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City of Gold: Folsom, California

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

JOHNNY CASH WAS NEVER IN FOLSOM PRISON, and he didn’t write Folsom Prison Blues, the song
that helped make him famous. But such misconceptions are common when it comes to Folsom,
California, the sparkling little city 24 miles east of Sacramento where the Gold Rush of
1849 began. It’s been said that there’s enough history in a yard of Folsom earth to fill a
library — and indeed, this charming community on the American River, a river recently
bridged by the handsomely arched $48 million Lake Natoma Crossing, meets every expectation
of travelers fascinated by gold-rush history and gorgeous Sierra scenery. Taking U.S.
Highway 50 east from Sacramento (you’ll see Lake Tahoe signs) is one approach to Folsom.
Or, from Nevada, take Interstate 80 to Auburn, where it intersects with State Highway 49,
named in honor of the forty-niners who came here by the millions following gold discoveries
on the river. A replica of Sutter’s Mill and numerous mining artifacts are located at
Coloma, a picturesque community where modern-day gold prospectors use rafts to pan along
the river. One well-known prospector is Michael Palmer, who explains that only 30 percent
of all the gold hereabouts was ever excavated. “The Mother Lode runs for more than a
hundred miles through the Sierras,” Palmer says. “After every spring flood, more gold is
washed down. That’s why I guarantee that my gold hunters will always find gold during any
rafting trip with me.” Needless to say, the excursions are wild and fun on the river’s
foaming rapids. Palmer has always supplemented his income with prospecting, but in 1996, he
really hit pay dirt. In a bend of the American, he found a pocket and dredged out $124,000
in six months. Anyone interested in rafting/panning can contact him at (530) 333-9409. From
U.S. 50, most motorhomers enter the city via the Folsom Boulevard exit. They may be
surprised at the signs of growth, but actually, Folsom has been in a building boom for the
last five years. A new high school, an arched bridge in the style of historic Rainbow
Bridge (built in 1917 and still carrying traffic), a light-rail project and many new
businesses have been constructed, with no end in sight. Hundreds of new homes have been
built. Counting some 7,000 inmates in Folsom Prison (which is less than a mile from City
Hall), the city’s population is edging toward 52,000 — double what it was 10 years ago.
Major businesses like Intel, Kikkoman Corporation (soy sauce) and Gekkeikan Sake have
recently built here, along with Kmart, Target and Wal-Mart stores. Both the soy-sauce
factory and the sake plant offer tours. An innovative auto mall occupies 54 acres where
Folsom Boulevard exits from U.S. 50. The city’s newspaper, the Folsom Telegraph, was
recently honored for its 145th straight year of publication; it is the oldest continuously
published newspaper in Northern California. Folsom’s historic center is Sutter Street, a
cluster of venerable 19th-century buildings (including a Pony Express and Wells Fargo
station) that attract many people to shops and weekend street markets. For more than 30
years, people have flocked to the Antique Market Faire the third Sunday in April. This is
followed by the popular Peddler’s Faire the third Sunday in September. Visitors come to
shop, stroll or dine in one of several restaurants. There are doll stores, saloons and
coffeehouses. And try to visit the venerable Folsom Hotel. If you sleep there, local legend
has it you can hear its ghosts. An amazing collection of bric-a-brac dangles from its walls
and ceiling. But the story that fascinates most travelers is the tragic drama of Samuel
Levits. Levits escorted the long mirror in the hotel from Massachusetts to California, a
voyage taking two years. Backed by pure silver, it’s now mounted in two halves, but was
originally a 20-foot-long piece of glass that hotel owner Charles Zimmerman had ordered.
This is the mirror that murdered a man. Ask the bartender to tell you the story, or read it
in the front window. Also ask about the dents in the ancient mahogany bar. Folsom, a
walker’s town, has beautiful biking and hiking paths along the clear, tree-lined river, and
city architecture includes many fascinating houses. Walk up Wool Street from Sutter to see
Trinity Episcopal Church, built in 1861, at the corner. The oldest church is the vacant St.
Johns, with its impressive cemetery, dating from 1857. It’s at Sibley and Natoma. The
strangest, most artistic home is at Figueroa and Bridge Street. Called The Gingerwood
House, it’s been a work-in-progress since the 1970s. The Folsom Historical Society
furnishes a handsome 7-Mile-Tour pamphlet that guides you to 37 historic sites, including
Emma’s Place, a former residence of ladies of the evening. Pick up the pamphlet and any
others you need at the Folsom Chamber of Commerce in the railway station (rebuilt in 1906
after fire burned down the original 1860s structure) at Leidesdorf and Wool, off Sutter
Street. There’s plenty of parking, although weekends are crowded. Motorhomers can avail
themselves of large store parking lots. There are no RV parks in Folsom, but Folsom Lake
offers campsites, and Sacramento has RV parks (check the Trailer Life Directory to check
for campgrounds in the area). What makes the pioneer Sutter Street area so attractive is
