The state of California may be young compared to East Coast states, but there is no shortage of places to see firsthand what early life was like in the Golden State. Long before Disneyland, Hollywood and the surf craze, California still beckoned visitors with such things as great weather, scenic beauty and — oh, we almost forgot — gold.
If you're fascinated with history and like to tie that in with your getaways and vacations, here are a few suggestions for excellent places in California to see how life was like way back when:
Bodie: California ghost town
Bodie, California, today is one of the country's best preserved ghost towns and gives you the same sense that you have stepped back into a different time and place. A look inside the many remaining buildings at Bodie will stir you to ponder just how life had been during those years back in the 1880s when Bodie was bustling with 10,000 souls.
As mining on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada went into decline, miners crossed the mountains to search for other sources of gold and, soon, with the discovery of such deposits as the famed Comstock Lode at Virginia City, this whole area east of the mountains began to surge with the influx of miners. The town of Bodie hit its peak in about 1880.
By all accounts, it was wild, raucous sort of existence as miners and other residents indulged themselves at the 65 saloons that had sprung up all over town. We weren't quite prepared for our first glimpse into one of these buildings — which happened to be the old Methodist Church. There, covered in a thick layer of dust, were the hand-carved pews, the pulpit and an ornate pipe organ. It seemed that, with just a bit of a scrub down, this church could be ready to host a congregation this coming Sunday. Somehow we had not realized that this historic park was much more than a set of buildings — many of those buildings are, in fact, mini-museums still housing the artifacts of the day.
The country road to Bodie is clearly marked on US 395 just south of Bridgeport. A trip to Bodie can be taken any time of year but cold-weather visits are for the hearty and the road to Bodie should only be tackled by a four-wheel drive vehicle. To learn more about Bodie State Historic Park, call 760-647-6445 or visit www.parks.ca.gov.
Mark Twain's Calaveras County
Students of Mark Twain will remember The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, a short story that was actually Twain's first published work and what eventually made him famous. Today, the Angels Camp community reminds us about Twain and his story every May, drawing more than 2,000 "frog jockeys" who compete to see whose frog can jump the farthest.
Such is the spirit in Calaveras County, a fascinating collection of historic villages that you don't need to wait until May to visit. Your exploration can be a weekend or a vacation and can focus on just Calaveras County or include any number of towns and attractions in neighboring counties. The distances are all short — 10 to 20 miles between towns or attractions — and the sometimes-winding roads are always scenic in this hilly, forested part of California. The common denominator between all these attractions is history.
The Mark Twain connection is a big one for Angels Camp and, just like "the Birds" has become a cottage industry for its filming location, Bodega Bay, the Mark Twain short story has put Calaveras County and Angels Camp on the map. All manner of frog memorabilia are offered locally, and more than one business has the word frog in its name. You can even visit the cabin where Mark Twain lived for the few months he was staying in the area.
Some of the best history in the area actually is in neighboring Tuolumne County, where we visited the town of Sonora. Perhaps the most scenic town in the area, Sonora has a main street of western storefronts even longer than Angels Camp, but also boasts historic homes and a couple of spectacular church steeples that make it great for taking pictures. Near Sonora is the Columbia State Historic Park, a theme-park like reconstruction of a real California gold rush town.
Sacramento's Delta King
Who can resist the charm of an early 20th-century riverboat — a true paddle-wheeler that once offered prohibition-era drinking, jazz bands and gambling for its fun-loving passengers? The Delta King awaits your exploration dockside in Old Sacramento.
Just like passengers back in the 1920s, today's guests enjoy enchanting river views, great food and drink and a cozy stateroom unlike any other accommodation you may have experienced. But unlike those early passengers, you will have to be content with scenery that remains pretty constant. The Delta King isn't going anyplace anytime soon.
But then it doesn't need to. This historic 285-foot boat is docked along the Old Sacramento riverfront which, today, has been turned into a hip collection of good restaurants, eclectic shops and trendy night spots that draw millions of tourists and local residents alike.
The Delta King and her identical twin, the Delta Queen, were christened in 1927. The elegance and craftsmanship are apparent the moment one enters the lobby area where the rich red oak paneling and fixtures create an impression of opulence. The dining room, too, has that feeling of classic comfort, and a wide stairway and oak banisters bring to mind those images of the grand stairway in the Titanic. You can overnight in one of 44 staterooms.
Old Sacramento now attracts more than 5 million visitors each year. The area has been restored with cobblestone streets, gaslamps and wooden sidewalks, and you do get the feeling of walking through a town from the Old West.
For history buffs, Old Sacramento also has a number of museums including the California Military Museum, Discovery Museum History Center, the Old Sacramento Interpretive Center, the Old Sacramento Schoolhouse Museum and the Wells Fargo History Museum. Maybe topping the historical list is the California State Railroad Museum which is said to be one of the country's best railroad museums.
The shops in Old Sacramento — no matter how tacky some of them may be — are almost all housed in historic buildings. Among those 53 buildings still standing is a firehouse built in 1853, California's first threater, and the B.J. Hastings Building which was the western terminus for the Pony Express.
For more information on the Delta King, phone 1-800-825-5464 or go to www.deltaking.com.
Gold Rush Country
About 45 miles east of Sacramento is Placerville, a hub for many nearby historic attractions, including Sutters Mill in the nearby town of Coloma. Just 10 miles from Placerville, this tiny hamlet has several historic buildings, many included in the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. The California Gold Rush was ignited when James W. Marshall discovered gold in 1848 on the South Fork of the American River — a site preserved today as part of the state park.
A working replica of nearby Sutters Mill has been constructed to scale, and a pathway takes you to the actual site where the original mill stood. Further down the path is the site on the American River where Marshall reached in and pulled out the first gold. It's easy to visualize how it must have been that day more than 150 years ago, especially with historic photographs in the nearby museum that show the original buildings against a backdrop of the same hills, mountains and streams you see today.
We found a small crowd gathered behind Bekeart's Gun Shop, the oldest building still standing in Coloma. Gold miner wannabes had ponied up $3.75 apiece and were trying their hand at panning for gold.
Other historic buildings in Coloma include James Marshall's house, a Chinese store, two churches and some other buildings. There are large picnic areas and a small but fascinating museum that includes many historic photos, artifacts and a real stagecoach.
In downtown Placerville, the El Dorado County Museum houses period settings, a fully stocked general store, a Concord stage coach and early transportation displays. The Placerville Historical Museum is located in a particularly interesting 1850s-vintage building that was once the old Fountain and Tallman Soda Works.
For more information on Gold Rush Country, the El Dorado Visitor Authority maintains a website at www.visit-eldorado.com.
(Editor's note: CaliforniaWeekend.com is California's leading source of information on getaway travel in the Golden State. Visit the site often to find the latest getaway specials, a comprehensive list of resorts and lodgings and to use the Getaway Machine travel calculator to match up your needs and preferences with exactly the right lodgings and location.)