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Reliving the Gold Rush: California

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

“STRING HIM UP! STRING HIM UP!” AN ANGRY CROWD GATHERED in front of the City Hotel, led by
a blonde dressed in red-and-black velvet with a feather boa. Many of the onlookers were
dressed in 1850s style, as was the man being pulled, protesting, toward the noose flung
over a lamp post. Another man rushed up. “Wait, wait! She isn’t dead!” The crowd dissolved
into a buzz. We had happened on a Mystery Weekend in progress in Columbia, California. This
town in the middle of the Mother Lode just 30 miles from the northern entrance to Yosemite
National Park is both a living town and a trip back 150 years to the heady days of
California’s gold rush. History is the name of the game at Columbia State Historic Park.
From the gold mine to the cemetery, park staff, volunteer docents, shopkeepers and
craftspeople re-create the bustle and excitement of Columbia, whose gold-rush nickname was
“Gem of the Southern Mines.”Visitors can spend a half day or a long weekend; RV parks and
nearby national forest campsites are available year-round. We asked Park Superintendent
Steve Hill why, in a Mother Lode filled with historic sites, Columbia is such a magnet for
visitors. “Just look around you,”he answered. A stagecoach rattled past us down Columbia’s
Main Street. A woman in a floor-length skirt was setting out a rack of old-fashioned aprons
outside New York Dry Goods. The smell of boiling sugar reached our noses from the Nelson
Candy Kitchen. Columbia’s 1850s-style business district stretches from the Mining Supply
store past the theater and carpenter’s shop to the St. Charles Saloon, nearly as rowdy now
as it was in the 1850s. The City Hotel hosts the immensely popular mystery weekends four
times a year. In the carpenter shop, Jim Miller was finishing a batella, a hexagonal
Mexican wooden panning box. Miller stresses that although the Miwuk people had mostly fled
the invading prospectors, Mexican miners were already in the area when Thaddeus Hildreth’s
party found gold, and nearby Sonora was a Mexican mining camp. “The gold rush defined
California as a diverse culture, although a lot of people don’t realize that.”He pulls out
reprints of an 1852 Columbia Gazette and points out the variety of names and stories.
Columbia’s diversity produced its share of racial tension. In 1852 the state passed a
Foreign Miners Tax aimed at Mexican, Chilean and Chinese miners. The town burned down in
1857 in a fire blamed on a Chinese cook; the Chinese community was pushed north of town and
eventually left for Sacramento and San Francisco. We drove past terraced hillsides on the
east side of Parrott’s Ferry road a mile north of town, the last traces of the Chinese
farmers. Docent Audie Buckler, in long red skirt and matching sunbonnet, greeted us at the
entrance to the museum run by the park and the Columbia Historical Preservation Society.
Gold-rush wealth was a lot like today’s instant Internet millionaires. “The mining towns
were awash in money,” Buckler tells us, “and the miners were hungry for entertainment. Of
course, they spent their money on saloons, brothels and fandango parlors. But theater
companies played to full houses, and the town built two theaters in the first two years.”
One of Buckler’s favorite exhibits, which she helped create, shows pictures and possessions
of early female settlers. The first single women in Columbia staffed the brothels and
fandango parlors (dance halls), but Columbia’s wide-open atmosphere also encouraged more
respectable forms of independence. Tuolumne County allowed women to declare themselves
“sole traders”; single and married women could control their own businesses. And since
property owners could vote, some women voted in California in the 1850s. The Columbia
Historical Preservation Society keeps the gold-rush spirit alive. Park docents conduct
tours of the town and cemetery, open the schoolhouse and teach a class in 1850s style. And
on the biggest weekend celebrations, there is even gambling in gold-rush style (minus
shootings over gambling debts and betting with gold dust). Ranger Sherrin Grout manages the
thousands of fourth-graders who take field trips to the park as part of their study of
California history. Her Environmental Studies Program recruits eighth-graders as docents
who help the younger ones solve a historical mystery. This year’s plot: Someone has blown
up part of the ditch that brings water to the diggings. The students gather evidence about
the crime, learning about the historic water wars that shaped Columbia as well as what
happened to the native Miwuk people, the Mexican and Chinese miners and others. Grout
quotes Mark Twain: “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.” At the
southern end of town near the Hidden Treasure Gold Mine, where kids were panning for gold,
we scrambled through limestone labyrinths left after miners using high-pressure hoses
washed away as much as 30 feet of soil to loosen the gold. The area is crisscrossed with
ditches used to divert creeks. The Big Ditch, completed in 1858, finally brought year-round
water from the mountains to the town. In the 1870s and 1880s, the gold ran out, and
Columbia’s population fell from 10,000 to as few as 500. But it never became a ghost town,
and the oldest section has been a state historic park since 1945. Visitors can walk from
the RV campgrounds to the historic part of town. Special events happen almost every
weekend. The state gold-panning championship, a fiddle-and-banjo contest and a
Mexican-style Christmas posada are popular with visitors. The biggest event is Columbia
Diggin’s, the first weekend in June. Admission to the park is free, and charges for the
mine tour, gold panning, stagecoach rides and guided tours add up to less than a day at a
commercial theme park. Park offices, the museum and most businesses are open daily; the
three bars, two hotels and the Fallon Theater provide nightlife. The town of Sonora, just
five miles away, has its own atmosphere, shopping and family-style food. As we headed out
of Columbia in our motorhome, we thought about how much easier the journey was for us than
for the wagons that had labored up this road a century and a half ago, bringing fortune
hunters, traders and settlers, making the history that enriches us today.

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