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Coloma, California, USA: A story woven in Gold
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
Along California's historic highway 49, tucked neatly in the Sierra foothills, Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park straddles the South Fork of the American River. Here, on January 24, 1849, James Marshall found some gold flakes in the streambed and sparked one of history's largest human migrations. The Gold Rush!
The next day after finishing business in Sacramento, we were encouraged to visit Coloma just about 30 miles from Sacramento. The location is home to Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. We were welcomed at the Park by Ed, a volunteer and Jody representing the El Dorado County.
Our tour of the Park began with panning for gold. Rusty, another volunteer, showed us the panning techniques. Each of us in the group was given a pan. We dug deep into troughs filled with water, sand and minerals. Visitors have the option of panning for gold in the river that cuts through the Park. The slurry collected in the pan is twirled, turned, swished, shaken… till such time lighter metals are washed away. Gold, the heaviest metals of all, stays behind - its flakes sticking to the pan. We were indeed lucky to find minute flakes of pure gold holding out to our pans. The rule is simple. Finders are keepers. We later realized, depending upon the budget of the group, the water is "salted" with gold! However, the fact remains that when people pan the river beds, they actually find the gold. You have to have patience and the strength to keep panning with knees bend, hand in water… for hours.
John Sutter the founder of New Helvetia - later named Sacramento - partnered with James Marshall to go into lumber business. A saw mill was put up next to the river. A low dam was built across the river to funnel part of the stream into the diversion channel that would carry it through the mill. The flowing water would turn the mill wheel that would saw the ponderosa pine trees that grew in abundance in the area.
As luck would have it, the tailrace, which carried the water away from the mill, was too shallow, backing up water and preventing the mill wheel from turning properly. To deepen the tailrace the labourers loosened the rock. At night water was allowed to run through the ditch to wash away the loose debris from the day's digging. On the morning of January 24, 1848, while inspecting the watercourse, Marshall spotted some shiny flakes in the tailrace. It was pure gold. The rest is history. The word spread. Men from near and far rushed to California to become rich. Some did. Many perished.
The museum in the Park exhibits the lives of the natives. They were happily settled in the foothills before the advent of human greed. Many natives left and few took up jobs as laborers.
In pursuit of gold, we became hungry. Our lunch was hosted at Sequoia, at Placerville about 10 miles away. Sequoia at the Bee-Bennet House, constructed in 1853 and restored to its original splendor, is a glorious example of Victorian architecture that has been transformed into a romantic, elegant venue for private celebrations. Delicious lunch was served to us in room with large windows that allowed the sunlight to fall in. Sequoia has few rooms and it would indeed be a nice idea to stay there. Just so you know, Mr Bee made a fortune laying telegraphic lines in the good old days. The term 'making a beeline' came in from there!
Our first post-lunch stop was at the Gold Bug Park & Mine… just minutes away from Sequoia. The Gold Bug Mine, formerly known as the Hattie opened in 1888. The mine exemplifies a typical neighbourhood hard-rock mine of the Mother Lode. Visitors can take a self guided tour in the Gold Bug Mine, while an instructor is needed to take a tour of the Priest Mine.
Our guide and tutor for the tour was Rich. After donning hard helmets, we headed for the Priest Mine. We went in 175 feet and at that point we were 55 feet below ground. Next we visited the Gold Bug Mine. This time we walked in 350 feet and were 110 feet below ground. Our journey was made interesting by Rich who demonstrated how the old hard-rock miners drilled and blasted their way through the native rock to find the gold.
After spending and hour at the mines, we headed to the Historic Main Street of Placerville. The history of the town began with the Gold Rush. When thousands of fortune seekers came to Northern California, Placerville became an important supply centre for the surrounding mining camps. It is said that people who sold pots and pans became richer than the gold seekers themselves!
Placerville was also known as 'Hangtown' in its early days. Legend has it that the guilty were hanged in public on an evergreen oak tree. There are many stories doing the round. The famous hanging tree once stood in Elstner's Hay Yard next to the Jackass Inn. Today, the original hanging tree site is near 305 Main Street and is officially designated as a California Historical Landmark.
Throughout history several famous entrepreneurs have conducted business on the Main Street. Mark Hopkins (a railroad financier) and John Studebaker (an automaker) were among the well known shopkeepers. We stepped in a hardware store that was the first and the oldest business on the West Coast. Albert, a third generation owner of the store was all enthused about his position. The young lad certainly took pride in running the family business. Not far away was a shop that offered tastings of olive oil. I was intrigued by the flavours added to the oil… orange, lime, lemon, spice… quite romantic.
At the end of the Main Street stands The Bell Tower. Installed to warn firebreaks back in 1860s, today the location serves as a gathering place for parades, celebrations and other Historic Main Street events.
It was 4 PM. Time to turn back to Sacramento. Early next morning we would fly to Anaheim.
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