Gold Rush history lives on in ghost town gems along the Mother Lode, CA Hwy. 49

A replica of Sutter's Mill stands at the site of California's gold discovery in January, 1848.

Discovering ghost town gems along the Gold Rush Highway, CA Hwy. 49

Hydraulic mining like this washed entire hillsides into streams and rivers, eventually silting up the San Francisco Bay, until outlawed by the state in 1884.

Recent rains have cast our Sierra foothills in a verdant shade of green, perfect for exploring our state’s gold rush legacy. I always suggest starting in the place of gold’s discovery, just 80 miles northeast of Stockton, at the tiny town of Coloma and site of Sutter’s Mill where John Marshall discovered gold in the mill’s tailrace in early 1848. The ensuing golf rush would lead to the world’s largest mass migration, and California’s population would increase by over four-fold in the 1850s.

Start your exploration at the Sutter’s Mill replica in the James Marshall Gold Discovery Park, Coloma. John Sutter, a German-born Swiss immigrant, received a Mexican land grant in 1839 giving him rights to develop a good portion of the Sacramento and American River Valleys. From his Sacramento fort, Sutter needed lumber to fuel his construction projects and partnered with James Marshall to find and build a nearby lumber mill in the Sierra foothills.

Marshall, along with John Sutter’s Indian guide, Nerio, found a site in the valley of the Cul-Luh-Mah Native Americans, plenty of pine trees and a river (the South Fork of the American) strong enough to power a sizable sawmill.

The California Stamp, a huge timber and iron mill, was used to crush ore into powder, from which gold would be separated out.

The first boards destined for Sutter’s empire in Sacramento were milled in March, 1848 but millwork would continue until only 1850. Marshall had discovered gold in the tailrace of the mill on January 24, 1848; with gold’s discovery, the land soon became too valuable and the Gold Rush was on. The mill’s dam was removed, the mill fell into disuse and floods in 1862 destroyed what remained.

The Marshal Gold Discovery Park tells not only the Sutter’s Mill story, but of gold mining in the Sierra from 1849 until the latter part of that century. In the park are re-creations of an Arrastre, powered by horses or mules and used by early Spanish settlers to crush rock for gold, as well as small and large stamp mills to pulverize rock to release the gold. The huge nozzle of a hydraulic water monitor (cannon), used to wash down the hillsides so the gold could be placer-mined, is displayed. After streams, rivers and even the San Francisco Bay began to silt-up, hydraulic mining was outlawed by the state in 1884.

From Coloma, follow Hwy. 49 south, passing through Placerville and Plymouth. From Plymouth take the six mile drive to Fiddletown, 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.

The Chew Kee Apothecary is a rammed-earth building dating to the 1850s in Fiddletown.

During the dry season when water for their hydraulic mining ran low, miners were known to just “fiddle around”, hence the town’s name.  During the city’s boom years, it numbered two dozen businesses, a handful of boarding houses, taverns, blacksmith shops, bakeries and restaurants. With a post office, church and school, it was a full-fledged city. From Fiddletown Road, take a right on American Flat Road, just 3/8s of a mile to a well preserved one-room schoolhouse and, across the road, a large cemetery where you can wander through gravesites of old miners and merchants dating to the 1850s.

Fiddletown wood grow to over 2,000 residents, over half Chinese, who worked the mines and established many of the early businesses (some of these still stand, though in a state of arrested decay; the local Fiddletown Preservation Society is working to refurbish several structures). 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 early 1850s), several nearby Chinese merchant buildings, C. Schallhorn’s Blacksmith and Wagon Store and the Fiddletown Community Center with the giant fiddle over the door! Today only several hundred residents remain.

Fiddletown's Community Center features a huge fiddle over the entryway.

Plymouth traces its history to the 1870s, when prospectors searched for quartz and gold. The city has a cute public park with bandstand, the old Plymouth Hotel and other eateries, all grouped along several old-town blocks. For gourmet travelers, the Taste Restaurant in Plymouth is a fixture, drawing rave reviews from around the region. Both Fiddletown and Plymouth are known as “Gateways to the Shenandoah Valley” with over 30 wineries.

Following Hwy. 49 south, pass through delightful Gold Rush towns like Amador City, Sutter Creek, Jackson and Mokelumne Hill, all worthwhile historical stops on your way to another favorite, Columbia State Historic Park. Columbia was founded March, 1850 when Dr. Thaddeous Hildreth and others settled here and began prospecting. Soon, Hildreth Diggin’s had found the precious metal and miners descended on the area. Renamed Columbia and today preserved as a state historic park, it’s a museum of living history!

Wells Fargo stagecoach rolls through Columbia State Historic Park.

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

Kids pan for gold and agates in Columbia.

For more information: Marshall Gold Discovery State Park, parks.ca.gov/?page_id=484, (530) 622-3470; Columbia State Historic Park, parks.ca.gov/?page_id=552, (209) 588-9128.

Contact Tim at tviall@msn.com, follow him at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in the west!

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  • Blog Author

    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer who retired in late 2012 after 10 years as executive director of Stockton, CA's, Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Previously, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape his ... Read Full
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