Monday, September 24, 2007

Columbia ~ The Gem of the Southern Mines

Because Columbia is situated about a mile off of State Route 49, I missed it the first time I drove through. So this time, I thought we would at least stop by and see whats there. Turns out, Columbia is quite the gem! We ended up having a blast and spent the whole day there.

Columbia is situated in the heart of the richest gold mining area of the Mother Lode. The Mother Lode is a region of gold bearing quartz, about one to four miles wide and 120 miles long, which stretches from Georgetown in El Dorado County on the north, through Amador, Calaveras, and Tuolomne counties, south to Mormon Bar in Mariposa county.

A beautiful town, Columbia is unique in many ways to the other mining towns of the Mother Lode. Closed to vehicular traffic, it's tree lined Main Street make for a very tranquil setting. As we explored the shops and exhibits, I could let the kids run around and not worry about them getting hit by cars.

The omnipresent trees seem to have been there throughout the history of the town. They offer a welcome relief from the sun on hot days.

A lively town, Columbia has a variety of shops and activities offering everything from souvenirs, books, handmade candy, chocolates, coffee and other fine confectionery treats, fine dining, family dining, snacks, live theater, old time photos, 1850s era saloons, quilting supplies, museums, period exhibits and displays, costumes, gold panning, stagecoach rides, a gold mine tour, to name some of the fun.

Parkie is impressed, this red wagon is much bigger that his little red wagon at home!

Costumed musicians seem to be on every corner, providing period music that became the soundtrack of our day.

One thing all the mining towns have in common; they've all burned at one time or another. Often more than once. If the town prospered, they rebuilt. If not, the town disappeared into history. Columbia, which burnt at least twice, was very prosperous, so many of the buildings were rebuilt with “fireproof” materials. The red brick and green iron shutters are prevalent with almost all the buildings here.

The mining in Columbia was “dry diggings”. Having no natural streams, only seasonal gulches, water had to be piped in from some 60 miles away and so was not plentiful. Mining was done by building a long sluice and then digging away at the surrounding gold bearing soil and running it through theses sluices.

As a result, at the south end of town the terrain drops about 10 feet because of all the soil being mined away, leaving these formations of rock. These formations create acres of labyrinthine passageways, mazes, caves and tunnels.

These rocks were underground until mining excavated the soil away from around them.

A wonderland for playing a heck of a game of hide-and-seek and tag!

Some of the things to discover in this maze are a gold mine and this miners shack.

This leftover rock turned out to be excellent building material for the town. Today a marble quarry is worked nearby.

These stairs from the town down into the “diggin's” is built with marble from the diggin's.

Parkie takes a closer look at the marble stairs.

The tile floor of the ice cream parlor is made from marble from the diggin's.

Hey wait a minute! Did somebody say “ice cream parlor”?

Ice cream sounds good right about now. I think Rachelle would agree. Like all the buildings in Columbia, the Fallon building has an old timey interior.

The Fallon building in the 1890s.

After a hot day exploring the town and the diggin's, nothing cools and replenishes the spirit like ice cream cones, sundaes and splits.

On the next installment of A California Adventure;

Water up the horses, were going for a ride on the mudwagon!

For more information about Columbia State Historic Park, visit their website:

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Railtown 1897 ~ The Movie Train!

After spending hours laboring on a hot day for our $35 worth of gold, we were ready to eat, cool down and relax. And to me, nothing is more relaxing than a slow leisurely ride on an authentic steam train through beautiful scenery .

So after a hearty lunch, we headed over to the Jamestown train station at the Railtown 1897 state historic park, where I promptly purchased passage from an authentic 1897 ticket agent.

Jamestown was luckier than most gold boom towns in the Sierras in that it never became a ghost town. That was due largely to the fact that in 1897 the Sierra Railroad built into town and Jamestown became a distribution center of goods and services to this region of the Sierra Nevada's.

