California begins in Gold Country

by Placerville Newswire / Mar 12, 2016 / comments

[By Peter Fish, Photo: 1849 photograph of old Hangtown] The story begins on a winter’s morning. A man building a sawmill walks down to a riverbank to check on the project’s progress. He spots some shiny flakes in the river water, bends down, picks them up. “Boys, by God, I believe I’ve found a gold mine,” he tells his crew. A few days later he tells his boss. They agree to keep the discovery secret. Good luck with that.

The time was January 1848; the man was James Marshall; the boss, a Swiss immigrant named John A. Sutter; the location a pretty spot alongside the American River named Coloma. The event was the California Gold Rush.

Think of the places you need to experience to say you know California: the Golden Gate, Half Dome, the curves of Highway 1 at Big Sur. Add this one, the Gold Country — the area bounded roughly by Nevada City to the north and Mariposa to the south. It’s beautiful, it’s fascinating, it’s changing and it’s the place where the California we know now, in 2016, began.

“Coloma is just one small area of a very large gold deposit,” says Ed Allen, who as historian for Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park knows the saga by heart. The deposit, Allen explains when you come to Coloma in El Dorado County to take his park tour, is the Mariposa Formation, more popularly called the Mother Lode, stretching for a couple of hundred miles beneath the Sierra foothills. How much gold did it contain? Oh, at least $50 billion worth in today’s dollars.

That gold lured the world. The Gold Rush drew an estimated 300,000 hopeful argonauts to California. They came from Connecticut and Chile and China, and established gold camps like Chinese Camp (Tuolumne County) and Mokelumne Hill (Calaveras County). Gold made California the nation’s 31st state; it funded the Union side in the Civil War; it made sleepy San Francisco a metropolis. To imagine how it shook the nation, imagine what social media might do with it today: miners bragging of their good luck on Snapchat, Gold Rush sirens like Lola Montez (she of the famed “Spider Dance”) on Instagram.

Gold Rush tales made literary careers: Mark Twain’s “Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” Bret Harte’s “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” It inspired one of the greatest of California songs, Dave Alvin’s “King of California,” written in the 1990s but seemingly transported from 1852, where a hopeful miner journeys from Ohio west to the Sierra gold fields… dreaming just how a rich man feels. And then? You’ll have to listen to the song.

From Coloma, you can head north on State Highway 49, the Gold Country’s Main Street, to Nevada City and Grass Valley in Nevada County, or south to Placerville in El Dorado County and beyond. Either way, you get a feel for these foothills. Other California landmarks — Yosemite or Death Valley or Big Sur — are in-your-face grand. The Gold Country is subtle. The highway twists, turns, shows you a hollow, a creek, blooming dogwood, leafing-out oaks, a battered barn, and then rises to present 50 miles of hills rolling to the snow-crested sweep of the Sierra.

You see, too, how the Gold Country is changing and how it isn’t. In Placerville, the amazing Placerville Hardware has been supplying necessities — wrenches, bear spray, gold panning kits — and luxuries — ceramic squirrels and frogs — since 1852. “One hundred and sixty years,” says the woman at the cash register. “We must be doing something right.” Across the street, the Cary House Hotel, built in 1857, has a lobby with wainscoting polished to a high sheen and a memory book of famous guests, one page of which is devoted to famous people’s mothers, from Mark Twain’s (Jane) to Elvis Presley’s (Gladys). Like most Gold Country towns, Placerville is also rich in antique stores, whose wares range from the beautiful (a 19th century chest of drawers) to the intriguing (a 1940s Braille typewriter, mint condition) to the disturbing (window displays of those dolls that in ’70s horror movies turn out to be working for Satan).

 James Tensuan, Special To The Chronicle

Photo: James Tensuan, Special To The Chronicle

Placerville Hardware in Placerville has the feel of a 160-year-old enterprise — which is what it is.

But there are alterations, too. The Gold Country has only a couple of working gold mines these days; instead, it has hundreds of wineries. Up Main Street from Placerville Hardware, the Independent restaurant has sleekly rustic decor and an impressive menu of craft cocktails. Tiny Amador City has a luxuriously restored hotel, the Imperial, and a bakery, Andrae’s, whose desserts would be enough to lure anybody here from Connecticut or China. Sutter Creek (Amador County) has a spa, Refresh, promising massage therapies in a relaxing and healing environment.

But then the Gold Country has always welcomed people who tried their luck, whether at placer mining or aromatherapy. That, says Ed Allen, is the Gold Rush’s real legacy. You try to strike gold, and if you fail (and most people did fail), you try again. “Here in California, you can make a mistake and it doesn’t ruin you, not like in other places,” Allen says. That’s why, he continues, “there is more entrepreneurship going on in California than anywhere in the U.S.” The line from the Amador County gold mine to the South of Market startup is a direct one.

South of Columbia (Tuolumne County) — the Gold Rush’s Colonial Williamsburg — Highway 49 gets lonelier, steeper, reminding you that you’re traversing the foothills of one of the world’s great mountain ranges. Eventually it dips and takes you to Mariposa and one final, essential stop. Tucked into a nondescript building on the Mariposa County Fairgrounds, the California State Mining and Mineral Museum is one of those small museums a lot of people expect to find snoozy. It’s not.


Step inside and you can see a model of a stamp mill, and a miniature Gold Country town made out of petrified wood. You can walk through a replica of a mining tunnel. Then you venture into the room with the gold. Actually, the museum doesn’t have as much gold as it used to. A few years ago, a group of robbers invaded it, taking an estimated million dollars’ worth of gold and gems.

But they didn’t get the specimen they most wanted: the Fricot Nugget. It is still proudly, glitteringly on display. The Fricot Nugget was pulled from the American River in 1865. It weighs nearly 14 pounds. It is, the ranger on duty explains, an example of sponge gold, which explains why its shape is not nugget-compact but tendriled, like something alive. It is mesmerizing. This, you understand now, is what the Gold Rush was all about. This is gold to be lusted after, to be worth trekking across a continent to find. Dig up the Fricot Nugget and you would be the King of California. You could build a state on gold like this. And we did.


Peter Fish is a freelance writer. Email:

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