In two weeks: Oregon’s scenic byways

COLOMA, Calif. —

When James Marshall made his famous discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada foothills in 1848, it wasn’t because he was looking for the precious mineral.

A 37-year-old journeyman carpenter, Marshall had been hired the previous year by John Sutter — a Swiss immigrant whose pioneer fort grew to become the city of Sacramento — to build a sawmill on the South Fork of the American River, surrounded by forests of live oak and pine. He began construction work, 45 miles upstream from Sutter’s Fort, in late August 1847.

The mill was nearly complete by January, only awaiting enlargement of the tailrace behind the mill’s waterwheel to handle the volume of water needed to operate the saw. Each morning, following overnight excavation work, Marshall made his way down to the tailrace to examine progress. What he found in the early hours of Jan. 24 surprised him: Flakes of metal glittered in the muddy water.

Tests confirmed the flakes were pure gold. Marshall and Sutter tried to stifle news of the discovery, but within a few weeks it had leaked out. It started with Marshall’s mill crew, who dug nuggets from the riverbanks with pocket knives, then used them to purchase goods at Sam Brannan’s general store in Sutter’s Fort. Brannan shrewdly stocked his store with mining provisions, then headed for San Francisco — where he owned that city’s first newspaper — and announced: “Gold! Gold in the American River!” By May, the greatest gold rush in American history had begun.

Over the next two decades, more than 106 million ounces of gold — worth more than $2 billion in the mid-19th century, and about $130 billion at today’s standards — was drawn from the Sierra foothills by panning, sluicing, dredging and hydraulic methods. Gold seekers, labeled ’49ers, traveled to California from the East Coast and all over the world. Miners from Serbia, from England’s Cornwall, from China, Chile and Australia — nearly 90,000 in all — established a series of boomtowns that extended south from Sierra City to Oakhurst.

Today, California state Highway 49 links these historic communities, extending about 300 miles through the heart of the fabled Gold Country. Beginning north of Lake Tahoe, ending south of Yosemite National Park, this route is paved and well-maintained — but more often than not takes drivers on a roller-coaster ride as it meanders over and around hills and canyons.

Not every contemporary traveler will be inclined to drive the full stretch of Highway 49, as I did in one recent four-day period. Those who do will be tempted by the charm of historic towns such as Nevada City, Auburn and Sutter Creek; by a slew of state historic parks, several of which preserve 19th-century mining operations; and by a great deal of pure natural beauty.

For those with limited time, there are three essential stops. (Note that hours at these and other sites, open daily in summer, may be limited to weekends in winter.)

Where it began

The story of John Marshall’s momentous find, including a marker at the precise millrace location, is commemorated at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, between Auburn and Placerville on Highway 49.

Two-thirds of the small community of Coloma is contained within the 276-acre park, which features a full-size replica of the original wood-frame sawmill — reconstructed from Marshall’s original drawings — along with a couple of dozen historic structures in various states of repair.

A good place to begin a visit is the Gold Discovery Museum, which doubles as the park’s visitor center. An orientation film describes the geology of gold and the history of the Gold Rush, including its negative effect on the fortunes of the men who sparked it, Marshall and Sutter. Indoor exhibits on Miwok Indian culture and Gold Rush mining techniques continue outdoors, where trails weave past a collection of antique mining equipment to two restored stores that served Chinese miners.

Overlooking the park grounds from a nearby hilltop is a tall monument, the figure of James Marshall pointing toward the spot beside the American River where he discovered gold. The narrow road winding downhill from here passes Marshall’s restored cabin and a couple of historic churches and residences, ending on Main Street where a working blacksmith shop stands next to a historic cafe, schoolhouse and post office. Recreational gold panning is encouraged from a levee across the river.

The largest mine

The Empire Mine was Cali­fornia’s largest and richest. In a century of operation (1856-1956), this Grass Valley operation extracted 5.8 million ounces of gold from its 367 miles of underground tunnels.

In the main shaft, 50 feet below the earth’s surface, visitors may stand on a platform and gaze into the tunnel that extends more than 10,000 feet — to a depth of nearly a mile. Near the mouth of the shaft, an extensive collection of antique mining equipment is exhibited.

Contained within the park are the handsome, redwood-paneled house and landscaped grounds of William Bourn Jr., owners of the mine from 1879 to 1929. Numerous other processing buildings and administrative offices, open for visitation, are nearby. The visitor center features a photographic exhibit commemorating the hard life of Cornish miners, whose heritage is still marked by the number of “Cornish pasty” shops in the adjacent town.

