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Columbia Bodega Bay

1st August 2010

A Walk in the Cradle of the Gold Rush and a Trip to One of the Largest and Busiest Mines in Grass Valley

    After a shower and breakfast I walked down to the South Fork of the American River which ran alongside the campsite. I knew there was going to be a raft race going past here at 10am, but I wasn't going to hang around to se that. What I wanted to gaze at was the valley and river together. This place had special significance.
Reconstruction of Sutter's Mill at Coloma
    I left the campsite and drove less than a quarter of a mile to the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. It was here that John Sutter, the founder of Sacramento, decided to go into the lumber business. He partnered with James W. Marshall (because of the latter's experience in carpentry) and they selected Coloma Valley, 45 miles east of Sutter's fort, as a mill site because it had a river for power and stands of ponderosa pine trees for lumber. As equal partners, Sutter would furnish the capital, and Marshall would oversee the mill's construction and operation.
Tailrace Where Marshall Found Gold
    In the fall of 1847, Marshall began the construction of the mill. A low dam was built across the river to funnel part of the stream into the diversion channel that would carry it through to the mill. By the following January the mill was ready to be tested. However, the tailrace, which carried water away from the mill was too shallow, backing up water and preventing the mill wheel from turning properly. To deepen the tailrace, each day Indian labourers loosened rock, and at night water was allowed to run through the ditch to wash away loose debris from that day's diggings.
Chinese Store - The Wah Hop Building
St John's Catholic Church, 1856
    On the morning of 24th January, 1848, while inspecting the watercourse, Marshall spotted some shiny flecks in the tailrace. He scooped them up, and after bending them with his fingernail, and pounding them with a rock, he placed them in the crown of his hat and hurried to announce his find to the others. He told the mill workers, "Boys, by God, I believe I've found a gold mine". Marshall rode to Sutter's fort to report the news. Mindful of their investment in the mill, Sutter and Marshall agreed to keep the news secret until the mill was in operation.
    However, Sutter had bragged about the discovery, and Mormon elder Sam Brannan, who operated a general store at the fort, went to the mill to see for himself. When Brannan visited San Francisco in May, he paraded the streets waving a quinine bottle full of gold shouting, "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!". By the end of May, San Francisco was reported to be "half empty" as the able-bodied men departed for the mines. The excitement grew when an army officer carried a tea caddy full of gold to Washington, D.C. Shortly after President James Polk confirmed the rumours, thousands came to join the trek to the Gold Country.
Marshall Memorial
Marshall's Cabin
    News of the discovery spread throughout the world. In China, California was called Gum San - "Gold Mountain". Chinese workers, lured to California by a promised golden mountain which they could literally carve out their fortune, were fleeing years of war and poverty.
    From Coloma the miners moved up the canyons and into the mountains. With each new strike, and as the placer gold gave out, Coloma declined in population. By then the Chinese were almost the only workers working the gravel bars near the discovery site.
    The miners had taken over Sutter's land, and both Sutter and Marshall eventually ended up penniless.

