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Highway 49 crossing the Tuolumne River from Calaveras County

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Gold Country Destinations

Equipment Yard at the Empire Mine State Historic Park



The Legendary California 1849 GOLD RUSH & STATE HIGHWAY 49
The Rainbow Seekers
If you’ve never traveled California’s scenic Gold Country highways, there’s still a likely prospect of hearing about the world famous event called the California Gold Rush. The 1849 sensation rapidly spread throughout the country and brought news of “gold fever” Out West, hysterically spurring the largest mass migration in recorded history. Monday, January 24, 1848, an the early morning sunrise near Sacramento unfolded into the single greatest unexpected “Eureka Moments” of all time. A true folk drama began when a 38-year old migrant carpenter from New Jersey, James Wilson Marshall, gave a cursory glance at shimmering light in millrace’s outlet. Hired to build John Sutter’s sawmill on the South Fork of the American River, Marshall used the water’s flow beneath to power the mill’s waterwheel and saw blade above, as river water returned downstream out a channel below. Marshall deepened the channel clearing it from river rock, then reaching out through the water were two pennyweight nuggets nestled with amounts of golden flakes caught in the black sand. The observation was memorialized by his terse memorable quote. “My eye was caught with the glimpse of something shining in the ditch.”  Soon after, like a force of a sudden irreversible rip current, there was no looking back from the unpredictable destiny that precluded all years coming of both John Sutter’s and James W. Marshall’s future. They were the founders of a remarkable time etched permanently into the annals of American history. The sensational news of the Mother Lode mines through 1849 spread like wildfire throughout the streets of San Francisco and the world beyond. The excitement brought seekers to California’s unknown virgin forests, churning rivers and streams, and by the 1850s the overall total impact reached 250,000 prospector emigrants.
The seasonal snowmelt a top the Sierra Nevada Mountains streams to the rivers, lakes and reserviors below and provides the Gold Country communities, a geographic area equaling one-fifth of the entire Golden State. Deciduous hardwood forests lie beneath a tall canopy of pine, cedar, and fir, originating California’s nascent logging and mining camps during the earliest days. It had become a Golden Chain and path to history on State Highway 49, belied by an expanse of hidden Mother Lode gold still beneath the miner’s feet.

As the discovery summoned a simultaneous “would-be” thousands in larger and larger numbers, turbulent times were fanned by the flames of fame, fortune and destitution. Gold seekers traveled in wagons or arrived at San Francisco’s harbor aboard tall ships; with a flood of migrant families to see the “elephant” seeking the end of the rainbow. Along a 300-mile trek called the Mother Lode, myriads of established mining camps are considered a Golden Chain of towns on State Hwy 49. During the first years, gold rush arrivals spontaneously had settled nearly 500 mining towns in a flurry extending to the most scenic boundaries of California. The towns were built as classic stone and brick dwellings with fireproof iron shutters to withstand fire damage, and graceful redwood Victorian homes, and farmsteads are still standing.

“Go West, Young Man” had grown into the challenge of claiming one’s own destiny, joining the unified resolute cry echoing above wilderness forests and river gorges came the clarion call throughout the 1850’s. Prospectors persevered desiccated deserts, treacherous canyons, and frigid snowbound passes facing unfathomable demands of endurance and self-reliance. It was “a make it or bust” brought with the enthusiasm of an argonauts’ triumphant achievement finding a real pot of gold. Mining towns had been named from description or formal events, and so “Angels Camp”, “Amador”, “Rough & Ready”, “Dry Creek Diggins”, “Malakoff Diggins”, “You Bet”; are all serendipitous places or personalities including the ominous “Old Hangtown”, although more formally, known as Placerville by 1850. As the world rushed in, lustful avarice lured ever increasing numbers as the event called “Going to see the Elephant”. An intensity to gold fever translated into a symbolic irresistable magnetic pull and had been known from PT Barnum’s famous circuses. More often than not, the lore of the gold hunters was a fate of sudden riches, or one never gaining imagined fortunes! Steely-eyed miners pressed forward with the practice of underground mining in the early 1850s, and many small mining operations expanded into impressive storybook villages marking the success of the richest mine owners. Then, as the rivers were thoroughly panned out and one time lucrative strikes dried up, more elaborate momumental extraction processes produced even larger and larger yields of gold keeping even more prospectors working in the northern, central and southern foothills. The business of buying and selling claims created partnerships and conglomerates, and more efficient hardrock mining explorations were first introduced by Cornish miners. Following exposed quartz ledges and veins, they found the elusive meandering gold drifts drilling deeper and deeper. Other gold mining industries harnessed gigantic dredging operations used for scraping out entire river bottoms creating tunnels and wooden flume waterways, or another practice unleashing devastating high-powered water cannons sluicing out entire landscapes and capturing fine grains of gold. Waterwheels, or more advanced Pelton Wheels were generating electric power along long distance powerlines, and long distance telephone technologies were begun. The first unrelenting steam powered stamp mills had been used to crush tonnages and already operations ocurring both day and night. Mining engineers would link together up to 40 or more stamps, weighing nearly 1,000 pounds each for mining aggregate, as did the Empire Mine in Grass Valley. It was a life beset day and night with thrasing earthquake sounds and continuous hum of progress.

