Published: July 27th 2012September 16th 2011
Once the largest gold rush town in California, now restored as a state park
The northern Sierra Nevada looms large in western myth.
This may be the one region of the west where the real events exceed the stories based on them.
A century and a half after the fact, the huge rush of people
to this region in 1849 seems downright insane
Men abandoned families, farms, and stable jobs for the ultimate gamble, mining for gold in California.
A large majority ultimately returned home penniless.
It became the first, but far from the only, quest for sudden riches in the state’s history.
These days, many residents of the towns in this region seek a different type of fortune, the one that arrives in the pockets of visitors looking to soak up that myth.
Every town in this region contains at least one store selling old mining tools.
Every souvenir shop sells what they call ‘California gold’, which can range from valuable to nearly worthless.
Many places offer gold panning
in a stream; some of these seed it to ensure people find something.
At least the towns look atmospheric, with beautiful Victorian buildings.
Unlike Deadwood [see
Gold Rush mining equipment
Samplies of equipment from three of the types of mining used during the gold rush: placer mining pan, sluice mining trough, and hydraulic mining hose
] at least some of these buildings survived the periodic fires and look like they did in the mining days.
Columbia State Park
Like any heavy tourist area
, separating the genuine history from the tourist traps takes deep research.
After much reading in my guidebook, I went to Columbia State Park
During the gold rush Columbia
was the largest and rowdiest town in the region, with over forty saloons.
Miners extracted nearly a billion dollars worth of gold (at current prices) from the area in twenty years.
After it ran out, the town faded away.
It was practically a ghost town when the state turned it into a park in 1945.
The entire town is now a living history museum, restored to the look of the middle 1800s.
Mixed in with private shops and restaurants are a number of good museums.
Anyone who works here is required to wear period accurate clothing (seriously!).
This place feels rather contrived, but it’s a historically accurate contrived.
The park centers on a museum covering the history of the area
Gold in the Sierra was
Wells Fargo Scale
Original Wells Fargo gold scale, which can measure the weight of a human hair
first discovered in the bed of creeks, and miners poured in to work on the local rivers.
Columbia was founded in 1850 to bring some order to the process.
Like other gold boom towns such as Deadwood, Columbia was built quickly with wooden buildings.
The tightly packed shoddy construction created the perfect conditions for fires, and the entire town burned down twice.
By the late 1850s, people built with bricks, the buildings that still stand.
A section covers the mining techniques of the time.
The mythic version was placer mining
A lone prospector with a tin pan slowly scooped up creek gravel and swirled it around.
Gold is heavier than most rocks, so nuggets dropped to the bottom during this process.
In reality, placer mining is so slow that prospectors only used it to find likely strikes.
Their ultimate goal was the “mother lode”, a huge vein of pure gold the creek eroded.
In the northern Sierra, the mother lode did not exist; instead a thin belt of gold veins ran through the entire area.
Regular river mining was done by sieve
Gold rush miracle cures
Sample of miracle cures from a gold rush era pharmacy
Groups of miners constructed long wooden troughs with serrated metal sheets on the bottom.
They shoveled river gravel into the water filled trough, where the heaver gold settled to the bottom and got caught on the serrated sheets.
Roughly six men were needed per trough.
The effectiveness of sieve mining dropped pretty quickly.
Miners then turned to highly destructive hydraulic mining
Much of the soil on the lower slopes of the Sierra Nevada is composed of gravel from ancient creeks.
These creeks eroded gold from the hills just like their modern counterparts.
Miners blasted the surrounding hillsides with huge hoses to wash the gravel into the current rivers which carried it to the sieves.
This type of mining destroyed the landscape and filled rivers with silt and debris.
The state of California banned it in 1884; not due to the damage, but the effect the silt had on farmers in the Central Valley!
The most effective mining technique, just like in the Black Hills, was deep shaft mining
Miners located areas of likely gold veins and drilled shafts into the hillsides
St. Charles Saloon
Interior of the St. Charles Saloon, a survivor of the dozens that used to populate Columbia
to find them.
This type of mining actually produced most of the gold in California.
It also requires heavy investment, specialized knowledge, and an organized workforce, so a few mine owners soon dominated the business.
As noted above, gold mining was the ultimate lottery.
Most miners made nothing at all.
Whatever they managed to make selling gold was quickly spent on food and supplies, not to mention saloons, gambling
, and other entertainment.
The people who actually made money were the middlemen, the merchants who sold supplies and the gold dealers who bought the precious metal and transported it to the east coast.
Wealthiest of all were the few owners of the deep shaft mines, such as George Hearst.
One building holds what may be the most dreamt about place in town for gold miners, the original Wells Fargo
Now a large bank, the company started out as gold brokers in 1852.
