Thursday, May 23, 2013

Columbia - “The Gem of the Southern Mines”

Some have written to ask about things to do in our area, so since I enjoy going to small towns in the California Gold Country, I figure I'd start telling folks about the different sites up in this neck of the woods.

Most of the article below was furnished by the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, I figure they wouldn't mind me giving them a little advertising here. I love the little town, and it is well worth taking in.  

Known as "The Gem of the Southern Mines," Columbia is located in the Sierra Nevada foothills, in Tuolumne County, California.

Columbia's main street in the historic district, part of the Columbia State Historic Park, is closed to automobile traffic but is open to horses, carriages, bicycles and pedestrians. And yes, it is a great place to visit.

Columbia was founded as a boomtown in 1850 when gold was discovered in the vicinity during the California Gold Rush.

Yes, it was a rip roaring boomtown!

Places like Deadwood and Tombstone were still unheard of when the California Gold strike was in its heyday!

If you want to know about what really took place in a boomtown, I advise you not to believe anything you see in HBO's series Deadwood - and instead go visit the real deal in California's Gold Country. 

On March 27, 1850, Dr. Thaddeus Hildreth, with his brother George and a handful of other prospectors, made camp near here. They found gold, and miners streamed in from all over the world to share the wealth.

Before the month was out, Hildreth’s Diggings as it was known was simply a tent and shanty town housing several thousand miners.

Its original name was soon changed to American Camp and then, because that sounded too temporary, to Columbia.

The first year was almost the last for the new town. Water, indispensable for mining placer gold, was in short supply. The area had no natural streams, only gulches carrying runoff from rain and snow.

So, in June 1851, the Tuolumne County Water Company was formed to bring water into the area.

The Tuolumne County Water Company’s rates were high, so the miners formed the Columbia and Stanislaus River Water Company in 1854 to build a 60 mile aqueduct to supply the mines.

The new system was not fully completed until 1858, when the more easily worked gold deposits had been exhausted and the miners were beginning to move out. Because of this, the Tuolumne County Water Company managed to acquire the new system, which cost over $1 million, for under $150,000.

Hydraulic mining may not have taken place in Columbia. Using monitors, or nozzles, to shoot water at high pressure, where miners blasted loose the gold bearing gravels and washed out the gold would have been difficult there.

It is possible that dams and methods for forced erosion did the work around Columbia proper.

The main parking lot and other depressed areas were possibly 30 feet or more below the earth’s surface before the miners arrived.

Meanwhile, Columbia’s tents and shanties were being replaced with more permanent structures.

And yes, some folks like to insist that the Mining towns were just rowdies and lowlives - but facts paint a different picture. No, mining towns were not as depicted in the HBO series Deadwood.

Within weeks of the discovery of gold in the vicinity of Columbia, thousands of miners arrived and the population climbed to 6,000.

Subsequently, streets were laid out, and in 1851, the local community brass band, a popular institution, greeted the arrival of the first "white woman" in town.

Columbia had five cemeteries, including a Boot Hill, where burials were made without markers.

By the end of 1852, there were more than 150 stores, shops, hardware store, saddle shops, feed stores, stables, and yes saloons among other enterprises all going strong.

By 1852, there were 8 hotels, 4 banks, 17 general stores, 2 firehouses, 2 bookstores, and 1 newspaper,

By 1852, unlike what we see in the movies, the mining boomtown of Columbia also had 3 churches,  three Sunday Schools, a Masonic Lodge, and even a branch of the Sons of Temperance to accompany the over 40 drinking/gambling establishments.

The Columbia one-room school house was built in 1860 - that's right, just a few years after the boom. Why, because unlike what we see in the movies - men did in fact bring their families with them.  

The school was renovated in 1872, and finally closed in 1937. It was purchased by the state of California for $1 in 1947, and incorporated into the Columbia historic district park.

Wood had been the main construction material used in these buildings.

In 1854, fire, the scourge of many mining towns, destroyed everything in Columbia’s central business district except the one brick building.

Columbia's first fire destroyed 6 city blocks. The town was rebuilt using brick with iron construction materials.

It's true. When the town was rebuilt, locally produced red brick was used for thirty buildings.

Iron doors and window shutters, and bricks laid on the buildings’ roofs were additional fire protection.

In July of 1855 the New England Water Company provided piped water for fire fighting and domestic use.

Seven cisterns, each with a capacity of about fourteen thousand gallons, were built under the streets.

Some still store water for fire fighting. The early pipes were still being used in the 1950s when the state installed a new water system.

In 1857, another fire burned down nearly everything else left standing from 1854.

The second fire destroyed all the wood frame structures in the 13-block business district, as well as several of the brick buildings.

Rebuilding began immediately, and the citizens decided to form a volunteer fire department.

In 1859 the fire department acquired the Papeete, a small, fancifully decorated fire engine. Its arrival in Columbia was the occasion for much fanfare and celebration. A year later the Monumental, a larger hand pumper, was added.

By 1860, the gold mined in Columbia was diminishing rapidly when the easily mined placer gold was gone, the town began to decline.

The only land left to mine was in the city itself.

Yes, miners dug under buildings and tore down houses to get at the gold beneath the city.

