California’s Gold Rush…the trail is nearby in Mother Lode (Coloma, Placerville, Plymouth, Fiddletown to Amador City)


Coloma's replica of John Sutter's Mill is based on a variety of sources. They include a drawing by John Marshall, old photographs and excavations of the original saw mill site, now inundated by waters of the American River.

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.
A Placerville favorite restaurant, Powell’s Steamer Company is housed in an 1890’s building on Placerville’s main downtown thoroughfare.
The Fiddletown Community Center, with giant fiddle over the entrance, is a backdrop for thousands of photos; last time we were there, the center was hopping with a pancake breakfast for area residents!
Fiddletown’s Chew Kee Chinese Apothecary is an example of a rammed-earth building dating to the 1850s
Amador City’s Keystone Mine was founded in 1853, and this wonderful building was the mining company headquarters (the mine is across Hwy 49 and about a ¼ mile into the Sierra foothills). It remained productive until closed in 1942 due to the war effort.
Amador City’s original wooden Imperial Hotel burned in 1878 and was rebuilt and enlarged after the fire. Today it is carefully restored and serves as both hostelry and dining room; visit the Oasis Bar for a travel respite! Just behind the hotel is the Amador Cemetery with graves of pioneers dating back more than 150 years.

In the 1840s, Sacramento’s Captain John Sutter hired members of a Mormon battalion to fan out and develop saw mills to supply lumber to his growing empire.  One was James Marshall, who chose Coloma (the Nisenan Indians knew the area as Cullumah), on the banks of the South Fork of the American River, to cut timber and mill lumber. 

Marshall’s discovery of flakes of gold in the saw mill’s tailrace ignited the largest mass movement of people in the USA and Western Hemisphere to California.  Mormons built cabins in Coloma (several are preserved at the Marshall Gold Discovery Park in Coloma); two occupants kept a journal, fixing the date of discovery of gold 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 add scores of stores, restaurants and taverns, a jail, then a larger jail and boomed until the gold began to pan out.  

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.  

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.  California’s population would jump from 100,000 in 1850 to over 400,000 by the 1860s!

From Coloma, head south on Hwy. 49, reaching first the old “Hang Town”, Placerville, with its quaint and historic downtown.  You will find the downtown eminently walkable; for a good lunch stop try the Powell’s Steamers Restaurant in an 1890s building.

Heading further south, you soon reach Plymouth, which traces its history to the 1870s when prospectors stopped there in search of quartz and gold. For gourmet travelers, the new Taste Restaurant in Plymouth is a must-stop, drawing rave reviews from around the region. The city has a cute public park with bandstand, the old Plymouth Hotel and other eateries, all grouped along several blocks.

From Plymouth, take a detour 8 miles east on Fiddletown Rd. to Fiddletown; which predates Plymouth. Established by prospectors from Missouri in 1849, it quickly grew in the 1850s and 1860s as a center of trade for many mines located nearby.

Miners were known, during the dry season when water for their hydraulic mining ran low, to just “fiddle around”, hence the town’s name. During the city’s boom years, it numbered almost two dozen businesses, a handful of taverns, blacksmith shops, bakeries and restaurants. With a post office, church and school, it was a full-fledged city. The town soon grew to over 2,000 residents, with over half Chinese, who worked the mines and operated many businesses.

While touring the several remaining blocks of old Fiddletown, be sure to check out the Chew Kee Apothecary (a rare “rammed earth” building dating to the 1850s), the other old Chinese merchant buildings, C. Schallhorn’s Blacksmith and Wagon Store and the Fiddletown Community Center with the giant fiddle over the door!

Amador City, just south and two miles off Highway 49, is one of the earliest Gold Rush boom towns.   A well-outlined historic walking tour offers glimpses of life in the 1850-60s era, and many of the town’s oldest buildings and mining sites are preserved. 

Gold was first discovered in nearby Drytown, and soon mining claims and mines cropped up along Amador Creek; Amador City grew to thousands of miners, shopkeepers and restaurant/saloon workers.  In 1853, the Keystone Mine was formed by consolidating several smaller claims.  It would produce about $25 million in gold, and soon the main shaft would reach some 2,600 feet into the Sierra hillsides.  A new vein was discovered in 1866, and the mine would continue high productivity until if finally closed in 1942.

Today the city boasts many historic buildings now home to shops, restaurants and overnight accommodations.  You will find a fine walking-tour map on the city’s website, complete with capsule summaries of 24 top attractions, including boutiques, antique stores,  a soda fountain, upscale bakery and fine-dining options. 

How to get to Coloma: 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.  From there, follow Hwy. 49 south to Placerville, Plymouth (an 8 mile detour on Fiddletown Rd. to Fiddletown) and Amador City. You can make this Gold Rush circuit in one day, but, start early!

Nearby attractions: The Shenandoah Valley outside of Plymouth and Fiddletown boasts  30 wineries offering tastings and tours.   Black Chasm Caverns offer a wonderful opportunity for would-be spelunkers to ply their craft, and fishing in New Melones Lake is just south down Hwy. 49.

Where to stay: Most of these towns 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 gather provisions.

What to bring: Binoculars and camera, of course, water and snacks, a good map or GPS unit and comfortable walking shoes. 
For more information: For Coloma, see web site:  The Marshall Gold Discovery Museum and Visitor Center phone is 530-622-3470; address, 310 Back Street, Coloma, CA 95613.  For info on Plymouth and Fiddletown,  For Amador City:, or phone the city staff, 209-267-0682.

For additional travel destination inspiration, see my blog:, or write to me at

Happy travels in the west!



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