Coloma Valley
    The Historic Park was created in 1942, and encompassed most of the historic town of Coloma. A museum relates the gold rush story and contains a collection of memorabilia. Outside were mining exhibits and two original buildings used by the Chinese as stores, still standing because they were made of stone, and the ruins of the stone jailhouse. A replica of Sutter's Mill had been constructed from the original plans. Not far from the reconstruction was the original tailrace where gold was first found by Marshall. The ditch was nothing glamorous now, just full of stagnant water.
    Up on the hillside by the valley was Marshall's original cabin, and higher up the hill a monument had been placed to honour the man who had discovered gold and had been forgotten.
    Looking at the peaceful valley today, it was hard to imagine this as the cradle of wealth, fortune, misery and sorrow. It had certainly turned around California's fortunes. I watched the rafters lazily floating down the gentle rapids, and wondered how many realised the significance of the river banks they were passing by.
Minehead at Empire Mine
Looking Down the Inclined Shaft
    I continued heading up the 49 to Grass Valley, one of the largest and busiest gold mining towns. The gold rush had been short lived since in essence it had mainly revolved around placer mining; finding the gold that had been detached from the quartz veins it was located in by erosion. The hundreds of thousands of miners had soon hoovered up most of the relatively easily accessible placer gold. The mines in Grass Valley, similar to the mine I went down in Sutter Creek, were deep hard rock mines, where the gold was still embedded within the quartz. These had a much longer life span.
Mine Offices
    I visited the Empire Mine in the town, the state's richest and longest surviving gold mine. It had recovered almost six million ounces of gold when it closed and became a state park in 1956. The mine had employed workers from the Cornish tin mines, since they were highly experienced in hard rock mining, and also brought with them their knowledge of beam engines to pump out water from the deep mines.
Stamp Mill for Crushing Ore
    The mine had begun in 1854 with an inclined shaft running to a depth of 102'. By 1956, the mine ran to an inclined depth of 11,000', and was a mile vertically below the surface. Miners, materials and ore were hoisted along the 4,650' main shaft. Other inclined shafts within the mine operated to even lower depths. The combined tunnels beneath the town ran for 367 miles. Now the mine had been allowed to flood to the natural water table level.
    The park had a museum which told the history of the mine, and the predominantly Cornish mineworkers. Many exhibits were outside, including an old Cornish pump. However, part of the mines success was the shift to electricity in 1890, which was more efficient for pumping. Old stamp mills were on display too. The mine offices were well preserved, as was the foundry where the gold was finally turned into bars for shipment. All the buildings were there that would be expected of a mine: machinist's workshop, blacksmiths, carpenters shop, and electrician's workshop. The minehead still existed, and it was possible to look down the inclined shaft.
    The Bourne family, who ran a shipping business out east, heard about the gold rush, and thought they ought to get involved too, more specifically from the shipping of goods and materials to support the mining effort. They bought shares in the Empire Mine, and when they had a controlling interest, they took over the mine. One day each year they gave all the miners a day off for a picnic in the grounds surrounding the Bourne residence near the mine. I walked around the grounds up to the Bourne house, and took a guided tour around the house, led by role playing guides. Mr. Bourne had requested of the architect a rustic house. Inside, walls, floors and ceilings were all clad in redwood, hand planed and burnished, with no other treatment applied. The sideboard came from England, there was an elaborate wood burning cooker in the kitchen, and a huge ice box to supply smaller storage units with ice throughout the summer. They also bought their daughter a place in Ireland which was ten times larger, as a wedding present (her husband was Irish). It still stands today. Sadly, their one and only child took ill on a passage from Ireland to America, and died in New York.
The Bourne Residence
    What if gold had not been discovered? California was a pastoral backwater and wilderness in 1848. Nine days after Marshall's fateful discovery, at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, the US had been granted this land as part of a treaty. Its non-Indian population was about 14,000. At the time only a few hundred pioneers had found ways to bring their wagon trains across the deserts and mountains to California. But that all changed with the discovery of gold.
    I departed the Gold Country and planned to head across to the coast due west. Initially I drove along I80 which would have taken me to San Francisco. The I80 bypass around Sacramento was a nightmare for about 30 miles, and made the UK M25 look positively whippet like. Once I had got around the city, I started to pick a route across country due west. There was no direct route, so I had to negotiate a string of country roads. I found myself driving through a wide plain full of sunflower fields and orchards. Then I had to cross a range of mountains which brought me down into the Napa Valley. As expected, this valley was full of vineyards.
    It was now approaching dusk so I sorted out a campsite near Calistoga. Once that was done I headed into the small town for some food, and heard live jazz wafting out of the Hydro Grill, so in I went. The band was excellent, and they had a lively amount of support from the audience, with quite a few having their turn at singing and/or dancing. It was obviously a popular venue.
    I left when the band finished and headed back to the campsite, arriving so whacked out that I postponed my note typing until the morning.
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Columbia Bodega Bay

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Last updated 5.8.2010