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Sit a bit and hear some observational stories I’ve been steeping.

Columbia, California – a town touched by magic

Columbia copyOn March 27th, 1950 Thaddeus Hildreth and his younger brother George, and a few other hungry seekers of gold, wound up in a stretch of land they considered to be “an unusually rich seam of gold” and pounded their stake into the earth, calling the area Hildreth’s Diggings.  On a daily basis the party managed to pull a minimum of 15 pounds of gold dust daily.

In a couple of weeks, the area grew so rapidly that the Sonoma Herald said the place seemed “touched by a magic.”  According to Reverend E.B. Lockely, “some 10,000 miners lounged, ate, drank gambled and fought every Lord’s Day.”  Despite that claim, the census records reported that the area never actually exceeded five thousand.  Still, at its height, Columbia was California’s second largest city.

This sweet bit of magical land of Hildreth’s Diggings was called many names, like Dry Diggings and American Camp, before it officially became Columbia, California in 1851.  The name Columbia, some said, was after the “flag-draped maiden” symbolic of the United States.

Unlike many of the mining towns of the Gold Rush era that were absolutely crazy, wild and wooly, rough and tumble towns, the prosperity of Columbia turned it into a positively genteel town, by comparison.  By 1853 The Columbia Gazette described it as such:

Hundreds of strangers are arriving in town, and considerable life and activity are visible.  Several affrays of a trifling character have occurred.  Health remarkably good; doctors in despair.  Litigation on the increase; lawyers in clover. The Odd Fellows are flourishing.  The Hook and Ladder Company have ordered a fire truck from San Francisco.  Morals are improving; fandango houses, gambling, bull-baiting, idling, dissipation and quarreling have greatly diminished. There is an excellent school in town.”

Because of the wealth pulled from the ground, Columbia was known as the “Gem of the Southern mines.”  However, like many California towns, the summers were warm and dry, right on into autumn, making it a risky area for fire and water (a critical component of gold production), could be scarce.  During one dry spell of 1850 a miner was quoted as saying, “It was so dry we couldn’t spare water to put in our whiskey.”

Despite devastating fires in the area, the biggest in 1854 and another in 1857 which destroyed everything but the brick buildings, Columbia spent over a decade as one of the finest Gold Rush towns, thanks in part to the variety of chispas (pronounced CHEE-SPA) found in the mines.  The gold specimens from Columbia were labeled by Tuolumne county historian, Carlo M. DeFerrari, as “unique or of uncommon beauty.”  One miner described the treasures of the earth there as “leaf gold, thin as paper and as dainty as a fern, river gold in shiny droplets and beads and hearts, and strings of gold crystals set in pure white quartz better than any jeweler could mount them.”

Part of the beauty of such prosperity, brought about great stories of exaggeration about how easy is was to glean gold from Columbia.  One story told, claimed that even the laziest of men could make his fortune just by tying his “dirty drawers” to a limb hanging over a little stream, letting them dangle in the water overnight just to return the next day to find that “lo and b’God!” they’d be gold-plated.  Even without exaggerating it was an extremely prosperous town and ultimately, nearly $150 million in gold was pulled from the area.

Sadly, by 1860 the land of Columbia was pretty much depleted of its gold and the population decreased, too.  By 1937 the one-room school house finally had to shutter its doors and in 1947 the entire town was purchased by the state of California for one dollar.

Today, people come from all over the world to visit the unusually beautiful rock gardens created from hydro mining where picnics and hiking are popular.  The antique buildings are staffed by costumed State Park employees and shopkeepers who entertain visitors with candle-dipping, iron-mongering, gold-panning and crafts.  There are wonderful places to eat, shops to buy candy, toys and clothing.  For the brave of heart, the Wells Fargo horse-drawn wagon rides through the hills (where there might still be robbers looking for pouches of gold) is fun journey into the gorgeous countryside.

Columbia is, and always has been one of the much-loved bustling towns of the Sierra Nevada foothills, and never did become one of the sad and desolate ghost towns as so many towns of the California Gold Rush eventually did.  Perhaps it really is… touched by magic.

xo – t.

“Happiness resides not in possessions, and not in gold, happiness dwells in the soul.” – Democritus

“All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost; the old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost.” – J.R.R. Tolkein

“Fire is the test of gold; adversity, of strong men.” – Martha Graham


“Love is the only gold.” – Alfred Lord Tennyson

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