The Gold Country’s ‘Mother Lode’ is comprised of rich gold-mining veins beneath a region populated by thick forests and rolling foothills running four-miles wide with veins running a distance of 120-miles northwest to southeast through El Dorado County, south to Amador, Calaveras, Tuolumne, and Mariposa counties’ western foothill slopes. By 1859, underground gold ore mined in the Central Mother Lode produced about 13,300,000 ounces. Rich placers were found in the Columbia Basin near Jamestown recovering 5,900,000 ounces in the 1853 production total. By 1880, most mining came from lode deposits from below bedrock. In Nevada County, the Empire Mine in Grass Valley went to over a 11,007-foot depth; and by 1868, the mine boasted its full time 30-stamp mill processing ore. The Nevada City region was the next largest gold mining district in California producing nearly half of all California’s Gold Rush deposits. In 1859, 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 had been found in the Gold Country, valued at $12 to $35 an ounce. In comparison, during the year 2007, California’s production total of gold equaling nearly 90,000 ounces, including the largest sources, the Mesquite mine in Imperial County, and the Briggs mine in Inyo County, and reprocessing previously mined ore.

As early as the 1790’s, small populations of Americans had settled in California. The first were isolated mountain men, traders of pelts and US military soldiers. As early as the 1820’s, robust American industries were also migrating west and trading from rich California Pacific ports. By 1827, Monterey’s harbor and Custom House served in California’s capital as an international shipping port for transactions bound to California.

Soon, a soldiers rebellion organized under US Colonel John C. Fremont at Sutter’s Fort brought a loyal band of Americans soliders carrying the flag of the California Republic to Sonoma Square on the 14th day of June, in 1846. Designed by William Todd on a piece of white cloth, a symbolically crude form with a Grizzly Bear and one star in the corner and bright red stripe across the bottom. The Bear Flag Revolt raised the signal for California’s independence from Mexico by the Americans. In Sonoma they arrested and captured the retired General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. Although already sympathetic to the American’s cause, Vallejo was kept under guard consigned for two months at Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento. As the momentum of war moved forward becoming a bloody battle between the US and Mexico, lasting less than two years. From the outset, John D. Sloat, Commodore of the US Naval Pacific Squadron, kept a careful watch in Monterey, systematically capturing San Francisco and surrounding towns as well as claiming California’s capital port of Monterey. The conflict was settled with 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; as well as an area representing present-day Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Three years after the Bear Flag Revolt, the 1849 Gold Rush would lead the way to achieving California’s historic statehood, radified as the 31st State by the US Congress in 1850.

Rivers of Gold
Rumors of California’s discovery brought a stampede to San Francisco in 1849, with arrivals by the thousands purchasing mining claims claims averaging 20 x 30 feet. That same year, during his State of the Union Address, President Polk signaled confirmation to the nation of the gold discovery and talked of taking up the challenge and visualizing fame and fortune. Travel aboard tall sailing frigates “around the horn” of South America eventually could make the trip in 89 days, converging on San Francisco’s shores among the throngs of excited gold seekers filing claims.  