Gold Rush town

Columbia State Historic Park, near Sonora, preserves an authentic Gold Rush-era town. Columbia was at its peak between 1850, when the town was founded, and 1870 and like many mining towns, experienced a lengthy decline when the gold was depleted.

But dozens of buildings along Main, Washington, Jackson and State and Fulton streets survived, and today are recognized as the largest collection of Gold Rush-era buildings in California. The state acquired the land in 1945 to establish the historic park.

Estimates of Columbia’s population in the early 1850s range upward from 25,000 people. The town boasted more than 150 stores, shops, saloons and other businesses, along with churches and schools. Today, several of those structures are maintained as museums, including the Wells Fargo depot (where stagecoach rides begin and end) and the Masonic Lodge. The city museum, in an 1854 miners’ supply store, has exhibits on local history and a collection of large mineral specimens.

Cars are banned from the 12 square blocks of park-owned streets, and costumed park employees continually traverse the tree-shaded brick sidewalks to recreate daily life, providing a true picture of a boomtown. Many businesses are operated as private concessions, including the City Hotel, with its popular dining room and saloon, and the Fallon Hotel, which features an elegant theater with frequent live performances.

North of Placerville

Driving Highway 49 from the north (off U.S. Highway 395), the first and highest mining town is Sierra City, just over the crest of 6,708-foot Yuba Pass. Though tiny, with fewer than 200 residents, the hamlet is home to the Kentucky Mine Historical Park and Museum. An operating ore-processing stamp mill is the highlight of a visit to this hard-rock mine, last worked in 1953. Guided tours proceed across an ore-cart trestle and continue down through the levels of the mill, with stops to explain each step in the milling and extraction process.

Thirteen miles downhill in a forested canyon, tiny Downieville is graced by a narrow Main Street lined with iron-shuttered, 19th-century stone buildings. Standing outside the Sierra County Courthouse is the gallows that performed the county’s last public hanging.

A detour en route to Nevada City extends to Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, the site of California’s largest hydraulic mine operation through the last half of the 19th century. A film about the process is shown in the small museum. Today, the eroded walls of the vast Malakoff Pit remain bare of vegetation, forming a raw badland amid lush mountain forests. Only a few Gold Rush-era buildings survive.

The picturesque Victorian architecture of Nevada City makes this town a favorite among Highway 49 travelers. Charming shops and restaurants occupy the historic buildings of Broad Street, sloping downhill from the square-towered 1864 Methodist church to the filigree-balconied 1856 National Hotel, still serving patrons today. A two-story Victorian firehouse, built in 1861, holds a collection of artifacts, including a Chinese joss-house altar.

Four miles away, thriving Grass Valley — home of the Empire Mine — boomed later than many other towns, thanks to innovations in deep-mining technology developed and applied at the Empire, North Star and Idaho-Maryland mines. Today its North Star Mining Museum features an 1895 stone powerhouse refurbished as a museum of mining technology, with a working Cornish water pump (used to remove water from the mine’s deepest levels) and the world’s largest Pelton wheel.

The Gold Country’s largest town is Auburn, at the junction of Route 49 and Interstate 80 (between Sacramento and Reno). Now with 13,300 people, Auburn was founded in 1848 when a band of French prospectors discovered three nuggets of gold at a campsite. Its Old Town, nestled beneath the hilltop Placer County Courthouse — a domed, neoclassical structure erected in 1898 — boasts an assortment of antique stores, specialty shops and restaurants. Of note are the red-and-white-striped Old Firehouse (1891) and a monument to founding father Claude Chana.

It’s 25 miles to Placerville, founded in 1848 and called “Hangtown” for the way early pioneers dispensed with wrongdoers. Today the city has a nucleus of historic buildings, including two museums. A mile from downtown is Hangtown’s Gold Bug Park: Its hard-rock mine, operated from 1888 to the beginning of World War II, is open to the public. A taped narration of the mine’s history accompanies visitors walking through the 352-foot mine tunnel for a view of the quartz vein that lured miners to sink some 250 shafts in the immediate vicinity.

