Friday, April 2, 2010

Columbia, America's best preserved Gold Rush town

Pale Rider, Little House on the Prairie, The Lone Ranger - these staples of wild west cinema have one main street in common and it is located in Columbia State Historic Park. Columbia is said to be America's best preserved Gold Rush town and the city just celebrated its 160th anniversary with a birthday cake and period costumes. What better excuse for a day trip from the Bay Area?

Met by two friends and their two children, I drove the 140 miles to Columbia with four children from 3 to 7 years old and we spent the day enjoying this little jewel of a town. Did they like it? You bet. At 5pm we had to pull away the young'uns from the climbing heaven they just discovered next to the gold panning operation. Before then they had tried their hand at old fashioned children's games on Main Street, been introduced to the most popular hobby of the gold miners, written their name on paper with a quill and black ink and dipped candles in buckets in colored wax. Columbia rocks! Here's why you need to visit.

Unlike Calico Ghost Town which is run like a period theme park, Columbia has the subdued authentic feel of a state park. If you want information on the city, you head to the visitor center and get a map. Rangers can help you out and it's free. Better than Bodie, a high desert ghost town in Bridgeport (another California state park and a Frog Mom favorite too), Columbia is open year round except for Thanksgiving and Christmas from 10am to 4pm. No desert snow storms that close it from the outside world. But the best part is how close it is from the Bay Area and the fact that it is a real town with a pedestrian historic downtown.

Sandwiched between Angels Camp and Jamestown in the heart of the Gold Country, Columbia is close to a rising wine region. Think Murphys and the blockbuster Ironstone Vineyards or the boutique Stevenot Winery. Tourism and wine tasting is huge in Calaveras County. So really, a day trip or a weekend getaway are more than justified.

Right after we arrived on Main Street next to the Fallon Theater, my girls were intrigued by the open door of the Columbia Gazette Newspaper Office. A woman gestured for them to come inside. She showed them how to line old-fashioned lead types backwards and upside down on a galley to write their name so it could be read in a mirror. They were floored that it worked.
We would probably have written an entire sentence if the woman hadn't mentioned something about "the birthday cake - oh yes you have to go get a slice, it's by the museum." A big birthday cake? The next minute we were marching up Main Street firmly intent on getting a slice of the cake. There it was: vanilla with red, blue and white frosting.

But where the kids going? The cake was next to where kids activities were organized. Hoop games! Stick games! Rope games! Bubble games! They didn't know where to start and I was left with a half-eaten slice of cake in my hands.

It's hard to say whether the bubbles were more popular than the hoop trundling but it sure kept them busy a long while. The wooden box version of tug-o-war where you kneel on a box drew a big crowd of kids who wanted to show off their steel biceps. Most of the hoops and sticks were readily available in a red wagon and newcomers got the idea very quickly - this was here to play with. What I loved in these old west games was that they all appealed equally to boys and girls. It made things easier for us too since our party counted two boys and two girls.

Understandably the children didn't want to leave the play area when we told them we wanted to see the show about how gold was discovered in Columbia. We begged and won - with promises of hot dogs. Yes, it's called bribing. Us adults thought that we had to see the re-enactment because Columbia is about the Gold Rush after all.

It was fun to arrive in front of a cowboys' encampment in a meadow, to watch them brew cowboy coffee on a campfire (don't ever want to try that), and to hear them yell in unison when a gold nugget was retrieved from the river. The fact that we were next to the route of the stagecoach definitely added to the period charm of the show since the children couldn't get their eyes off the horses as they clip-clopped on the road behind us. The play was quickly over and we dashed to the the hot dogs wagon for lunch.

Our savory cravings satisfied, we had to find an ice cream parlor because the sky was just too sunny. It was ice cream weather, no doubt. Didn't take us long to follow scoops on cones walking by and soon enough we found the treasure trove: Brown's Coffee House & Sweets Saloon. Four ice creams on cones please! Across the street came a rumbling noise preceding loud cheers. What was that? That was the local bowling alley, a funky place with one room only open on the wooden walkways. Alongside one wall, a single bowling lane in wood with pins neatly lined up at the end and a sloped hand rail to roll the ball back to you.

