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Rainbow Seekers

On a hazy Monday morning, January 1848, the breaking light streamed like a prism against misty sunshine spreading along the American River canyon. As a solitary New Jersey migrant carpenter began his work on constructing John Sutter’s sawmill, the stream’s powerful waters raced past turning the oversized blade. Then, releasing back into the river’s surging waters at its tail, John Marshall spotted a clear pool with two dull nuggets among glittering gold dust. The sawmill was established not far from the 1840 pioneer settlement begun 20 years ago at Sutter’s Fort, called New Helvetica. This moment became for both Sutter and Marshall the most pivotal figures of discovery setting in motion the greatest migration in world history. Out West, pioneers were mystified by the high stakes effect and early successes of placer mining prospecting from the rivers of California. Culmination of the California Gold Rush in 1849 came from sensational news brought turbulent times to the mining camps throughout the Gold Country, harkening to “would-be” prospectors and drawing larger and larger numbers of a worldwide gold seekers to San Francisco. The quest of 1000s established 500 spontaneous settlements inside the most scenic countryside of California, as many goldfields had emerged 125 miles east along the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Studded canyons of hardwood forests and tall canopies of pine, cedar, and fir overshadowed its lush mountain rivers and streams carrying seasonal snowmelt into the distant sea. Gold Rush mines were connected like dots along the western foothill slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range as migrant populations traveled into a terrain equalling around one-fifth of the Golden State’s total geography. The Gold Country saga unfolded into a sweeping reputation of California's rivers laden with riches of a yellow malleable mineral. In 1849, the call became a lustful echoing cry with the decree, "Gold, Gold, GOLD, in the American River!” Myriads aptly named 49ers had been drawn to a gilded age of opulence, success, fame, fortune or misforture, as California's nascent mining camps were established with logging and gold mining industries like beads strung along a golden necklace. Traveling the vertical axis on today’s Highway 49, The Mother Lode still leads north to south on embedded trails of footsteps to mines extending into the southernmost Yosemite highlands, and northern Sierra Mountain foothill centers.

"Go West, Young Man" emphasized the challenges finding one's individual destiny and became an important catchphrase throughout the 1850’s. Prospectors followed an intuitive self-reliant path over land and sea arriving in the goldfields. America’s dusty trails leading west and crossing desiccated deserts, treacherous canyons, snowbound mountain passes and enduring unfathomable conditions, led migrants through scorching heat, winter rains and snows. Resolute settlers led their wagons along rutted roads, emigrant trails often left broken down in mud to reach the California goldfields. Unwary, the floods of settlers had come by the thousands creating new trails blazed into the countryside named by descriptions and events like “Rough & Ready”, "Dry Creek Diggins”, "Malakoff Diggins”, or the ominous “Hangtown” known later as Placerville. Each small community would be tucked away into dark foothill corners, and today’s towns still remain with restored brick buildings and fireproof iron shutters, Victorian homes, farms, museums, historic lodges and recreational parks, all were devoted to the discovery of gold along a 300 mile distance along Highway 49. Today’s modern lodges, breweries, wineries and village restaurants have created abundant opportunities to finding handicrafts to delicious farm to table meals. As California's Gold Rush appeal grew worldwide, a saying "going to see the elephant,” reflected at first by PT Barnum’s curious circus goers, now had symbolized the charge of nearly 300,000 migrants’ feverish pitch to their fortune seeking mission of finding gold, often leading to a sheer irony reaching any golden dream at the rainbow's end!

Steely-eyed gold seekers of good fortune had built impressive storybook villages and redwood Victorian homes marking the success of the richest mine owners, yet average miners struck more desperate times facing uncertain failure to utter destitution. Along twists and turns following State Highway 49, the original Gold Rush miners' trails and early gold camps at the center of California's 1849-50 population had been thoroughly panned, picking out in many cases low-hanging glittering fruit over miles of the sweeping river bends. Soon, lucrative strikes quickly dried out, and after 1849 serious claims immediately grew in more elaborate extraction processes, producing larger and larger quantities of gold. After 1850, prospectors came to the northern and southern foothill regions buying and selling their claims, creating partnerships and conglomerates. Industrial hardrock mining exploration had pursued the elusive golden ore deeper and deeper by drilling into the bedrock. Gold industries harnessed giant dredging operations scraping out river bottoms, creating tunnels and wooden flumes, powering giant water cannons sluicing out fine grains of gold, and generating power from water wheels. A rise of water and steam powered stamp mills crushed tonnages without stopping at night, sifting out particles from aggregate. Engineers linked 40 or more stamps together running from water sources out of the mountains. This became everyday life in the foothills every day and night, beset by a continuous hum of progress.

