Monday, September 08, 2008

Coloma: Where California's Gold Rush Began

About a decade before silver was discovered in Nevada, the West’s first mega-mining boom occurred on the other side of the Sierra Nevada Range near a place called Coloma.

In 1839, John Sutter acquired land from the Spanish, erected a fort and started a settlement in Sacramento, which he originally named New Helvetia. The ambitious Sutter envisioned the community as the capital of a great inland agricultural empire.

In 1847, he built a sawmill on the American River, about forty miles from his fort, to provide lumber for his growing colony. To run the sawmill, he hired James Marshall.

One day in 1848, Marshall was working at the mill when he discovered some shiny rocks in the river water that powered the wheels. He had the stones assayed and found they were almost solid gold.

Within a year, Sutter’s sawmill had been abandoned and a mining camp had popped up on the banks of the American River, which was named Coloma. The camp and surrounding area quickly became the focus of one of the most massive influxes of humanity ever experienced in America.

By 1849, more than 10,000 people toiled along the banks of the American River and Coloma had grown to 13 hotels, two banks and dozens of other businesses, all opened to serve the miners.

Unfortunately, there really wasn’t as much gold to be found in the river as was first thought, and by 1851, the miners began to move on to seek their fortunes in more profitable areas, including Gold Canyon and the Virginia City area in Nevada.

Today, the Coloma State Park encompasses nearly all of the historic camp of Coloma. Wandering through the grounds, you can find a handful of restored Gold Rush-era buildings, including a Chinese store, blacksmith’s shop, a jail, an old miner's cabin and several churches.

One of the most impressive structures is a full-size replica of Sutter's mill. The site of the original sawmill is nearby, marked by a stone monument. Downriver from the mill is a sign indicating the original gold discovery site.

A good place to get an overview is at the Gold Discovery Museum. Inside, you can find displays explaining Marshall’s discovery, the development of the placer gold mining industry in the region and other interesting facts about the park.

Additionally, if you drive a few miles west of the town and follow the signs leading to the Marshall Monument, you reach a spot above the town that features a large bronze statue of Marshall pointing to the site of his discovery.

Marshall never reaped the rewards of his discovery and died poor. He is buried beneath the impressive monument and his modest cabin, which has been preserved, sits down the hill from the statue.

Of course, the park is much more than history. Located in a scenic valley on the South Fork of the American River, the park is heavily wooded with oak, locust, persimmon and mimosa trees.

Part of the fun of visiting the park is the drive on Highway 49. From Placerville, you travel for about eight miles on a winding road through beautiful wooded countryside.

There are several campgrounds and picnic areas in the park, but they get crowded during the summer. The area is also popular for river rafting. Several outfits in the vicinity offer guided trips on the American River.

To reach Coloma, head west on Highway 50 to Placerville. Exit on Highway 49 and follow the signs to Coloma, which is eight miles north of Placerville. The Marshall Gold Discovery Historic Park is open daily. For more information call 530-622-3470.

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