By Ed Boitano
In the 1840s, California’s population was only 14,000, but by 1850 more than 100,000 settlers and adventurers arrived from all over the world—and they came for one reason: gold.
James Marshall discovered the first gold nugget at Sutter’s Mill in El Dorado County, creating the largest gold rush.
Adventurers poured into the area in search of quick riches, creating a period in American history that has not been repeated. Mexican miners called the area La Veta Madre (The Mother Lode), and the locals dubbed the new arrivals ’49ers, due to their year of arrival. Camps and towns sprang up wherever gold was found, and then were abandoned when it ran out.
Highway 49 revisited
Today, visitors still flock from around the world to California Gold Country to discover the area’s rich history. Reminders of those glory days can be found everywhere along historic Highway 49, which runs 321 miles along the Heritage Corridor and links many of the 19th century Mother Lode mining towns.
The region extends from the sweeping Sierra Nevada Foothills in the west to the spectacular mountains of the High Sierra in the east. This is an area brimming with state historic parks, like Marshall Gold Discovery and Columbia state historic parks, allowing visitors a look into the days of the Gold Rush history. Almost 300 camps have vanished or are ghost towns in decay.
Some are just a stop at the side of the road, but if it is Gold Rush history that you want—this is the place. On these back highways, visitors will also find a wealth of charming small towns with restored Victorian inns, boutiques, antique shops and award-winning wineries. Scenic wonders include pristine lakes and rivers; giant sequoias, pines, cottonwoods and oaks; and green hillsides, dotted with seasonal flow.
Gold Country south
Tuolumne County is the recreational and cultural center of the Gold Country. Located near Yosemite National Park, keep your eyes peeled when exploring the back roads, for a sign or plaque that can easily be missed, introducing you to an area of countless wonders.
When you see the sign, “Jamestown, California: Gateway to the Mother Lode!” you know you have arrived. Located on Highway 108/49, this small gold rush town is the first stop when visiting Tuolumne County.
Main Street is lined with Victorian hotels, saloons, restaurants, antique shops and galleries. The Old West atmosphere makes historic Jamestown the ideal place to introduce the family to the heritage, charm and authenticity of this historical Sierra Nevada foothill town.
Angels Camp is nestled on scenic Highway 49, with a history similar to many California Gold Rush towns. In 1848, Henry Angel, a shopkeeper from Rhode Island, opened a trading post. Soon there were as many as 4,000 miners working the surface gold of Angels. Today, Angels Camp’s population is nearly 3,000, and the entire town remains honeycombed with miles of mine tunnels. One of its most popular attractions is Moaning Caverns, an immense limestone miracle with a main cavern large enough to hold the Statue of Liberty. It is open to the public.
Columbia State Historic Park
Established in 1850, Columbia State Historic Park is the best preserved of all California gold rush towns. Once known as the Gem of the Southern Mines, over one-half billion dollars in gold (at today’s currency rate) between the 1850s and 1870s was mined in the area. At that time, it was the state’s second-largest city. Today it is a year-round getaway that offers a unique blend of museums, displays, town tours, live theater, shops, restaurants and saloons.
No other location offers a better overview of California’s gold rush history. This is an essential stop on your tour. Docents appear in costumes throughout the park and interpret life in a California gold rush town with living history demonstrations, which give visitors a greater appreciation and understanding of California’s early days.
Popular events include the annual Columbia Diggin’s, which is a re-creation of the tent town days of early Columbia. Docents perform various scenes depicting life in the rough and ready days of the early 1850s. Gold Rush Days are offered the second Saturday of each month. The park is located three miles north of Sonora, off Highway 49.
During the mid-1850s, an estimated 5,000 Chinese immigrants from Canton lived in this area, known by names like Chinee, Chinese Diggins and eventually Chinese Camp. Like everyone else, the Chinese came for the gold. Many had been driven away from other camps and settled here due to the openness of the early population of Salvadorians, who accepted the outcast miners. Others then gravitated to the camp, feeling safe and comfortable among others of their nationality.
Chinese Camp is easy to find. It’s right on Highway 49 about 5 miles south of Jamestown. Today it has less than 200 residents, but there is ample evidence of its colorful past. Much of the camp, though, is in disrepair and surrounded by barbed wire. St. Xavier’s Catholic Church (circa 1855) and cemetery sits on a hill, overlooking the town, and makes a great stop for photo opportunities.
Known as the “Queen of the Southern Mines,” this pristine city offers historic charm with many of its existing buildings dating back to the 1800s. Even side streets are lined with Victorian homes and old-fashioned gardens that hark back to the days of ’49. Mark Twain’s cabin, where he wrote “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” is located on Jackass Hill, just outside of Sonora.
California’s march to statehood
California Gold Rush’s frenzy drew hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world and propelled California to a state in 1850. Prior to the arrival of the ’49ers, the population of the territory consisted primarily of 6,500 Californios (people of Spanish or Mexican decent), who had prospered in the area with large farms and ranches. Many were forced out of their homes and many perished due to lynchings by the new U.S. arrivals. This horrific period is something that is not generally covered in U.S. history books. But, as we all know, “History is written by the victors.”