Everything changed in the Sierra foothills on January 24, 1848, when glittering metal was found in the tail race at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma. The Gold Rush was on and in the short time it lasted, such an abundance of gold was taken out of California’s rivers and hills that the modern equivalent for its value would be tens of billions of dollars. But so much more happened, too.
The Gold Rush in a Nutshell
Some people would get rich and more would be ruined. California would shed its isolation on the western frontier and capture the world’s attention. One of the largest mass migrations in the world would bring people by land and sea from China, Europe, the Middle East, South America, Hawaii (then the Sandwich Islands) and more. Ships left abandoned after bringing would-be miners by sea would be taken apart for San Francisco’s buildings or become buried beneath the city. Greed would make people lose their decency, and they would be thoughtless or unkind to each other and the Earth. Sourdough bread would become a California specialty after its durability made it a favorite miner meal. Wine Country would take root here long before Napa and Sonoma became renowned for their signature drink. Rats and canaries would be put to work below ground as detectors of poisonous gasses. Phrases like “paydirt” would enter popular speech.
All of that happened in less than a decade, though estimates vary about how long the Gold Rush lasted. The fact that it moved around so much doesn’t help. As soon as one area was picked clean, the race was on to the next, while some of the more persistent kept after what might have been left behind. The Mother Lode — which extended from Georgetown to Oakhurst — was where things started. Then hard-rock mining in Grass Valley made gold-hunting a major industry. In between, other gold fields emerged such as the Yuba, and then everything shifted across the mountains to the Comstock Lode in Nevada and its silver.
Highway 49 and Other Gold Rush Legacies
Though it was a short period, it was tremendously formative, so it’s no surprise that Gold Country continues to be defined by it. A good example is Highway 49, still the area’s major road and named for the miners. It’s also one of California’s most historic routes, originally built to connect the major mining towns. For that reason, it’s also referred to as the “Golden Chain Highway.” A road trip along Highway 49 is a great opportunity to get a feel for how far mining spread in the Sierra. It runs more than 300 miles between Oakhurst and Vinton in the Northern Sierra.
Many Gold Country communities have also held on to their Gold Rush buildings, though degrees of preservation vary. Besides the historical significance, they are a testament to survival. Devastating fires were common in the early settlements, and many of the towns are rebuilt to varying degrees. So while there are all sorts of claims from different sorts of operations claiming to the “oldest” this or that, validating them would be a complex undertaking. But even rebuilt, they are portals to the past and fascinating.
And just as modern Gold Country was shaped by the Gold Rush, it just might also be haunted by it. Talk of ghostly happenings is fairly common, as in other places with colorful pasts.
The ECV: Nontraditional Sierra Historians
Historical societies and museums offer ample insight into Gold Country’s bygone days. But another group of historians is a bit more unexpected. This is the home base of E Clampus Vitus (ECV), a fraternal organization that started during the Gold Rush and is devoted to studying and preserving its history, while perhaps also enjoying a drink or two. (For years, meetings were often held in saloons, and references to ECV are still found in some bars.) Its chapters have installed historical markers throughout the Sierra Nevada as part of their mission, noting landmarks and events both historical and somewhat offbeat.
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