The office is dominated by a huge thick safe at the back of the room.
The other notable item is a large set of balance scales.
These scales were used
Hydraulic mining aftermath
All that remains of a Columbia hillside after hydraulic mining
for weighing gold nuggets and dust, and are so sensitive they can measure the weight of a human hair.
Two other buildings hold places that gave miners nightmares, the drugstore and dentist office.
Medicine in those days was very primitive, and a doctor’s visit could be fatal.
The drugstore is filled with old bottles and ads touting the latest miracle cure.
Many of these drugs are now illegal.
The dentist’s office is filled with implements that look like something out of a low budget horror film.
The stores and restaurants in Columbia are privately run, so most of the town’s dozens of saloons have disappeared.
I ate lunch in one that has survived, the St. Charles Saloon
It looked similar to the dining room in Groveland [see The Meaning of Radical Self Reliance
The bar is made of carved wood.
Old chandeliers with reproduction (electric) oil lamps hang from the ceiling.
The walls contain stuffed animal heads and other minutia.
Like everyone in town, the staff dress like the gold rush is still on.
They served a (non-alcoholic) drink popular in the mining days, sarsaparilla.
The modern way of making some cash in Columbia
The end of the main street borders a park filled with large oddly shaped whitish gray rocks.
The rocks are filled with cracks, creating a giant maze.
Next to the rocks sits a large pump with huge flywheels.
The park is a former hydraulic mining site.
Miners used the pump to spray water on what used to be a hillside to wash out the gold bearing gravel, leaving the underlying limestone behind.
The damage here is minor compared to elsewhere, where miners created huge canyons
in the hillsides.
Every town in the Sierra gold country contains a store selling rocks and mining tools.
The one in Columbia, Matelot Gulch
, is better than most.
It looks like an old mining shack, for starters.
It’s also run by retired miners who will explain the various items for sale in deep detail if asked.
Every shop in the region has little water vials containing gold leaf for around five dollars.
These are a tourist rip off
The owners here are the only ones who mention that gold leaf can be hammered thinner than a human
The fate of the Upper Stanislaus, once California's most popular whitewater river
hair, so the cost of the gold in the vial is less than one hundredth of what the vial sells for.
Much better are the gold nuggets, which are about the size of a pinhead but sell for the cost of the gold.
I bought one of these.
Heading out of Columbia, I drove north.
The road eventually dropped down the side of a valley and crossed a bridge over the New Melones Reservoir.
The upstream side shows a striking valley of white grey hills stretching into the distance.
The view is all that remains of one of California’s legendary whitewater trips, the upper Stanislaus.
I’ll have much more on it tomorrow.
Beyond the reservoir, the road enters a landscape of rolling hills cut by steep valleys.
They are covered by golden grass and patches of trees.
This part of the western Sierra sits on a thick layer of limestone.
It contains a number of caves.
Most of them were discovered by miners looking for shiny yellow metal instead.
I ultimately went to Moaning Caverns
Top of the main chamber at Moaning Caverns
the most famous cave in this region and one of the oddest in the United States.
In 1850, miners discovered a hole in the ground that produced a moaning sound.
Lowering a man in the hole, he discovered a vast room with reflecting mineral at the bottom.
Thinking they had found gold, the miners blasted a shaft into the cave.
Despite much exploration, all they ever found was calcite (which glitters in light).
In 1922 local promoters Addison Carley, Dan Malatesta, and Clarence Eltringham opened the cave as a tourist attraction
Unfortunately, they built their main building directly over the natural mouth of the cave, ensuring it no longer moaned.
Regular tours enter the cave through the miners’ tunnel.
This part is narrow.
The tunnel then explodes into the central chamber.
This cave is unlike any other.
It consists of one single large chamber, with some smaller passages branching from it.
The chamber is 165 feet high, over ten stories!
The room is absolutely filled with features, including stalactites, stalagmites, and flowstone.
This room also has incredible acoustics
; any noise echoes through the
Looking straight up from the bottom of the main chamber at Moaning Caverns. The spiral staircase is on the right.
One large flowstone formation, called the ice cream sundae, is colored white and brown.
The white is calcite deposits.
The brown is iron deposits from dripping water.
The opposite wall near the bottom features a huge slanting rock slab, which looks like it could fall over at any moment.
In reality, it has been there since the cave was discovered.
The chamber is deep enough that vibrations from earthquakes are small.
The slab even survived the miners dynamiting a tunnel at its base.
From this initial view, the tour reaches the bottom of the chamber.
It drops down a huge spiral staircase, purpose built in 1921.
The entire thing was welded together, making it the first welding project on this scale in California.