Amador and Calaveras

South of Placerville, Highway 49 runs through a series of foothill counties known for their excellent wines. Amador County, in particular, is known for old-vine zinfandels and Italian-style varietals. Its county seat, 35 miles south of Placerville, is Jackson, founded as a placer mining camp in 1849. Ten years later, hard-rock operations had begun on the rich quartz vein known as the Mother Lode.

Today Jackson displays a 19th-century Main Street highlighted by the National Hotel, in continual operation since 1863. The Amador County Museum occupies a hilltop brick home built in 1859; the St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church, erected in 1894, is the “mother church” of Serbian Orthodoxy in the United States. From a scenic overlook about 1½ miles north of town, a view encompasses the rusting head frames of the defunct Kennedy and Argonaut mines.

Even more picturesque than Jackson is Sutter Creek, 4 miles north. Its Central Eureka hard-rock mine assured its prosperity through the World War II years. Today, its gentrified Main Street has many antique and gift shops, along with a large number of winery tasting rooms.

With all the gold in these hills, it’s a bit surprising that crime wasn’t a bigger issue. The most famous of the region’s robbers was Charles “Black Bart” Bowles, who robbed 28 stagecoaches across California and southern Oregon between 1875 and 1883. A British-born “gentleman robber” who never fired a gun nor rode a horse, Bowles was convicted in a trial in San Andreas, 16 miles south of Jackson. The courtroom is preserved in the town’s Calaveras County Museum, along with a row of jail cells where he was imprisoned prior to sentencing to the state prison at San Quentin, where he served four years.

Angels Camp, another 12 miles south, was the setting for Mark Twain’s famous short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” penned in 1865. The Calaveras County Fairgrounds are today known as Frogtown U.S.A., and every year since 1893, on the third weekend of May, the Jumping Frog Jubilee has brought Twain’s tale back to life. (A long-legged creature named Rosie the Ribeter set the existing world record with a jump of 21 feet, 5¾ inches in 1986.) The frog motif is pervasive throughout downtown Angels Camp.

South to Mariposa

As in Sutter Creek, winery tasting rooms are all the rage in Murphys, a graceful village of tall trees and 19th-century brick and stone buildings, 9 miles northeast of Angels Camp via state Highway 4. It’s the heart of a region of numerous limestone caves. Among the most accessible is Mercer Caverns, open year-round. Visitors descend 160 feet through a series of chambers containing spectacular examples of limestone formations, including stalactites, stalagmites and calcite curtains awash in color.

Also worth checking out in Murphys are the 1856 Murphys Store, whose guest list includes such illustrious figures as Twain, Ulysses S. Grant and Horatio Alger, and the Old-Timers Museum. Here you’ll learn the droll history of E Clampus Vitus, a fraternal order that originated during the Gold Rush to satirize the exclusivity of such established organizations as the Masons and the Odd Fellows.

E Clampus Vitus remains active today. One evening in Sonora, 19 miles southeast of Angels Camp, I encountered a large party of red-and-black-clad “Clampers.” They referred to themselves as “a historical drinking society.”

The hub of Tuolumne County with about 5,000 residents, Sonora has an inviting main street along Highway 49, but it lacks the verve of either Columbia, 4 miles north, or Jamestown, 4 miles southwest. False-fronted buildings line the wooden boardwalks of the latter community, which preserves several historical hotels and restaurants.

Jamestown’s highlight is the Railtown 1897 State Historic Park. Founded in 1897 as a maintenance station for the historic Sierra Railway, which linked the gold mines of the Mother Lode with supply and financial centers to the east and west, the park today preserves a still-working roundhouse and other railroad memorabilia. Guided tours begin at the visitor center, in the former freight house, and lead into the roundhouse’s belt-driven workshops and four circa-1900 steam engines.

It takes an hour and a half to drive the 58 meandering miles from Jamestown to Mariposa, whose Greek Revival-style courthouse, built in 1854, is the West’s oldest courthouse still serving its original function. Nearby, the small Mariposa Museum and History Center showcases the life of explorer John C. Fremont, who had a ranch near here.

The California State Mining and Mineral Museum, 2 miles south in the Mariposa County Fairgrounds, is a good place to conclude an exploration of the California Gold Country. Here is housed the state mineral collection of some 20,000 specimens, including the 201-ounce Fricot Nugget of crystalline gold. Throughout are eye-catching displays of mineralogical splendors and oddities. A simulated mine tunnel and working model of a 1904 Union Iron Works stamp mill highlight presentations on mining technology.

— Reporter: .