Monday, November 15, 2010

Historic Columbia Offers Fun Look at Old California

One of the most picturesque of Eastern California’s 19th century mining camps is Columbia, once called the “Gem of the Southern Mines.”

Located off historic Highway 49, Columbia was one of hundreds of small enclaves that cropped up in the Mother Lode region during the Gold Rush of the early 1850s.

Columbia was founded in 1850 by Dr. Thaddeus Hildreth, who found placer gold in the area. The spot became known as Hildreth's Diggings, then later was called American Camp, before becoming Columbia.

During its productive mining years, roughly 1850 to 1870, the area mines produced more than $87 million in gold, making it one of the richest gold strikes in the state.

Like most western mining towns, Columbia was originally a tent city—within a month of the discovery of gold it boasted 5,000 residents. By the mid-1850s, Columbia had more than 15,000 residents and was the largest town in the gold country's southern mining region.

Just as Virginia City nearly burned to the ground in 1875, Columbia had its share of disastrous fires in its early years. In 1857, following the second fire in three years, Columbia was again rebuilt of brick and stone with wrought-iron doors and window shutters to prevent future fires.

Columbia began to decline after its mines ceased to produce in the 1870s. Within a few decades, the empty buildings outnumbered those in use. Also like Virginia City, Columbia was never completely abandoned and over the years claimed at least a handful of residents.

Fortunately for Columbia, the California state park system acquired the crumbling town in 1945 and began to restore many of its buildings. Today, you can walk its hard-packed dirt streets, wander by more than three dozen restored and renovated historic structures and get a true feeling for life in the mid-19th century.

The state park system has peopled Columbia with the kind of businesses you would likely find in an 1860s town. There are saloons serving beer, a working blacksmith shop, the oldest barbershop in California, stagecoach rides and a photography studio offering old-fashioned sepia-tone photos.

During the summer months, the restored Fallon House Theater (originally the Fallon Hotel), built in 1860 offers plays performed by the visiting repertory company. The town has a rich theatrical history with many famous frontier-era performers having appeared there, including Lola Montez and Lotta Crabtree.

Perhaps the oldest and most famous building in Columbia is the 1858 Wells Fargo Express Building, a two-story brick structure that features the classic iron shutters and lacework balcony so prominent in Columbia's architecture. Inside, you can find the offices have been restored with authentic period furniture including the huge gold scales that history tells us measured some $55 million in gold dust.

Additionally, you can find an excellent museum describing the area's past and a schoolhouse, built in 1861, that was one of the state's first public schools.

The museum features informative displays describing the town history and showing how various buildings have been restored. The school has been faithfully restored with desks, seats, a pump organ and period books.

Other interesting historic sites include D.O. Mills Bank Building, built in 1854; the Cheap Cash Store, built in 1854, and the Livery Stable, which houses several old-time wagons.

Stagecoach rides are offered from the front of the Wells Fargo Office. For a nominal price, you can take a 15-minute ride through the town.

In addition to the town, visitors can also tour the 1855 Columbia cemetery, located behind the schoolhouse, or wander along a one-mile nature trail, which starts at the schoolhouse.

Columbia is located about three-and-a-half hours west of Fallon via U.S. Highway 50, Highway 49 and Parrotts Ferry Road. For more information contact Columbia State Historic Park, 209-588-9128, or go to

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