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 like a prism shimmered against the water’s edge of the South Fork of the American River. Sutter’s Mill had a giant powerful blade on a platform raised above a slight bend on the riverbank. The sawmill stood over the swift water flowing beneath, turning a waterwheel returning downstream through the tailrace back into the river. A sparkle caught Marshall’s eye. He reached for two glimmering pennyweight nuggets nestled in a pile of black sand. His quote, “My eye was caught with the glimpse of something shining in the ditch.” withstands time. It seemed an innocuous discovery, but soon swept the years for John Sutter and James W. Marshall with the force of a sudden irreversible rip current. They would become the inprobable founders of California’s greatest event ever, etched into the annals of American history, and dubbed the 1849 California Gold Rush. It would trigger a stampede and greatest migration ever recorded, with sensational news spreading like wildfire through the streets of San Francisco alerting thousands of migrant prospectors at the threshold of a land of unknown virgin forests, churning rivers and streams.

Sierra seasonal snowmelt carried from the mountains to the sea, nourishes Mother Lode communities comprising nearly one-fifth of the Golden State’s entire geography. Stretching across the western slope of the Sierra Nevada’s lies Highway 49’s hardwood forests flourishing beneath a tall canopy of pine, cedar, and fir canopy. California’s nascent mining camps were established in a chain of logging and gold mining camps. Today’s Highway 49 follows the Mother Lode’s ancient riverbeds, and Mother Lode embedded below the footsteps of miners.

Just a year after gold discovery in 1849, the event simultaneously summoning “would-be” thousands in larger and larger numbers, eventually as many as 250,000 bringing turbulent times to the Sierra Nevada foothills. The gold seekers traveled overland in wagons, or arriving at San Francisco’s harbor on tall ships. Arduous argonants blazed paths along the riverbeds, exploring and prospecting a 300-mile trek over today’s State Highway 49. A flood of humanity’s spontaneous arrival soon began 500 mining camps, settling in the most scenic countryside of California. As prospectors migranted further and further into remote goldfields, they left classic stone and brick buildings, shutters of signature fireproof iron doors, in towns with intricate Victorian homes, farmsteads, and historic lodges. Today’s travelers find abundant choices for recreation, historical B&Bs, breweries, old vine wineries, and opportunities finding a delicious farm fresh meal.

“Go West, Young Man” grew to the challenge claiming one’s destiny, echoing a resolute cry above the forests and the rivers, lasting throughout the 1850’s. Prospectors traveled dusty desiccated deserts through treacherous canyons and snowbound mountain passes enduring unfathomable conditions depending on intuitive self-reliance. A “Make or Break” attitude was the goal to finding fresh goldfields. Time quickly slipped away as placer gold was removed quickly by the first arrivals like low hanging fruit. The legendary pioneers traveled to California with their families through scorching desert heat, winter rains and snows, while abandoned wagons lay along rutted roads stuck in the mud. Unwary settlers on the way to the goldfields arriving by the thousands found many remote paths into the countryside. Mining towns were given by description or an event the names, “Angels Camp”, “Amador”, “Rough & Ready”, “Dry Creek Diggins”, “Malakoff Diggins”, or “You Bet”; even ominous “Old Hangtown”, later to become Placerville. The worldwide appeal grew to fame by 1850, and “Going to see the Elephant” bantered by PT Barnum’s circus museum carried over to the buzz of curiosity symbolized by migrants arriving at a fever pitch. Fortune hunters often were beset by misadventures and a fate of mistaken dreams, vanquished at rainbow’s end!

Steely-eyed men making good fortunes building impressive storybook villages of redwood Victorian homes, marking success of the richest mine owners, yet many more miners struck desperate times with uncertain failure, or utter destitution. Along the twists and turns of State Highway 49, the original Gold Rush miners’ trails led to early gold camps at the center of California’s 1849-50 population. Then, thoroughly panned out over miles of the sweeping river bends. As lucrative strikes dried out after 1849, hard rock claims immediately grew using more elaborate extraction processes, and producing even larger and larger quantities of gold, by 1850, prospectors came to work in the consolidated northern, central and southern foothill regions. Buying and selling claims, creating partnerships and conglomerates, hardrock mining exploration was introduced to capture the elusive golden ore, drilling deeper and deeper into the bedrock. Gold industries harnessed giant dredging operations scraping out river bottoms, creating tunnels, wooden flumes, or powered giant water cannons sluicing out fine grains of gold right out of the hills. The inventions introduced included water wheels, or Pelton Wheels generating power. Long distance powerlines, telegraph and long distance telephone with technologies of the era. The rise of steam powered stamp mills crushed tonnages unrelentingly both day and night. Sifting gold particles from the aggregate, engineers would link 40 or more stamps together at the Empire Mine in Grass Valley. It was life in the foothills beset by a continuous hum of progress each and every day and night.

