning at the Jimtown 1849 Gold Mining Camp.
The business website answers the question: “Is there any gold left in California?” and answered: “You bet there is! According to the Gold Institute less than 2 million ounces of gold were mined during the height of the California Gold Rush in 1849. By comparison, 10.6 million ounces were found in the U.S. in 1993.”
Columbia State Historic Park in Tuolumne County bears the scars of hydraulic mining used to retrieve gold. A large block near the visitor’s parking lot shows how the ground was washed away to expose marble rock.
The museum in town also has exhibits relating to the mining that occurred there as early as the 1840s.
Each spring Columbia hosts Columbia Diggins, a reenactment of an 1852 gold rush tent town. This year’s event is set for May 19-22, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily but check ahead in case COVID restrictions are enacted. Cost is $10 per adult and $2 for children 12 and under. The event is sponsored by Friends of Columbia State Historic Park. Find out more details on their events page at www.friendsofcolumbiashp.com.
At 5,912 feet down, the Kennedy Mine, 12594 Kennedy Mine Road, Jackson, (209) 223-9542, is famous for being one of the deepest gold mines in the world. Visitors can get an understanding of how gold was mined.
Opened in 1912, the mine produced approximately $34.2 million in gold before closing in 1942.
One of the tallest head frames in existence today can be seen at the Kennedy Mine. The mine also had one of the largest stamp mills in the Mother Lode, moving tailings by means of huge wooden wheels, some of which are still standing.
The Kennedy Mine is open weekends from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., March through October. Admission is free but guided tours cost $12 for those aged 13 and older, $6 for kids aged 6 to 12 and free for children under six. Tours are offered at 10:15 a.m., 12:15 p.m. and 2:15 p.m.
Just outside the 209 area code is Colma, the settlement on the American River where James W. Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill on January 24, 1848.
The Marshall Gold Discovery State Park, 310 Back Street, Coloma, (530) 622-3470, offers a realistic replica of the famous Sutter’s Mill and close by is a stone memorial on the spot where Marshall found a nugget. A museum offers dioramas on mining life and displays of gold mining equipment. Stamp mills, tall machines used to crush gold out of rock, are also on display.
While visiting, be sure to not miss the towering monument on the hill off of High Street where Marshall was laid to rest after he died in 1885.