Would you believe that bowling was the most popular hobby of gold miners - aside from drinking? Apparently this place was never empty for more 10 minutes in any 24-hour period and one minute on Sundays. Holy cow! How could we not try it? The children pushed each other to get in line and try to strike.

Since there was only one lane, they took turns at rolling the ball, re-arranging the pins and getting in line again. Now I could see how the place would have the buzz of the town in the 1850s.

They couldn't get enough of it but I had other plans in mind for the afternoon. I also wanted to see the rest of Columbia: the general store with a straw mattress in the back room, the chicken coop with the Dominique hens laying eggs, the old school house perched on top of a hill just like in The Little House on the Prairie and ... the cemetery.

Whenever I visit historic places, I always try to include the cemetery. It's revealing of the place and the way people lived - or died, rather. On that front, Columbia did not disappoint. It was like reading a local history book.

I started reading the tombstones and asked the children to search for early pioneers born in the 1820-30s. They took it as a treasure hunt and quickly learned which lines they had to look for. Each time, I told them the short story if there was one.

This man died at age 28. This one at age 16. This one came from Prussia and his neighbor too. This one drowned in the river and the next one was murdered. Ah, the insane brutality of the Gold Rush days. And then came a litany of infants and mothers, some dramatically young and a sad reminder of infant mortality back then.

We even found a French trapper guy who settled in California. He was laid to rest in a big plot with his wife and his son. I was sad to think that whatever this man had started in Columbia had finished in Columbia. There was no one left from his family. Under the foliage of the trees on a sunny day, it felt peaceful to walk around the graveyard. No cars, no sounds, just birds chirping above us. However come October and chilly nights, the place must be pretty spooky.

We turned around and came back to the historic downtown as the children asked to try their luck at gold panning before we left. At the corner of Main Street and Pacific I admired some pretty sleek motorbikes in front of the St Charles Saloon. Reminded me of Murphys in the summertime. Total biker place. But hey, we were headed for the gold so we made it back to where Washington Street drops several feeet into a rocky area that resembles a rock garden.

On the way, we stopped at the butcher's where the butcher and his wife showed us the old lard in a box, the bars of solid black tea stamped with Chinese characters and pagoda designs, the ceramic flasks of rose wine coming from China, the bits of tobacco to chew on, the mystery boxes with unknown powders.

It was a small store but it had its fair share of eye candy and the docents were charming. They told me that in the 1850s Columbia's population grew by 5,000 in one week. Wow. Word of found gold sure spread like fire.

Finally we got to the gold panning operation. We rolled up our sleeves, picked up a pan and got wet. Our experience being minimal we didn't find any flakes of real gold but filled our vials with a few garnets, tiger's eyes, colored quartzes and iron pyrite.

It was fun but not as fun as climbing the rocks a few feet away.Now that was a riot. There is a miners cabin at the edge of the boulders and the kids started climbing in and out of the rocks like regular monkeys. Would you know that this entire area used to be under ground? Yes, that's why it's way below Main Street. It was blasted away with hydraulic mining techniques to look for gold. That explains the resulting rugged shape of the limestone boulders.

It was time to call it a day but I regretted it was too late to visit nearby Jamestown, the fabulous old train depot. Maybe next time?

Visit: Gold Rush Days are held every Second Saturday of each month from 1 to 4pm. Many special exhibits open and hands-on activities throughout the day. Park docents in period attire lead programs throughout the park. Call 209-588-9128 for details.

1 comment:

Lora (Tripping with Kids) said...

What great timing! We will be taking a few days next week to explore the gold country. I wasn't sure how interesting it would be for a 5 and 3 year old. But now I am encouraged by how much you guys discovered in Columbia alone. I'll be sure to leave plenty of time for this stop.