California Gold Rush trail, south to Columbia, Sonora and Tuolumne City (Part III in a series)


The Wells Fargo stagecoach is ready to give kids and families a ride in Columbia State Historic Park!

Columbia’s old firehouse was made to both withstand fire (with tin sheathing to withstand flames) and to fight fires that often ravaged Gold Rush cities.
Columbia’s main street is closed to vehicle traffic; you’ll find docents ready to share what the city was like in 1855.
The eves of an old Westside Lumber building reflect a bit of the company’s former grandeur, but the building is slowly rotting away.
A huge old “steam donkey”, used to move logs and lumber, sits adjacent to the Tuolumne City firehouse.
Westside Lumber’s old steam Engine #2 resides in a pleasant city park in downtown Tuolumne City.

We resume our tour of Hwy. 49’s Gold Rush gems with Columbia, which took root in March, 1850, when Dr. Thaddeous Hildreth and others settled here and began prospecting. Soon, Hildreth Diggin’s had found the precious metal; in weeks more than a 1,000 miners descended on the area. The gold camp was initially named American Camp, and, eventually, Columbia.

Today, Columbia State Historic Park preserves the old Gold Rush town of Columbia as a museum of living history! Open seven days a week, all year, the park offers activities and history for all ages, from young to old!

Columbia’s immediate challenge was a steady water supply, used to both wash gold out of hillsides and to sluice gold out of gravel deposits. Because no steady streams were nearby, the locals formed the Tuolumne County Water Company to bring water to the town. A competing company was formed in 1854 to bring water from 60 miles away!

By the late 1850s, the two had merged, and use of the water began to change the landscape. It is estimated that the current Columbia parking lot and area where kids pan for gold was once 25-30 feet higher, before water was used to wash the gold out of the soil and gravel!  All told, approximately $87 million (at 1860’s prices) came out of the mines around Columbia!

Within years of its founding, the prosperous town had streets well laid-out, and over 100 shops, saloons, bakeries, blacksmith shops and restaurants were catering to thousands of miners and townsfolk. Columbia would add churches, the Sons of Temperance, a Masonic Lodge, hotels and a concert hall; the town’s population jumped to almost 6,000. 

Originally, almost all the buildings were made of wood and a huge fire ravaged the city in 1854, destroying most of the wooden buildings in the business district. Most were rebuilt in 1855, but a second fire in 1857 destroyed more framed buildings and some of the brick ones; the town again rebuilt and further emphasized brick buildings and state-of-the-art fire suppression.

By the early 1860s, most of the easiest placer gold had been sluiced out, and the town began a slow decline. In the following 20-some years, many of the vacated buildings were torn down, and their sites were mined for gold. By the late 19th century and into the 20th, the town was in visible and steady decay – residents had dropped to below 500.

Columbia’s business district is closed to all but foot traffic, and a host of businesses, shops and volunteers bring the town to life, much as it appeared in 1855!  Take a stage coach ride, pan for gold, tour blacksmith and livery shops, get a free tour led by period-dressed docents, grab lunch or an ice cream and take in life as it was more than 150 years ago! Best of all, admission, parking and guided tours are free, so a day spent here is easy on the wallet!

From Columbia, head south on Hwy 49 to the historic and growing city of Sonora.  It offers a large and historic downtown; of special interest are the old courthouse and the historic opera house.  Lots of restaurants, too.  After your Sonora tour, take the Tuolumne Road to Tuolumne City.
Tuolumne City preserves vestiges of the old Gold Rush town of Summersville, but it’s even more interesting due to its hay-day as a logging and lumber capital of the Mother Lode. Tuolumne began in 1854 when Franklin Summers and family settled nearby. In 1856 James Blakely arrived and discovered the first quartz outcropping, which would become his “Eureka” quartz and gold mine.

Other nearby mining towns would spring up (and then disappear), Lone Gulch, two miles south, and Cherokee, two miles north. Later named Cartersville, then Tuolumne City, the gold would quickly be mined out, and the area developed as the heart of logging and lumber production for cities in the valley like Modesto and Stockton.

Of several logging operations, the Westside Lumber Company became the main player, expanding its railroad, the size and complexity of its mill, and developed Tuolumne City into a lumber town of major proportions in the first sixty years of the 20th century. The mill closed in the early 1960s, after a major fire during a labor dispute.

Today, remnants of the lumber empire of the Westside Lumber Company take center stage. Several of the company’s buildings remain, though in states of disrepair. Pieces of logging equipment dot the town, from a huge Steam Donkey next to the fire station, to lumbering equipment on the edges of town.  You’ll find the lumber company’s Steam Engine #2 in the city park; nearby are the Municipal Auditorium and the local museum (open Saturdays and Sundays, 1-4 PM excluding holidays, at 18663 Carter Street, (209) 928-3516; Visit the Tuolumne-band of the Miwuk Indian’s Black Oak Casino, just a mile away (

Dining, lodging, camping options: Both Columbia and Sonora offer quick to gourmet dining options.  While Columbia and Tuolumne City offer no overnight accommodations, nearby Sonora offers many motels, hotels, bed and breakfasts and a number of good to fine restaurants. Black Oak Casino also offers hotel accommodations, several cafes and a fine restaurant, the Seven Sisters. Campgrounds can also be found along Highway 49, and up Highway 108 in the Sierras.

Nearby attractions: Pardee Lake, Comanche Lake and New Hogan Reservoir are all just west, for further exploration and fishing ventures.  Black Chasm Caverns and the Parrotts Ferry Bridge (with the sag in the middle) are just north west of Columbia, the caverns offer a wonderful opportunity for would-be spelunkers to ply their craft.

What to bring: Binoculars and camera, of course, water and snacks, a good map or GPS unit and comfortable walking shoes. 

How to get there: To reach Columbia, just 1.5 hours from Stockton; go east on Hwy. 4, then south on Hwy. 49 and watch for the Columbia turn-off. Sonora and Tuolumne City are further south down Hwy. 49.

What’s nearby:

To plan your visit, go to or call the State Park at (209)-588-9128.  For Sonora and Tuolumne City insight, go to the Tuolumne County Chamber of Commerce,, or call 209.532.4212.
Next week, we will share insight on touring California with tiny trailers; teardrops, vintage trailers and other small camping rigs! 

For additional travel destination inspiration, see my blog:; or contact me, 

Happy travels in the west!

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