The climb down gives ever changing views of the chamber, especially the ice cream sundae.
At the bottom, the guide pointed out where the moaning noise
A little flat are of calcite sits at the base of the flowstone.
Water with dissolved iron drips on it.
This water has
Ice cream sundae
The bottom of the ice cream sundae formation. The holes in the lower center contain the chambers that generate the moaning sound
dissolved a series of holes in the flowstone.
Each hole is shaped like a light bulb.
When water falls in it, it creates a deep plunk sound.
This then echoes through the cavern to create the moaning noise.
Up close, we could hear it.
After this, we got another demonstration on the limits of human vision, which have become almost a cliché for cave tours [see Intruders in the Land of Eternal Night
The miners only had candles; how did they see glittering minerals at the bottom of this room?
The guide showed us.
They turned out the lights and turned on a flashlight.
Very slowly, the entire room appeared as faint features.
The calcite appeared slightly brighter than the rest.
After this demonstration, the regular tour is basically over.
The rest of the cave contains tight passages that can only be seen on technical caving tours.
I wasn’t up for one of those.
On one level, seeing just one large room feels like I was cheated, but on another that one room is spectacular.
Natural Bridge Caverns
The road to
Natural Bridge trail
Along the trail to Natural Bridge
the cave passes near another one, the Natural Bridge
The only marker for it is a little sign pointing to a dirt road above a ravine.
The dirt road quickly ends at a narrow parking lot next to a trail head.
The trail drops steeply down the side of the ravine heading upstream, passing through golden grass.
Near the bottom, it reaches a grove of trees, turns, and crosses the bottom of the ravine.
It now follows the ravine downstream through trees and vines.
The view finally shows a junction between the ravine and a steep river valley, with hillsides covered in more grass.
The trail now crosses the ravine again and works its way up the valley, Coyote Creek.
A hillside covered in grass rises steeply above the trail.
In a few places, it weaves between large groups of rocks.
The view shows beautiful rounded hills of white rock, limestone.
Slowly but surely, the trail drops to the bottom, finally showing a view of the creek between limestone ledges.
It suddenly reaches an area where the valley floor
The entrance to Natural Bridge
is much higher than before, and filled with little rocks.
No creek is in sight.
This is the top of a huge collection of boulders that fell from the surrounding hillsides, forming a talus cave [see California Beach Culture
The trail then drops steeply until it reaches that floor, heads downstream slightly, and then drops some more until it reaches the river.
The upstream view shows the river flowing from a low ceilinged cave, the Natural Bridge.
The roof contains some small stalactites.
Water flows from the ceiling in places in little torrents.
A little ledge sticks into the cave on one side, giving a view inside.
Going any further requires a headlamp and getting quite wet.
Marshall Gold Discovery State Park
North of Natural Bridge, the road runs through more rolling golden hills, and a number of towns.
Unlike Columbia, most of these are modern and some are downright ugly.
The road finally drops into the valley of the American River.
It passes a large wooden building with a huge wooden trough.
This is Marshall Gold Discovery State Park
, the place John Marshall discovered
Modern copy of part of the sawmill John Marshall was building when he discovered gold
gold in 1848, setting off the entire madness.
The wooden building is a reproduction of the sawmill he was building.
The park requires admission, although the buildings can be seen from the road for free.
Past the park and more hills, the road reaches a sign stating that long trucks are prohibited.
Soon afterward, it reaches the top of a steep canyon.
The walls are the classic V shape, covered in nothing but grass and bushes.
The road drops down the wall through a series of tight switchbacks, each of which gives a long view.
At the bottom it crosses the river on a bridge.
Afterwards, it climbs up the other side on equally tight switchbacks.
This is all standard stuff by now, except that the view shows an incredibly high bridge just upstream.
After a road junction I crossed that bridge, the highest in California.
The juxtaposition is rather odd, especially since the high bridge has much less traffic.
Turns out, the bridge is an odd legacy of one of California’s most brutal environmental battles (even more brutal than the fight over Maxxam, see
American River Canyon
Crossing the American River canyon, with the highest bridge in California in the background
), which I’ll discuss tomorrow.
The road from the bridge leads high into the hills of the northern Sierra.
This area is true wilderness, a place to get away.
It eventually reaches the town of Foresthill
Other than the pine trees all around, it felt as isolated as Gerlach [see The Lonely Road to Paradise
Beyond Foresthill, the houses finally faded away until I was left with just wilderness.
A dirt driveway appeared on the right, the entrance to the Christmas Tree Vineyard Lodge
I enjoyed my time at the Mount Ashland Inn [see Life on a Mountainside
] enough that I decided to book something similar for the Sierra.