- Chinese stores: Between 1850 and 1883, Coloma was home to a large Chinese population. Chinese merchants supplied many of the goods and implements used by the miners; after the huge 1883 fire, most of the Chinese moved on to new locations. These two stone buildings are all that remain of the early China camp.
Almost everyone knows that California’s Gold Rush began some 160-odd years ago, but, do you know where, when, what it meant to the nation and how close the discovery site is to Stockton?
Sacramento’s Captain John Sutter hired members of a Mormon battalion in the late 1840s to fan out and develop saw mills to supply lumber to his growing empire. One was James Marshall, who chose Coloma, on the banks of the South Fork of the American River, to cut timber and mill lumber.
When Marshall found flakes of gold in the saw mill’s tailrace, the discovery ignited the largest mass movement of people in the USA and Western Hemisphere to California. Mormons built cabins in Coloma and several are preserved at the Marshall Gold Discovery Park in Coloma. Two cabin occupants kept a journal, fixing the date of discovery of gold in Coloma as January 24, 1848.
Gold would change the course of the nation and speed California’s place in the Union. Soon, Coloma would swell to hundreds of residents, then thousands! A large Chinese community developed, providing food, supplies, hardware and other items to the voracious miners. Coloma would build a jail, then a larger jail, added scores of stores, restaurants and taverns and boomed until the gold began to pan out.
A huge fire in 1863 saw much of the town burn, and most of the Chinese merchants and many of the miners moved on to new “diggins” in the surrounding Sierra foothills. Placerville, Plymouth, Fiddletown, Amador City, Sutter Creek and other towns sprang up almost overnight, blossoming to thousands of residents in just a few years as the new “Mother Lode” yielded millions in riches.
The ensuing Gold Rush put California on the world’s map and would speed entry of the state into the Union. California’s wealth, mineral resources and 17,000 California volunteers to the army would help the north win the Civil War, and would hasten the connection of California to the nation – first through the Pony Express in 1860, then the continental Western Union telegraph in 1862 and finally the continental railroad’s completion in 1869.
Today, visitors can see a replica of the old saw mill that Sutter commissioned, the Mormon cabin and over 20 historic buildings including the jail, mining digs, stamp mills that crushed quartz so gold could be mined, houses, blacksmith shop and old stores. Walk through two old Chinese store buildings lovingly restored, complete with a “show and tell” as to how gold was discovered and then mined through ever-increasingly sophisticated techniques.
A walking tour gives kids and adults a first-hand lesson in gold mining, from panning for gold to the ‘California Stamp’. Miners quickly discovered this crude ‘stamp’ could crush ore into powder, which could then be mined for gold and silver. The first stamps were man-powered or mull-driven, the later ones were driven by waterpower. Soon, hydraulic mining would wash away entire hillsides in search of the illusive gold dust.
Kids and adults can try panning for gold and enjoy “Living History Days” held on a regular basis. Take the time to walk through Coloma’s history and picnic under riparian oak woods, just like James Marshall would have done 166 years ago.
The Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, just two hours from Stockton, should be a “first stop” for any visitor, or Californian, seeking to understand the gold fever that brought tens of thousands of new immigrants to the state for riches. Many of these miners would stay to raise their families, swelling the new state’s population from 100,000 in 1850 to 400,000 by the 1860s.
How to get there: From Stockton, take I-5 North to Sacramento, go east on Hwy 50 to Placerville, then north eight miles on Hwy 49 to Coloma. It’s about two hours from Stockton.
What’s nearby: the historic and very quaint town of Placerville is just eight miles south on Hwy 49; the equally historic town of Auburn is just 20 miles north on Hwy 49. Going south on Hwy 49, our favorite Mother Lode historic, walkable towns are Fiddletown (seven miles off Hwy 49, from Plymouth), Amador City, Sutter Creek and Columbia. Make a long day and tour several of these towns, but start in Coloma!
Where to stay: The surrounding communities like Placerville have a host of motel, hotel and bed and breakfast accommodations. These same towns have many restaurants, delicatessens, bakeries, grocery stores and other places to get food in the surrounding communities.
What to bring: Binoculars and camera, of course, and comfortable walking shoes. The Discovery Park is also quite handicapped-accessible.
For more information: See California State Park’s informative web site: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=484. The Gold Discovery Museum and Visitor Center phone is: 530-622-3470. Address is 310 Back Street, Coloma, CA 95613. Happy travels in California!