“Gold! Gold!” - With one Samuel Brannan exclaiming these words, the most famous gold rush in history began. An estimated 300,000 people came to California, towns grew from scratch and quite a few fortunes were made - usually however made by people like Brannan who wasn’t searching for gold by himself, but offered accommodation and sold equipment to those who did. Between 1848 and 1855, not only California was transformed and the country’s western expansion was fueled, but there was also created a myth that is still fascinating people today.
The first stop en route to follow the traces of the gold rush is Coloma, California. Today, there are some 500 people living here, but the place more or less has the appearance of a ghost town. Despite, some residents still attempt to extract gold from the American River. It was in Coloma, more precisely at Sutter’s sawmill, where James W. Marshall on Januar 24th 1848 found a few small crumbs of gold. There is a reconstruction of the old mill here today, at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park (open daily from 10 a.m.). Only some ten kilometers (six miles) away is Placerville, California, today the county seat of El Dorado County with a population of 10,400. The town previously had the not-so-flattering name of “Hangtown”, as this was the place where the numerous arguments that arose around the mining operations time and time again, were settled with sometimes drastic verdicts. Later, Placerville became the trading hotspot for the gold extracted and the place where banks and equipment suppliers could be found. They have an authentic gold mine there, called Gold Bug Mine, but the operations there have a very touristy appearance.
About two hours away to the south, another gold mine can be visited. Here, in Columbia, California however, the town itself is much more interesting to see. Some 30 structures in the downtown area of the place has been preserved from gold rush times. This part of the town today is not accessible by motorized vehicles, as these streets are today function as an open air museum. In front of this historic backdrop and surrounded by locals in 18th century costumes, tourists can ride in a stagecoach here or try to locate the spots, where scenes of famous movies were shot - more than 100 film productions, including the classic movie “High Noon”, have at least in parts been shot in Columbia. Furthermore, the museum of the State Historic Park provides good information about the times when the rather quiet town had been California’s second-largest city.
From here, continue in a northerly direction to get to Auburn, California. Approximately 13,000 residents live here today. The city had been founded during the gold rush. Quite a few structures in town have been built according to the architectural style of these times - and this was done so well that a number of movie scenes have been shot here as well. Particularly worth visiting is the small, old fire station that was built in 1891. The Gold Country Museum on High Street is also interesting (closed on Mondays). Visitors can try their hands at gold panning here; also they have reconstructed a gold mine, a characteristic gold miner shack town a saloon. If you have time, you might want to do an excursion over to Downieville, about 90 minutes in a southerly direction. This place is not only home to a popular, annual mountainbike race, but it’s also an old gold miner’s settlement with a number of historic building along Main Street.
The other option is going from Auburn to Sacramanento, California via I-80. Sacramento, California’s capital with a population of some 466,000, has to thank Swiss migrant John (Johannes) Sutter’s foresight for its existence. Sutter set up a trading post here in 1839 and protected it with a fort. When the gold rush began shortly thereafter, Sacramento became an important hub for trade and transportation. The routes of the stagecoaches as well as the Pony Express and later the transcontinental railroad lines all ended in Sacramento and many of the prospectors arrived here - or left California again from here after their search was unsuccessful. At the Labor Day weekend in early September, the city hosts the Gold Rush Days, a fun fair lasting several days that serves to remind of the town’s storied history. Outside of the festival times, visitors can also get a glimpse of the past in Sacramento, for example at Sacramento History Museum (101 I Street) or in the Old Sacramento neighborhood. There, more than 50 carefully reconstructed buildings dating back to gold rush times can be found.