Copper deposits were discovered in the area, with the nearby town of Copperopolis experiencing a boom. The bricks from the destroyed buildings in Columbia were sold for new construction in Copperopolis .

In the 1870s and ’80s many of the vacated buildings were torn down and their sites mined, and Columbia’s population dropped from a peak of perhaps six thousand to about five hundred.

The town continued to survive, but not prosper for many years. During the 1920′s, folks came up with the idea to include Columbia in the new and growing California State Park System.

A very serious but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to make Columbia a State Park occurred in 1934.

By this time the town was quite run down. Many of the structures had become public nuisances and were falling down.

But let's get one thing straight, if you're looking for a Ghost Town, Columbia never became a Ghost Town.

The California Legislature passed a bill in 1945 appropriating $50,000 to be matched by public subscription for the acquisition of lands and buildings in the old business section of Columbia. Thus, was Columbia State Historic Park born.

Columbia was only one of hundreds of settlements that sprang up during the exciting years when the cry of “Gold!” brought Argonauts from all over the world to seek their fortunes in California.

Located in the heart of the Mother Lode, a mile wide network of gold bearing quartz that extends 120 miles along the western edge of the Sierra Nevada, from Mariposa northward to Georgetown.

Columbia yielded $87 million in gold at 1860′s prices of $21 an ounce.

And yes, between 1850 and the early 1900s, $150 million in gold was removed from the surrounding hills.

Compare that to today's $1,400 an ounce, and just imagine how much gold that really was. 

Unlike many of these settlements, which have long since succumbed to fire, vandalism, and the elements, Columbia has never been completely deserted.

Through the years it has retained much the same appearance as when miners thronged its streets.

So, recognizing an opportunity to preserve a typical Gold Rush town as an example of one of the most colorful eras in American history, the State Legislature in 1945 created Columbia State Historic Park.

The site was proclaimed a state historic park in 1946, and the restored buildings are operated as an inhabited, working "open-air museum."

Individuals in period costumes run a handmade candy store, a Daguerreotype studio, and stagecoach rides, among other stores and restaurants.

The Columbia Museum, formerly the Cavalier Museum, is located in the Knapp building.

Volunteers with the Friends of Columbia State Historic Park host many special living history programs at the park each year.

During Gold Rush Days, held the second Saturday of each month, park docents in period clothing lead programs in the park, and there are special exhibits and hands-on activities. Free tours of the town are offered on weekends year-round and daily in the summer.

Located in the heart of the California Mother Lode, Columbia State Historic Park is a living gold rush town featuring the largest single collection of existing gold rush-era structures in the state.

Visiting Columbia is like traveling back in time to the sights, smells, and sounds of a nineteenth century mining town - merchants dressed in 1850′s attire, a whiff of coal smoke from the blacksmith shop, and the rumble of a stagecoach pulling into town.

Spend the day enjoying fun activities for the whole family. Pan for gold, explore exhibits, ride the stagecoach, discover unique shops, and learn about the rich history of the California gold rush on a guided town tour.

Be sure to enjoy a cold bottle of locally made Sarsaparilla to get a taste of the Old West and then head over to the portrait studio and dress up for an old-time photo.

Visit a working blacksmith shop where you can watch iron being skillfully forged into finished goods through fire, water, and shaping on an anvil. You can also buy a personalized horseshoe souvenir.

A point of interest in the area is the Columbia Community College, a two-year, community college, and the annual Columbia Fire Muster which is often the earliest of California's summer musters.

Today Columbia’s streets are lined with a variety of shops and boutiques with many specializing in nineteenth century goods. Restaurants, ice cream parlors, candy stores, saloons, and a tea house stand ready to quench your thirst, satisfy a sweet tooth, and fill your appetite.

Columbia is also easy on the budget with free admission, free parking, and free guided tours of the town by docents. Believe it or not, you can even bowl for free in an antique bowling alley next to the museum!

If you want to save a few bucks, pack a lunch and sit out at one of the many picnic tables and barbecue grills around the park.

With so much to see and do in the area, why not plan an overnight stay for a relaxing and unhurried visit?

Conveniently located off of Highway 49, Columbia is an easy and scenic drive that neighbors other historic towns in the Sierra Nevada foothills including Sonora, Jamestown, and Angels Camp making it a popular destination for day-trippers and weekenders alike.

Take in California Big Trees and the other California Gold Rush towns that are all within driving distance.

Of course, several affordable lodging options are available in town including hotels, cottages, cabins, and campgrounds for RV’s and tents.

So OK, here's a bit of trivia about Columbia, although Columbia today has only a population of 2,297 residents - at its height it was California's second-largest city. It was even briefly considered as a site for the state capitol of California.

And yes, believe it or not, the town of Columbia has been used a shooting location for many Western films and television scenes.

This includes scenes being shot for classic Western movie High Noon where scenes were filmed in 1952 in and around the Wilson House, on Main Street and in front of Engine House #2

Friends, you can't go wrong with a visit to "The Gem of the Southern Mines."

If like me, you enjoy Old West history, relaxation and easy going fun, you should consider exploring the rich history of that great little California Gold Rush town of Columbia.

Come on out and do some gold panning, have a Sarsaparilla while you take in the blacksmith working his magic over the old forges, and really see how things were done in a simpler time.

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