The foothills of the Sierra Nevada’s rolling hillsides with thick forests surrounded the gold-mining districts of California called the Mother Lode. Large veins lie beneath a region four miles wide, running 120 miles northwest and southeast, through El Dorado County, and south from Amador to Calaveras, Tuolumne, and Mariposa counties. By 1859, the gold drifts of the Mother Lode region produced about 13,300,000 ounces of gold. The rich placer deposits found near in the Columbia Basin near Jamestown and the 1853 production total recovered 5,900,000 ounces of gold. By 1880, most all of the mining shifted to lode deposits below bedrock. In Nevada County, Grass Valley’s Empire Mine drifted down to over a 2,000 foot depth, and by 1868 the mine 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 populations came from the east settling in California and had consisted of isolated mountain men, traders of pelts, and US military soldiers. As early as the 1820’s, robust American industries had begun migrating west and trading in California from the Pacific ports. By 1827, the Monterey Custom House and harbor was handling international shipping transactions bound for California. Soon, led by US Captain John C. Fremont from Sutter’s Fort, a loyal band of Americans carried the first California Republic flag, at the public square on the 14th day of June in 1846. 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 raised as a symbol of California’s independence. Unexpectedly, the Bear Flag Revolt and 1849 Gold Rush lead the way in California’s history to statehood in 1850. Under the rudimentary flag of a silhouetted grizzly bear under a large prominent star, Americans arrested and captured the retired General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. Captain Fremont’s command captured Vallejo, under guard he was consigned for two months to Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento.Further momentum towards US victories against Mexico were pursued evolving into the bloody war between the US and Mexico, lasting less than two years. 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. The conflict was settled under The Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago, on February 2, 1848, and the agreement ceded 525,000 square miles of western territories, including all of California, to the United States; an area representing present-day Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Rivers of Gold
News of California’s discovery of gold dispersed rumors throughout San Francisco in 1849, and migrant arrivals of men, induced to join the greatest worldwide inquisition to the Sierra goldfields, purchased mining claims at 20 x 30 feet average. Mining camps and tent towns were strewn haphazardly through the region. That year, President Polk’s State of the Union Address signaled confirmation of gold discovery to citizens, taking up the challenge and visualizing the fame and fortune seeking the Mother Lode. Travel aboard on tall frigates sailing ships “around the horn” of South America could make the trip in 89 days, converging on San Francisco’s shores among the thongs of newly arrived gold seekers.  

Wild rivers gistened with treasures, and the pioneers sought a promise of each new goldfield, living in tent camps, or crudely made shacks. It would become a better bet for local merchants hitting paydirt serving prospectors’ needs for food and lodging, camp supplies and mining gear. California’s first millionaire, Sam Brannon, furnished hardware and miners’ supplies from a central hub in San Francisco, and another at Sutter’s Fort. Henry Wells and William Fargo moved west to open an 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. In Coloma, John Studebaker, began building wheelbarrows and buggy wheels for farmers and miners in 1852. 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, during his legendary work in Yosemite, John Muir, the great American preservationist organized the Sierra Club and advocated increasing the National Parks system.

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 signs are designed to commemorate the Golden State and and a reminder of an old upside-down miner’s shovel, standing on its handle, staked into the ground. The hardiest gold seekers 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 today, Gold Country towns in the Golden Era are cloaked in a mysterious sense of time standing still. 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 on display may be found in every part of the Gold Country region. 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 on California’s State Highway 49 leads travelers to a chain of quaint villages, unique wooden homes, stone and brick buildings, and churches, bearing striking similarities to distant New England towns. Some are high gabled roofs shedding deep snows, tall steeples, wood lapped siding, and neoclassical Victorian homes, open columned porches, a mix of Craftsman redwood architecture and mountain woodland scenes. There are many seasonal celebrations reflecting rich history of the legendary Gold Rush aimed at visitors and residents alike. Mark Twain’s famous story of the Calaveras Jumping Frog continues as a local Jubilee Celebration, each May. Other well attended attractions include spring at Daffodil Hill, near 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; drawing the attention to the small towns. Right off Highway 49, one may choose to cruise Bullards Bar’s 16-mile length and 60-miles of shoreline, or 100 miles of shoreline at New Melones Lake in a houseboat rental; 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 are unique memorable adventures, or recreational jaunts 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, or American River; 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.

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