its adherence to the original design, and, in fact, new builders must meet stringent
historic guidelines. The Folsom Powerhouse, a National Historical Monument at Scott and
Greenback, is visible from Sutter Street. This retired but still usable electric plant was
the first west of the Mississippi, in the 1890s. Its massive dynamos show that early-day
knowledge of electricity was impressive. As the only existing intact 19th-century
powerhouse open to the public, it’s part of the California State Park system. Tours may be
taken — as they can at Folsom Dam, just upriver from Folsom Prison and easily visible from
the city. Folsom Lake offers excellent fishing and sailing, as well as campgrounds. Two
miles downriver from the dam is Nimbus Salmon and Steelhead Hatchery, where fishermen line
the banks during salmon season. It offers a self-guided tour. Folsom Prison, the first
state prison to have electric lights, is a striking architectural attraction, built in
1880. Its first prisoner was a Chinese murderer. Folsom once had a large Chinese
population, grossly mistreated by the white miners, as were the Mexican prospectors. The
enormous castle-style main gate has been the backdrop for millions of photos and several
movies. Don’t miss the display of convict weapons in the small but fascinating museum, and
check out the convicts’ hobby craft shop, filled with prison-made wares. You can even buy a
T-shirt with Folsom Prison: Hard-Rock Hotel or Folsom Prison Bed-and-Breakfast printed on
it. One of the West’s earliest railroads was built from Folsom to Sacramento in 1858. The
ruins of the original turntable were excavated for the ongoing Gold Rush Sesquicentennial,
and a new operable turntable, faithfully copied from original plans, now stands there. A
display pit reveals the original bricks. A few hundred yards upriver, next to the lovely
old Rainbow Bridge, a steel span built in 1894 is now a walking-biking bridge. It had been
sold, taken down and moved to another town in 1934, but was recently repurchased, renovated
and put back in place. Originally called Negro Bar, Folsom began as a river camp in 1849
after a group of African-American miners found gold off the south bank. You can camp and
fish at Negro Bar State Park, and gold is still being taken from the river by both
individuals and groups, using pans or small dredges. Huge steam dredges were used in the
19th century, scooping tons of rocks mixed with gold from the river, creating piles of
round rock tailings visible along Folsom Boulevard. Much of the city’s background is
visible in pictures and artifacts at the Folsom History Museum, next to the Chamber of
Commerce at Wool and Sutter streets. There, Gary Welch talks about gold country and gives
panning demonstrations, using actual gold. He also discusses the Folsom railroad, which was
the first west of the Mississippi. A spacious parking lot is across the street. The Train
Museum is located on Folsom-Auburn at the northern end of the new bridge. By 2002, a
railroad block, following a 19th-century design, should be in place, containing a
children’s museum, shops and a 300-seat performing arts theater. An antique steam
locomotive will grace the turntable. Folsom City Park, located near City Hall on Natoma
Street, features the only existing narrow-gauge steam train in the United States. The tiny
engine, dubbed Cricket, is a favorite with children (although 70 percent of riders are
adults). Made in 1950 and renovated at a cost of $100,000, it is the gem of the park. Here,
too, is the famous Misfit Zoo that has saved so many otherwise-doomed animals. Some have
lost legs or wings. Others have been shot through with arrows. Fisher the Bear, a clown
favorite, was brought here by rangers; ask the zoo attendants why. Some citizens say Folsom
is just beginning to grow, and certainly it has plenty on its plate. New businesses
continue to flock here, homes are being built at record rates, and on tap for the immediate
future are a golf course and a long-awaited public swimming pool. But regardless of its
destiny, Folsom can always rely on its history as a city of gold to make it a special place
for all who visit here. Where the Locals Eat Hop Sing Palace, 805 Sutter
Street: If you love Chinese food, this venerable and highly popular restaurant is king,
with its excellent cuisine, fine service and good prices. Call ahead; (916) 985-7309.
Balcony Restaurant, next door to Hop Sing’s and upstairs: It boasts a sunny balcony and
great eggs Benedict; (916) 985-2605. The Spaghetti Factory, west of the Auto Mall at 12401
Folsom Boulevard: Heaps of spaghetti, red wine and first-rate Italian food in a former
winery. Great ambiance, good prices; (916) 985-0822. Sutter Street Grill, at 811 Sutter
Street: You can tell this breakfast mecca by the people waiting outside for tables.
Down-home food; (916)-985-4323. Thai Siam, in the mall below the Chamber of Commerce, at
705 Gold Lake Drive: A pleasant little restaurant, unusual food, delicacy of service,
Siamese-style; (916) 351-1696. Two popular upscale restaurants are Savoy 614, at 614 Sutter
Street, (916) 985-2433, and The Cliff House, 9900 Greenback Lane, (916) 989-9243, at the
end of Rainbow Bridge, with a beautiful view. For More Info Folsom Chamber
of Commerce, 200 Wool Street, Folsom, California 95630; (916) 985-2698. For Golden State
travel information, call (800) TO-CALIF or visit gocalif.ca.gov

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