Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Gold Rush History Found in Auburn

When it comes to California gold rush history, the city of Auburn has an impressive pedigree. Precious ore was discovered below the town site in May 1848, making it among the earliest gold discoveries in California.

Located about 35 miles east of Sacramento, Auburn is one of the best-preserved Sierra Nevada foothills mining towns.

When you visit Auburn, one of the first things you notice is how it seems to hang on a mountainside. The town was built in levels—the area at the base of the mountain is the oldest section, with the newer areas built higher up.

The original tent town was erected near the first gold strikes in the bottom of a ravine below where the freeway is located today. Like many of these temporary towns, a disastrous fire destroyed the original town and the site was abandoned as the city crept up the hillside.

Gold was uncovered by Frenchman Claude Chana, a miner who was a friend of James Marshall, the man who discovered gold at nearby Sutter's Fort and triggered the California Gold Rush.

Chana and his companions decided to try their luck panning on the river and found three gold nuggets. Within a few months, a shantytown called North Fork Dry Diggins (and later Wood’s Dry Diggins) had grown up in the ravine. Eventually, more than $75 million was reclaimed from the riverbed and surrounding hillsides.

The lowest level of Auburn is called Old Town and is the most historic part of the community (most of it is registered as a national historic landmark). Streets lined with the authentic western false fronts of a frontier town veer off in various directions in the old section, following the original miners' trails.

Walking Auburn's streets is a chance to study classic old west architecture. Over on one street is a row of two-story shops lined up like dominos. Steps lead by the fronts of the stores which are all chock full of curios and antiques ranging from vintage furniture to old toys and magazines.

Other streets boast atmospheric saloons, candy stores and restaurants. One particularly impressive building is the Bernhard House, which was built in 1851. The house is furnished with period Victorian furniture and is part of a larger museum (called the Bernhard Museum Complex). It’s located at 291 Auburn-Folsom Road. Admission is free.

The Gold Country Museum is another excellent small museum which is located at 1273 High St., Gold Country Fairgrounds. Inside, you will find some informative displays about the Gold Rush era, Indian objects, the role of the Chinese in the local mining operations and many old photographs. The museum is open daily from 11-4.

A local landmark is the four-story red and white Hook and Ladder Company Firehouse. Built in 1893, the firehouse is actually a tall, narrow tower of a building capped by an interesting cupola. Inside is a vintage fire truck that was California’s first motorized fire engine, and adjacent is a small park with picnic tables.

Of course, the building you first notice in Auburn is the stately domed Placer County Courthouse that sites atop a nearby hill and overlooks the town. Constructed in 1894, the courthouse was constructed of local materials.

Inside the courthouse is the Placer County Museum, housed on the first floor. Visitors to the museum will find an overview of the county’s history and an Indian art gallery. Additionally, several of the original offices have been restored to their 19th century appearances.

Down the street from the courthouse is the Pioneer Methodist Church, built in 1858 and one of the oldest structures in the town. The U.S. Post Office in Auburn is also considered the oldest in California.

The Auburn Chamber of Commerce offers a free walking tour of the town every Saturday morning at 10 a.m. The tour begins at the Courthouse at 101 Maple Street and runs about an hour.

Auburn is located about 120 miles west of Reno on Interstate 80. For more information, go to

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Rich, you've misstated a fact in your narrative when you mention James Marshall, who discovered the gold that started the 1849 Gold Rush. He did not make this discovery at Sutter's Fort, which today is in mid-town Sacramento and preserved as a State Historic Park. Marshall's discovery was at Sutter's Mill, where today the site is preserved as a State Historic Park in Coloma, about 30 miles ESE. Marshall then brought a few nuggets to Captain Sutter at his compound at New Helvetia, Sutter's name for his settlement. They are in no way the same place at all.