Touring the Mother Road

Travel Destinations in the Golden West

Visiting Santa Barbara

California's Golden History

Highway 49 crossing the Tuolumne River from Calaveras County

Fall in the Yuba River Canyon

Donner Lake near Lake Tahoe

Half Dome at Yosemite Nal't Park


Gold Country Destinations

Equipment Yard at the Empire Mine State Historic Park



The Rainbow Seekers
There is a likely prospect having heard of a world famous westward movement called the 1849 Gold Rush, even if you’ve not transited California’s scenic Gold Country highways.  One early morning, Monday, January 24, 1848, near Sacramento, unfolded with an unexpected destiny and one of the greatest “Eureka Moments” of all time. It caused the start of the 1849 California Gold Rush spurred by “gold fever”, and the largest mass migration in recorded history. On that day, a 38-year old migrant carpenter from New Jersey, James Wilson Marshall, beginning a week’s work finishing construction on John Sutter’s sawmill, in Coloma. Misty morning light shimmered like a prism on the water edge of the South Fork of the American River, and the sawmill’s powerful waterwheel began turning its giant blade. Just above a slight bend along the river’s bank, the sawmill stood above the swift water flowing beneath turning its waterwheel. The flow downstream passed out from the tailrace, and a sparkle caught Marshall’s eye. He reached out for two glimmering pennyweight nuggets nestled in a pile of black sand. It seemed an innocuous discovery, but swept away the years ahead for John Sutter and James W. Marshall with the force of a sudden irreversible rip current. They would be the inprobable founders of California’s most important event etched now into the annals of America’s history, and dubbed the 1849 Gold Rush. It would trigger a stampede and greatest migration ever recorded, with sensational news spreading like wildfire through the streets of San Francisco immediately alerting thousands of migrant prospectors entering the threshold of a land of unknown virgin forests and rippling streams.

Just a year later from 1849, simultaneously summoning “would-be” thousands in larger and larger numbers, brought turbulent times in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The gold seekers traveled overland by wagons or in tall ships arriving at San Francisco’s harbor. Arduous argonants blazed new paths to the rivers, exploring a 300-mile trek of today’s State Highway 49. With a flood of humanity’s spontaneous arrival, 500 mining towns were established in the most scenic countryside of California. Each settlement drove prospecting miners further into the most remote goldfields. They left classic stone and brick buildings, signature fireproof iron shutters, intricate Victorian homes, farmsteads, and historic lodges. As yesteryear’s throngs proceeded into California’s spectacular parklands, today’s travelers find abundant choices of recreation, historical B&Bs, breweries, old vine wineries, and opportunities finding a delicious farm fresh meal.

The early Gold Country saga began rumors of California’s rivers overladen with a yellow malleable mineral. There were cries echoing a decreed, “Gold, Gold, GOLD, in the American River!” Miners, aptly named 49ers, were seeking, striving, and persisting in opening up the new territory, creating a gilded age of opulence, success, fame, fortune, or encountered mere misfortunes.

Overshadowing lush seasonal streams of snowmelt flowing out to the sea, a bustling motherlode community comprised nearly one-fifth of the Golden State’s entire geography. Stretching across the western slope of Sierra Nevada’s mountain Highway 49’s hardwood forests are topped by a tall pine, cedar, and fir canopy. California’s nascent mining camps were established as Sierra logging and gold mining towns. Today’s Highway 49 follows the embedded Mother Lode’s ancient riverbeds, well below the footsteps made by miners. It was a territory extending south to Yosemite, and north into the high Sierra mountain foothills of Sierra County.

“Go West, Young Man” emphasized a challenge claiming one’s destiny, and a resolute cry rose above the forest and rivers throughout the 1850’s. Prospectors followed their intuitive self-reliant overland trek of reaching the goldfields. America’s pioneer trails led itinerents crossing dusty desiccated deserts, treacherous canyons, snowbound mountain passes, while enduring unfathomable conditions. The legendary argonaunts brought their families through scorching heat, winter rains and snows. The resolute settlers abandoned wagons along rutted roads, and emigrant trails were littered with broken down ones stuck in the mud on the way to California’s goldfields. Unwary settlers by the thousands blazing paths into the countryside named by descriptions or events, “Rough & Ready”, “Dry Creek Diggins”, “Malakoff Diggins”, or “You Bet”, and even the ominous “Old Hangtown”, or Placerville. The appeal of the California Gold Rush grew with worldwide fame during the mid-19th century. A saying at the time, “Going to see the Elephant” as first bantered by PT Barnum’s circus arousing curiosity, now was symbolized by nearly 300,000 migrants at a fever pitch. Fortune hunters on a mission were led often on misadventures with an ironry of their golden dreams vanquished at rainbow’s end!

Steely-eyed men making good fortune had built impressive storybook villages of redwood Victorian homes marking success of the richest mine owners, yet average miners struck more desperate times with uncertain failures, or utter destitution. Along the many twists and turns of State Highway 49, the original Gold Rush miners’ trails and early gold camps at the center of California’s 1849-50 population became thoroughly panned out, removing the low-hanging fruit over miles of the sweeping river bends. Soon, lucrative strikes quickly dried out, and after 1849 serious claims immediately grew with more elaborate extraction processes, and began producing even larger and larger quantities of gold. By 1850, prospectors came to the northern, central and southern foothill regions buying and selling their claims, creating partnerships and conglomerates. Hardrock mining exploration was introduced pursuing the elusive golden ore by drilling deeper and deeper into the bedrock. Gold industries had harnessed giant dredging operations scraping out river bottoms, creating tunnels, wooden flumes or powering giant water cannons for sluicing out fine grains of gold. New inventions made power generated from water wheels. The rise of steam powered stamp mills would crushed tonnages without stopping at night, consistently sifting out gold particles from the aggregate. Engineers linked 40 or more stamps together. This was life in the foothills each and every day and night, beset by a continuous hum of progress.

The foothills of the Sierra Nevada’s rolling hillsides and thick forests surround the gold-mining districts of California, called the Mother Lode, lays beneath a region four miles wide, covering 120 miles northwest and southeast through El Dorado County, and south from Amador to 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 and produced half of California’s gold deposits. In 1959, the district processed 10,400,000 ounces of lode gold, and 2,200,000 ounces of placer gold. Overall by 1860, nearly 40 million pounds of gold was found in the Gold Country, then valued at $12 to $35 an ounce. In comparison, during the year 2007, California’s total gold production equaled nearly over 90,000 ounces of gold per year, and includes the largest sources, the Mesquite mine in Imperial County, and the Briggs mine in Inyo County, reprocessing previously mined ore.

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 would lead the way in California’s history. The overt entry flying colors of The Bear Flag Republic into Mexico’s northern command post in Sonoma Square, 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, while gaining further momentum towards US victories against Mexico. Under his 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 evolved into the 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 reaching California staking a claim.

Glistening wild rivers flowed swiftly as pioneers explored the promise of new goldfields, 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. 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 with 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 spanning 22-miles, roughly runs 12-miles wide; “Lake in the Sky” supports an 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 many unique celebrations reflecting rich regional history of the legendary Gold Rush aimed at visitors and residents alike. Mark Twain’s famous story of the Calaveras Jumping Frog Contest remains a local Jubilee and 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 Bar’s 16 miles length and 60 miles of shoreline, or 100 miles of shoreline at 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 at 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. 

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