History buffs could hardly do better than a visit to California's Gold Country in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada where gold was discovered in the mid-19th Century, setting off a population explosion that helped shape what California is today. And maybe the best place to get a sense of what it all was like back then is Columbia State Historic Park, hailed as the state's best preserved ghost town.
Actually, Columbia is far from a ghost town. Several local business owners are alive and well, thank you, operating park concessions that help re-create the feeling of a town in the Gold Rush era. On any given day you'll find people all over town dressed like it was still the 1800's and doing all they can to create the illusion that you are traveling back in time.
Columbia's Main Street does look like a movie set except that the downtown stores are not just storefronts but actual historical buildings. There are about 40 brick buildings and 10 wooden structures all built back in the day when thousands of miners would come into town to get their supplies before returning to gold claims that ultimately produced $67 million worth of gold between 1850 and 1870. That may not be impressive using today's price of gold, but when you consider that gold sold back then for just $20 an ounce, you start to realize that this area's gold production was massive.
Columbia got its start in 1850 when a group of prospectors were caught in a rain storm and, while drying out their gear, John Walker — no, not that John Walker — decided to look for gold. He found so much that, within six weeks, thousands of miners had descended on the area in search of their fortunes. By 1852, more than 150 stores, shops, saloons and other businesses were operating in Columbia. By 1853, as many as 30,000 people lived there.
Once mining had run its course, the town's buildings deteriorated to the point that, in 1945, the state stepped in and began restoration efforts. Columbia became a state historic park and now includes the largest single collection of California gold rush-era structures.
There are about 20 businesses and 20 static history displays that visitors can peruse on their visit to Columbia. Among the businesses are such authentic enterprises as an Old West hotel, blacksmith shop, a couple of cowboy-style saloons, an ice cream parlour, a mercantile and a dry goods store. There's a bank, a firehouse, a couple of candy stores, a barbershop, bookstore and then various exhibits that explain some of the historical buildings and how they were used. Especially enlightening is the museum, where an excellent collection of historical items are on display.
There's another museum of sorts at Columbia Booksellers and Stationers, where we chatted with proprietor Floyd D. P. Oydegaard, a bearded gent who dresses in period clothing and just happens to look like someone who might have fought in the Civil War. That's no coincidence because Oydegaard's store is chock-full of Civil War memorabilia as well as other antiques and museum-quality items from the 19th Century.
"I want people to feel like they've walked into a museum,'' Oydegaard explained. "I don't have any room in my house so my wife says take it down to the store."
Oydegaard has studied up on Columbia history and points out that the city became quite a melting pot following the discovery of gold. Many of the town's residents were from other countries and there were more than 1,000 Chinese living in Columbia within two years of the discovery.
After spending an enjoyable afternoon exploring the town, we took it one step further: we stayed the night. Many may not be aware that the City Hotel (along with the Fallon Hotel) offers overnight accommodations in a historic hotel that operates as a bed-and-breakfast inn. If you enjoy watching Westerns on TV or at the movies, the City Hotel is like stepping into one of those Old West hotels.
The City Hotel is quite ornate with a lot of attention to period furnishings. The hotel is full of antiques — in the lobby, in the bedrooms, in the upstairs sitting area, everywhere you look. Oriental rugs cover shiny dark wooden floors, and elaborate loveseats, carved desks and hefty bureaus are used to add décor and historical flavor to the hotel's interior. High-ceiling rooms are probably much as they were back in the day, each with a small bathroom area with showers down the hall. The rooms have a bit of that "grandmother's house" feel with colorful wall papers and antique beds that feature six-foot-high mahogany headboards. A couple of the rooms open out to verandahs overlooking Main Street.
We were in the mood for just a quick snack for dinner so instead of visiting the City Hotel's elegant dining room, we stopped in next door at the What Cheer Saloon, another elaborately decorated area that seems completely authentic to the 1800's. The surprising thing was that much of the dining room's menu was available at the saloon — which, it turned out, was fortunate. Otherwise we would have missed some really expertly prepared meals that seemed so much better than we expected to get in a state park.
On the way out of town the next day we stopped in nearby Sonora, perhaps the most scenic town in the area. Sonora has a long main street of western storefronts with plenty of nearby historic homes, not to mention a couple of spectacular church steeples that make it great for taking pictures. Sonora has numerous antique shops, as well as small, but interesting shops and restaurants.
Nearby is Railtown 1897 or what they call "The Movie Railroad." It's located in Jamestown and is a fascinating stop for anyone who has enjoyed Western movies with those loud and powerful steam trains. If you saw a movie with an old-time steam train, chances are the engine and cars came from Railtown 1897, where there is a wall of movie posters illustrating just how many movies featured the trains kept here at this facility. The facility actually is the former Sierra Railway shops and headquarters.
Historic trains and steam engines are on tracks throughout the property and visitors can take their time following sidewalk trails to various parts of the facility. You can walk right up and look inside the roundhouse where several engines are under repair.
There are plenty of movie stars at Railtown 1897. For example, Locomotive No. 3 has appeared in nearly 50 motion pictures and more than 20 television series, and is still used in the movies today. Most recent use includes the movies Back to the Future III, Unforgiven and Bad Girls. Many of the passenger coaches and cabooses you see also were used in various films.
Just as an aside, Railtown 1897 is operated by the state along with the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, one of the country's best railroad museums. That 100,000-square-foot museum features many actual railcars as well as various real locomotives. A train station replica allows you to see what a 19th Century station was like and, in spring and summer months, the museum offers steam train rides.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Columbia State Park is in the Sierra Nevada foothills, about 54 miles east of Modesto, California.
WHAT: Columbia State Park is an ideal place to visit for history buffs, and an excellent choice for a quiet overnight trip to a historical bed-and-breakfast style country inn. Kids and adults will both enjoy visiting the static displays and interesting businesses all housed in historic buildings. Activities such as gold panning and stagecoach rides also are available.
WHEN: You can visit the park year-round, although there will be quite a difference in the experience. The park is busiest in July and August, while things will be much quieter in the fall and winter months. Snow is rare -- Columbia is at about 2,100 feet elevation.
WHY: The scenic beauty of the area — hilly, mountainous and forested — in addition to the historical sites make this an attractive getaway for almost anyone.
HOW: For more information on Columbia State Park, call 800-777-0369 or visit www.parks.ca.gov. For more information on the City Hotel, call 800-532-1479 or visit www.cityhotel.com. For information on Sonora, contact Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau at 800-335-1333 or visit www.thegreatunfenced.com.
Photos, from top: Stagecoach rides offered during busier weekends; panning for gold; City Hotel is just like Old West; visitors enjoy walking along historic Main Street
Photos by CARY ORDWAY
OTHER DESTINATIONS: If Columbia State Historic Park is your idea of a California vacation, also check out our articles on San Luis Obispo County, a romantic Central Coast getaway, Dana Point and Napa Valley.