150 years later, Gold Rush is on Renewal: As California plans a three-year celebration of the discovery at Sutter's Mill, its old mining towns are finding that tourism is golden, too.

December 28, 1997|By Jay Clarke | Jay Clarke,Knight-Ridder News Service

There's still gold in these hills, but it's the kind that comes from tourists.

A century and a half ago, places like Grass Valley, Calif. and neighboring Nevada City became instant towns when gold was found in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Untamed and unwashed, these hill towns rewarded a few Forty-Niners with fortunes but punished far more with an endless parade of dashed hopes. When most of the mines closed during or just after World War II, many of the towns sank into obscurity.

But now, as California prepares to mark the 150th anniversary of the greatest voluntary human migration in history -- the California Gold Rush -- the one-time gold towns are booming again.

This time, it's not the precious yellow metal that lures people to places like Grass Valley. It's the perfume of history that hangs over the region. It's the appeal of reliving vicariously the giddy excitement of the Gold Rush days.

It's the joy of extracting from this undulating land not gold but a pleasant 20th-century experience.

Gentrification

Thus, behind the same wooden storefronts where blacksmith shops and assay offices once operated, today's visitors find boutiques and bars. Golfers of the 1990s dig divots where sweating miners once excavated the earth. Rows of grapevines march across rolling hills where mining camps used to be. One-time saddle shops have become tony restaurants, and the working tools of yesteryear have become precious objets d'art in today's antique shops.

What hasn't changed in Gold Country is the climate. When the residents of the state's central valley swelter in the summer heat, they flee to the Sierra foothills, elevation 1,000 to 5,000 feet, to cool off. When weekends become too claustrophobic in the urban forests of the Bay Area, their people depressurize in the region's small towns and open country.

Summer teems with festivals and fairs in the Gold Country -- bluegrass blowouts that fill every charming B&B for miles, street fairs that corral the collectibles crowd, winery tours and growers' markets that tempt those with discerning palates.

Gentrified as it has become, though, today's Gold Country still evokes visions of one of America's most storied eras.

At the time when James Marshall spotted the fateful gold nugget at Sutter's Mill in Coloma, California was a far-off backwater of the United States, recently acquired from Mexico.

News of the gold strike -- and the extraordinary richness of the finds -- drew more than 500,000 gold-seekers to California over five years. They went overland by caravan or by sea around Cape Horn, the tip of South America; either trip was perilous and took months. Others came from Europe, South America and Asia.

San Francisco's population, a puny 20,000 at the start of 1849, rose to more than 107,000 by year's end. Propelled by the Gold Rush, California was granted statehood in 1850.

Joy and despair

In the mining camps, joy and despair were handmaidens. A man could make hundreds of dollars in a day, or he could make nothing. The price of lodging and food was forbiddingly high; one miner wrote about paying $43 for a scarce breakfast. Camp followers and con men thrived. If a crime was committed, instant justice was often meted out, with judge and jury chosen from the crowd.

As time wore on, law and order came to the Gold Country. Churches, schools and traditions were built, and built upon. The gold mines prospered, as did the towns of the Sierra foothills.

But by government order, the gold mines were closed during World War II. Some reopened after the war, but with the price of gold fixed at $35 an ounce, they found they couldn't make a profit and closed again.

Most of the gold towns went into decline until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when they realized the potential of tourism. Restoration efforts prettied the towns; and the climate; scenery and history did the rest.

Today at Sutter's Mill in Coloma, where the Gold Rush began, a museum and a replica of the original mill stand on the grounds, along with a church, Marshall's cabin and grave site.

It is at Coloma that the state will mark the 150th anniversary of gold on Jan. 24, 1998, the kickoff date for a three-year celebration tied into the California Sesquicentennial.

Events and exhibitions

Events at Sutter's Mill will include the World Gold Panning Championships next October, which is expected to draw delegations from more than 25 countries; a historic wagon train encampment and tent city; and a symposium featuring noted authors and guided tours by costumed volunteers.

If you're curious about the nugget that Marshall found, you can see it at the Oakland Museum's Gold Fever! exhibition, opening Jan. 24. This will be the largest and most important exhibition during the Gold Rush anniversary period, with paintings, old photographs, displays of nuggets, ingots and jewelry, and even an underground archaeological "dig" filled with 1850s goods and artifacts.

But you can find history everywhere in the Gold Country.

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