A decade before silver was uncovered in northwestern Nevada, the West’s first big mining boom occurred on the other side of the Sierra Nevada Range at a place called Coloma.
In 1839, a Swiss immigrant, John Sutter, acquired land from the Spanish government, which controlled California. In short order, he erected a fort and started a settlement, which he named New Helvetia (it would later be known as Sacramento).
The ambitious Sutter envisioned the community as the capital of a great inland agricultural empire.
In 1847, he built a sawmill on the American River, about forty miles from his fort, to provide lumber for his growing colony. To run the sawmill, he hired James Marshall.
One day in 1848, Marshall was working at the mill when he discovered some intriguing rocks in the river water that powered the wheels. He shared his find with his employer and the two had the stones assayed. They contained high concentrations of gold ore.
Despite Sutter’s best efforts to keep the discovery secret, word soon spread and within a year his sawmill had been abandoned and a mining camp had popped up near the site, which was named Coloma. The camp and surrounding area quickly became the focus of one of the most massive influxes of humanity ever experienced in America.
By 1849, more than 10,000 people toiled up and down the American River and Coloma had grown to 13 hotels, two banks and dozens of other businesses.
Unfortunately, there really wasn’t as much gold to be found in the river as was first thought, and by 1851, the miners began to move on to seek their fortunes in more profitable areas, including Gold Canyon and the Virginia City area in Nevada.
Today, California’s Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park encompasses nearly all of historic Coloma. Wandering through the grounds, you can find a handful of restored Gold Rush-era buildings, including a Chinese store, blacksmith’s shop, a jail, an old miner’s cabin and several churches.
One of the most impressive structures is a full-size replica of Sutter’s mill. The site of the original sawmill is nearby, marked by a stone monument. Downriver from the mill is a sign indicating the original gold discovery site.
A good place to get an overview of the area history is at the Gold Discovery Museum. Inside, you can find displays explaining Marshall’s discovery, the development of the placer gold mining industry in the region and other interesting facts about the park.
Additionally, if you drive a few miles west of the town and follow the signs leading to the Marshall Monument, you reach a spot above the town that features a large bronze statue of Marshall pointing to the site of his discovery.
Marshall never reaped the rewards of his discovery and died poor. He is buried beneath his impressive monument and his modest cabin, which has been preserved, sits down the hill from the statue.
Of course, the park is much more than history. Located in a scenic valley on the South Fork of the American River, the park is heavily wooded with oak, locust, persimmon and mimosa trees.
Part of the fun of visiting the park is the drive on Highway 49. From Placerville, you travel for about eight miles on a winding road through beautiful wooded countryside.
There are several campgrounds and picnic areas in the park, but they get crowded during the summer. The area is also popular for river rafting. Several outfits in the vicinity offer guided trips on the American River.
To reach Coloma, head west on Highway 50 to Placerville. Exit on Highway 49 and follow the signs to Coloma, which is eight miles north of Placerville. The Marshall Gold Discovery Historic Park in Coloma is open daily. For more information go to http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=484.
Rich Moreno covers the places and people that Nevadans want to visit.