California's Early Mining Camps
The most famous gold-mining district of California, the Mother Lode of the Sierra Nevada lies beneath a region four miles wide, covering 120 miles running northwest and southeast through El Dorado County, and south to Amador, Calaveras, Tuolumne, and Mariposa counties. By 1859, this Mother Lode region produced about 13,300,000 ounces of gold. The rich placer deposits found near in the Columbia Basin near Jamestown and Sonora’s 1853 production total recovered 5,900,000 ounces of gold. By 1880, most of the mining had shifted to lode deposits below bedrock levels. In Nevada County, Grass Valley’s Empire Mine drifted to over a 2,000 foot depth, and by 1868 boasted a 30-stamp mill processing more ore. The Nevada City region is the next largest gold mining district in California. In 1959, the district produced 10,400,000 ounces of lode gold, and 2,200,000 ounces of placer gold. Overall by 1860, nearly 40 million pounds of gold had been processed in the Gold Country, then valued at $12 to $35 an ounce. In comparison, during the year 2007, California's total gold production equaled 9,400 ounces; producing nearly over 90,000 ounces of gold per year, includes the largest, the Mesquite mine in Imperial County, and the Briggs mine in Inyo County, reprocessing previously mined ore.

Just eighty years prior to the world famous Gold Rush, California had become a province claimed as part of Spain's colonization along the Pacific coast. Alta California had been founded by New Spain in 1769, and Franciscan friars and Spanish soldiers would be the first settlers in San Diego. As they drifted further north covering 600 miles, the native indigenous people were severely impacted. Missionaries created a series of colonies in locations near California's 840-mile craggy coastline and settlements extended along El Camino Real, an historic trail. From Mexico City to the northern capital, Monterey, in Alta California; the conquest ended at the Royal Presidio Chapel of the King. Completed in 1794, the historic chapel in downtown Monterey is California's oldest architecturally designed building. The Spanish colonials developed presidios, harbors and mission pueblos built from logs, adobe brick, rock, burnt red brick, and clay tile. By 1784, land ownership rights were given as grants, bestowed in tribute to the new Mexican aristocracy, or even paying debts from the government to citizens, and resulted in huge tracts in support of livestock. After the turn of the 19th century, Americans entered Alta California as trading partners and were considered unwelcomed guests by the Spanish. 1810-1821, Mexico's War with Spain won independence in an upheaval from Spain's cession to Mexico City’s rule, ceding all the Alta territory of northern California. The Spanish missionary friars and flocks of native neophytes were alienated, indisposed and dispersed. The age of the Californios would arrive through Mexican Land Grants governed by secular laws, suddenly undermining the mission properties. The holy church's succession in California reached an abrupt ending as mission properties were annexed as part of a new dynasty with an influx of Baja cattle barons.

As early as the 1790's, small population in California had consisted of isolated mountain men, traders of pelts, and US military soldiers. And, as early as the 1820's, robust American industries began migrating west and settling in California, trading from the Pacific ports. By 1827, the Monterey Custom House at the harbor was established for international shipping transactions bound for California. After 20 years, first American symbol was unveiled in the public square at Sonoma on the 14th day of June in 1846 by a band of 33 loyal Americans. The design by William Todd on a piece of white cloth bore a crude form of a Grizzly Bear, a star in one corner, and a red stripe across the bottom. The Bear Flag was first raised on a momentous day as a symbol of California’s independence. Unexpectedly, the American Bear Flag Revolt lead the way in California's history. The overt entry into Mexico's northern command post in Sonoma Square, brought flying colors of The Bear Flag Republic, and claimed independence from Mexico City. Under the rudimentary flag of a silhouetted grizzly bear under a large prominent star, the Americans arrested and captured the retired General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. US Captain John C. Fremont's command brought Vallejo under guard to Sutter's Fort in Sacramento, gaining momentum towards US victories against Mexico. Under careful watch in Monterey, John D. Sloat, US Commodore of the US Naval Pacific Squadron, began systematically capturing San Francisco and surrounding towns, as well as claiming California's capital port in Monterey. Vallejo's detainment at Sutter's Fort in Sacramento had evolved into a bloody war between the US and Mexico lasting less than two years. Settled under The Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago, on February 2, 1848, the agreement ceded 525,000 square miles of western territories, including all of California, to the United States; plus, and an area representing present-day Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Rivers of Gold
News of California's gold discovery dispersed throughout San Francisco in 1849, attracted new migrant arrivals of mostly men induced to join the greatest worldwide inquisition entering the Sierra goldfields. There were mining claims smaller or larger than 20 x 30 feet average, in camps and towns throughout the region. That year, President Polk’s confirmation during his State of the Union Address of California's Gold Strike on the American River signaled taking up the challenge, although very few reached the epitome of fame finding a true Mother Lode. Aboard large frigates sailed “around the horn”, past South America's tip, eventually would reach California with pioneers ready to stake a claim.

Wild glistening rivers flowed swiftly where pioneers explored the promise of a new goldfield, while living in tent camps or crudely made shacks. As their luck dried out, they'd turn to a new high stakes venture carrying few assets making day to day expenses. It would seem local merchants hit paydirt serving prospectors' needs of food and lodging, camp supplies and mining gear. California’s first millionaire, Sam Brannon furnished hardware and miners' supplies at his central hub in San Francisco. Henry Wells and William Fargo had moved west to open an office, and a German-born tailor, Levi Strauss arrived in San Francisco in 1850, making plans to open a store selling canvas tarps and wagon coverings to the miners. In Placerville, John Studebaker, in 1852 began building wheelbarrows and buggy wheels for farmers and miners. Phillp Armour founded a meatpacking empire in Chicago after making his fortune operating the sluices controlling water flowing into the rivers at the goldfields. By the turn of the 20th century, from his legendary work in Yosemite, John Muir, the great American preservationist organized the Sierra Club and advocated creation of the National Parks system. Hidden away by time over 150 years, old miner's stories like stepping stones lead to a fascinating age of California's early exploration of the California Gold Country.

