We as a family often go up to Sacramento to soak in the history of California’s great gold rush. But after our trip to Folsom, I had an itch to explore more of California’s Gold Country. My husband had a birthday and the kids had off of school that day, so we decided to take a long weekend to Calaveras County and check out what California’s Gold Country was all about.
Our very first stop was Columbia State Historic Park. This is a truly unique experience as the park is not actually a park at all, but a protected town! When gold was discovered in 1850, people rushed to the area to mine the river and strike it rich. Soon, stores, banks, and other necessities popped up, and Columbia became a proper town. When the gold was completely mined, people started to migrate away and the town started to deteriorate. But in 1946, the town was declared a state historic park, which allowed some funds to open so the buildings could be restored. Today, you can wander the streets of Columbia and it looks much the same it did back in the 1850s. You can even see some people dressed in period attire, ride a stagecoach, and make your own candle.
If you know me you know I LOVE a good walking tour. Luckily, the rangers give one every Saturday and Sunday at 11 AM. I pushed us all through breakfast and out the door so we could make the tour. Depending on your ranger, the tour is about an hour to an hour and a half. We started the tour at the visitors center, right in the middle of town. The ranger gives a brief history of the town, before starting down the Main Street to see the sites. As we walked she explained the history behind buildings, and interesting facts about the town and the place.
We were fascinated by a few key facts. The first was how short people were. I know people always mention that as a species we are growing, but some of the examples to amazing. First she showed pictures of people standing by a wall with writing. All their heads came under the lettering. The wall still has some of the “ghost” writing on the wall, and my husband was well above it! My ten year old was the same height as full grown adults in the 1800s…
The next was exactly how much gold went through. At one point almost 6 million ounces of gold went through the Wells Fargo in Columbia. Today, gold is worth approximately $1,500 an ounce. There are too many zeros in that calculation for me to explain exactly how much money went through Columbia at it’s height.
The last was to hear the stories of how much the minors were cheated. Often the only ones who got rich were the store owners. There were stories of miners with scurvy, and store owners hiding their citrus and charging exorbitant prices claiming it was the last one. As water became scarce, on person took control of the water supply, and charged miners ¾ their weekly wages to access the water. It was a hard existence for the minors. Even with the massive amount of gold that went through Columbia, very few of the minors who came seeking their fortune truly earned one. But those who stayed and settled California changed it forever and now their descendants are trying to make their fortune in Silicon Valley.
Once the tour was over, we were starving, so we went to Columbia House Restaurant to get lunch. A cute restaurant with all American faire and old fashion décor, we all devoured our amazing food. The waitresses were in period clothing, and they had old fashioned sarsaparilla which added to the spirit. Once we ate and recharged, we were ready to head out to explore further.
After lunch we headed over to take a stagecoach ride. We’ve done this before in Jackson, WY but this ride was quite different. We loaded in with another family and immediately noticed the difference. This was a common person stage coach. The seats were hard, and more benches to fit in more people. As we road along, we actually left the town and rode through the trees and rocks. I immediately understood what it must have felt like for the original settlers. They would ride for days or weeks through…nothing. Hoping you make it alive and in one piece. Soon, we got another taste, a stick up! A “bandit” stopped us looking for money and valuables. The driver told him we had nothing, but he came around asking for our jewels. The kids were a bit nervous so I successfully “hid” my wedding ring. Once he saw we had no gold, he let us move along. Soon, we were back in town and to the 21st century.
We spent the rest of our time in town checking out the cute stores and shops along the Main Street. The kids checked out a book store, and my daughter tried her hand at candle making. The kids climbed the stage coaches and wagons and pretended to be pioneers. We all hit up a sweets shop for some ice cream and treats. Then it was back to the hotel to enjoy the facilities of the resort.
Learning more about California history was the whole reason we choose Calaveras Country for this trip. Columbia State Park was the perfect place to spend the day and immures ourselves in it. The kids talked about the state coach and traveling back in time. My son loved “driving” the wagons and my daughter cherished her candle making experience. We all loved seeing the old buildings, pictures and people in period dress. It was an excellent way to learn more about our home state and the start of it’s journey into statehood. It’s a trip all Californians should take.