Wild rivers glistened with treasures and hidden promises at each goldfield, while life was led in tent camps, or crudely made row shacks became a best bet for local merchants hitting paydirt serving the prospectors’ need for food, lodging, camping supplies and mining gear. California’s first millionaire, Sam Brannan, furnished hardware and miners’ supplies from a central hub in San Francisco, and carried provision supplies at Sutter’s Fort and in Coloma. Henry Wells and William Fargo moved west to open an securities office; and a German-born tailor, Levi Strauss, arrived in San Francisco in 1850 with plans to open a store selling canvas tarps and wagon coverings to the miners. During 1852 in Coloma, John Studebaker began making 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 of the goldfields. By the turn of the 20th century, after his legendary work in Yosemite, John Muir, the great American preservationist   organized the Sierra Club and advocated expanding the country’s National Park system.

The Golden State’s mining history holds many valuable and unique stories of frontier life in lively communities with colorful personalities along the Golden Chain of State Highway 49. California’s State highway signs commemorate the Golden State and meant to remind us of old upside-down miner’s shovels, standing on end with the handle staked in the ground. The hardiest gold seekers sharpened their survival skills and met the increasing demands of mountain life. The currency of the day was a poke of miner’s gold dust for everyday products. Eggs might cost a dollar each during periods of spiraling costs. “Modern” progress in the form of Central Pacific Railroad’s first transcontinental trains had come by the summer of 1869, and a major route charted between Nevada and California was completed just 20 years after the Donner Party tragedy.

Today’s mining towns have emerged with elegant antique houses, comfortable B&B and classic lodging, featuring farm fresh harvests and a wide choice of restaurants appealing to the restless hungry masses. During the modern Golden Era, Gold Country towns are cloaked in a mysterious sense of time standing still. And, to a traveler’s benefit from today’s foothill communities comes with the advantage of modern facilities, all season recreation and sports venues, comprehensive museums to amble in, picturesque mountain vineyards, craft brewing and brewpubs, all surrounded by scenic landscapes. Fall’s foliage peak colors are displayed vividly along the Golden Chain of mining towns. Scores of authentic century-and-a-half old buildings make great sightseeing and photographic opportunities make the entire 300-mile stretch of State Highway 49 noteworthy. Traditional Gold Rush mines, museums and equipment is found throughout every part of the Gold Country region often on display in the streets and museums. Today’s magnificent State Parks and California foothill towns continue to extend generous hospitality to visitors, so that those who come as strangers will leave as lasting friends.

Hidden Gold
Negotiating the twists and turns of California’s State Highway 49 leads travelers through quaint villages, in a unique chain of Gold Rush mining towns bearing striking similarities to distant New England towns. Some buildings have high-gabled roofs used for shedding deep snows, tall church spires, ship-lapped siding, or neoclassical styles with open columned porches, with an eclectic a mix of Gold Country architecture. Each region has four seasons of celebrations and events reflecting the rich history of the legendary Gold Rush aimed for the enjoyment of visitors and residents alike. Mark Twain’s famous story of the Calaveras Jumping Frog is replayed as a local Jubilee, every May. Other well attended attractions include spring at Daffodil Hill in Volcano; the Murphys Wine Stomp; Placerville’s Blessing of the Grapes; native Pow-Wows at Chaw’se, near Pioneer; the Tarantula Festival in Coarsegold; Draft Horse Festival and WorldFest, in Grass Valley; events drawing visitors into the small towns. Jaunts include river rafting, trail hiking, or staying at Yosemite National Park for day’s end, each just off Highway 49. One may cruise Bullards Bar Lake’s 16-mile length or 60-miles of shoreline and rent a houseboat; or rent one at the 100-mile shoreline of New Melones Lake. Take a visit to Mark Twain’s 1866 cabin; or spend a day at Columbia State Historic Park and catch the Wells Fargo Stagecoach with the kids. Try a hand at panning for gold at several State parks, discover the wildflower trails, fishing in the streams and picturesque Gold Rush towns’ residents and businesses, with unlimited choices for recreation, historical B&Bs, breweries, old vine wineries, and opportunities for a delicious farm fresh meal.