Each region of the Golden State's mining history holds many valuable and unique stories of frontier life from lively communities along the Golden Chain of Highway 49. California's green state highway sign are designed to commemorate travelers to the Golden State and as a reminder of an old upside-down miner’s shovel, standing on its handle and staked into the ground, a symbol of California’s Gold Country days. The hardiest gold seekers of 1849 sharpened their survival skills by meeting the demands of mountain living. The currency of the day came from a poke of miner's gold dust, increasing demand on everyday products and boosting inflated costs to miners. Small mining towns emerged with elegant redwood housing, comfortable lodging, farm fresh restaurants and local farming, instantly appeasing relentless appetites of the hungry masses. “Modern” progress in the form of Central Pacific Railroad’s first transcontinental trains came by the summer of 1869, and a major route charted between Nevada and California was completed just 20 years after the Donner Party tragedy.

It is apparent Gold Country towns of the Golden Era are cloaked in a mysterious sense of time standing still, especially as one meanders through museum like foothill towns all along Golden State Highway 49. Often towards a traveler's benefit, today's foothill communities offer the advantage of modern lodging, all season recreation and sports, comprehensive museums to amble, picturesque mountain vineyards, great small mining town buildings and scenery, even historic covered wooden bridges crossing mighty majestic rivers. The unfolding of foliage during autumn's peak colors are displayed vividly each fall. Scores of authentic century-and-a-half old buildings are suitable sightseeing and photographic opportunities along the entire 300-mile stretch of State Highway 49. Traditional Gold Rush mines, museums and equipment are on display in every part of the Gold Country region for travelers to experience the history.

One note of caution, stepping into the foothills forests unprepared may prove a danger for hikers unaware of what lay beneath their feet! Abandoned mine diggings left washed-out acidic water waste, crumbling crevices and hydraulic wash outs, stacks of rockpiles, rusted hardware, old headframes and disintegrating concrete footings, along with dangerous open shafts from the momentous amounts of labor expended by early miners. Much remains, but the bulk of old mines have been closed and sealed to discourage wandering. Today's magnificent State Parks and California foothill towns continue to extend their generous hospitality to visitors, and those who come as strangers will leave as lasting friends.

Hidden Gold
Negotiating the curves of California's State Highway 49 follows a chain of quaint villages of unique wooden homes, stone and brick buildings, and churches, bearing striking similarities to distant New England towns. High gabled roofs shed snows, tall steeples, wood lapped siding, and neoclassical Victorian homes and open columned porches create a mix of Craftsman styled redwood architecture set in mountain woodland scenes. Spring's vibrant flowers offer a striking contrast to Fall's muted oranges and reds hues, popular seasonally. Semi-arid conditions mean dry weather conditions and allows uninterrupted dry summer months until the usual fall and winter rain and snow storms. Despite California's semi-arid climate, the foothill seasons flourish during warmer winter El Nino years, as rains may yield up to 90 inches, causing occasional flooding in low lying Sacramento Valley communities, surviving only by the aid of 150-year old levees and bridges. An abundance of sun and rain turns to winter snows anxiously expected by skiers in the high country and lauded by the world class resorts of the High Sierra for its alpine skiing at 7,000 to 9,000 foot elevations and higher. Lake Tahoe's natural shoreline spaning 22-miles, roughly runs 12-miles wide; “Lake in the Sky” supports enhanced snow accumulations by its own atmospheric lake effect. Most years, around Thanksgiving, the snow brings powdery skier bliss, often lasting through spring.

There are legendary celebrations reflecting rich regional history of the Gold Rush aimed at visitors and residents alike. Mark Twain's famous story of the Calaveras Jumping Frog Jubilee remains a local competition each May. Other well attended attractions such as spring at Daffodil Hill, near Volcano; the Murphys Wine Stomp; Placerville's Blessing of the Grapes; native Pow-Wows at Chawsee, near Pioneer; the Tarantula Festival in Coarsegold; Draft Horse Festival, and Worldfest in Grass Valley; always draw the attention of visitors coming to the small towns. Right off Highway 49, one may choose to cruise Bullards, or New Melones Lake in a houseboat rental; and visit nearby Mark Twain's cabin from 1866; or, spend a day at Columbia State Historic Park to catch the Wells Fargo Stagecoach with the kids. All choices make unique memorable adventures, whether rafting the rivers, trail hiking, or staying at Yosemite National Park by day's end. Golden opportunities abound taking a hand at panning gold on the Yuba, and American Rivers, hiking the wildflower trails, or fishing in the streams of the Sierra Gold Lakes Basin. Wonderful options come to those experiencing picturesque Gold Rush towns, and meeting the residents and the businesses.

Exploring California

Gold Country Destinations