Ah~ the rumble of the boiler, the bark of the cylinders, the hissing of the steam generator, the deep throaty wail of the whistle, the heavy brass bell, creaky old wooden cars, the scrape of steel wheels on steel rails, all a symphony to my ears.

The Sierra Railroad also established it's shops and roundhouse in Jamestown which, miraculously, has survived all these years along with it's stable of steam locomotives! Gad I love it when history survives.

Pretty view! With the symphony of steel going on and scenery rolling by that hasn't changed much in the last 110 years, one gets a rather authentic taste of the old west. Of course sharing the experience with a pretty damsel is always nice.

I believe two factors contributed to the survival of the historic Sierra Railroad. One, it's remote location. Time stood still here for a Century and resisted the need for modernization. And Two, the railroad and its westerny location was discovered by Hollywood, providing the railroad with the needed extra income to keep it going (also providing an incentive to keep it's historic fleet maintained!).

Did I mention that the ride is relaxing?

The Sierra Railway first appeared in movies in Hollywood's 1929 silent film “Virginian”. Since then the railroad has appeared in many movies and television productions. Here are some of its best performances:
Virginian (1929), Dodge City (1939), My Little Chickadee (1940), Young Tom Edison (1940), Santa Fe Trail (1940), Duel in the Sun (1946), High Noon (1952), Rage at Dawn (1955), )Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), Oklahoma Crude (1973), Bound for Glory (1976), Nickelodeon (1976), World's Greatest Lover (1977), Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979), Gambler (1980), Long Riders (1980), East of Eden (1980), Shadow Riders (1982), Chattanooga Choo Choo (1984), Pale Rider (1985), Back to the Future (1990), Unforgiven (1992), Bonanza: The Return (1993), Bad Girls (1994), Shaughnessy (1996), Song of the Lark (2000), Redemption of the Ghost (2000).

Lone Ranger, Tales of Wells Fargo, Rawhide, Death Valley Days, Petticoat Junction, Big Valley, Wild Wild West, Green Acres, F.B.I., Iron Horse, Cimarron Strip,Man from UNCLE, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, "A" Team, Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.

Even big boys have to put away their big toys when they're done playing. Cindy and Parkie watch as our locomotive takes a ride on the turntable and eases into the roundhouse. I didn't notice until now that I almost duplicated the scene of #28, about mid-way in this post, that was taken some 50 years earlier!

Ghosts of the past. After a good days work (play?) #28 is in it's stall for the night and will be readied for yet another day of pulling passengers through history.

As for us, tomorrow we are going to continue our tour of Tuolumne county gold country with a trip to the ghost town of Columbia. I'll blog about that next time on A California Adventure.

For more information on riding the Movie Train, visit the Railtown 1897 State Historic Park website:

See you next time!


Friday, July 6, 2007


In 1849 Gold was discovered in California, and the 49ers came. In 1886 though, the gold plumb run out, so the 49ers were 86ed! But during that golden era a legacy was born.

Actually, It's estimated by geologists that only 30% of California's gold has been found and 70% remains in the ground. Hot cha cha cha! How do I get me some of that?

So us argonauts packed up the Sienna and headed to the Sierras to the Mother Lode region for the weekend.

And made our way to Tuolumne County. California's gold region has the best county and town names doesn't it? Tuolumne, Calaveras, Stanislaus, Amador, and Mariposa counties, and the towns of Angels Camp, Chinese Camp, Copperopolis, Mokelumne Hill, Fiddletown, Placerville, Folsom, Clipper Gap, Secret Town, Gold Run, Rough and Ready, Malakoff Diggins, French Corral, just to name some of my favorites.

We are going to start out in Jamestown, or as the locals call it, Jimstown, situated roughly between San Fransisco and Yosemite on California State Highway 49.

Jamestown was home to the Harvard Mine, operated as recently as 1994, but as an open pit mine. It was closed due to falling gold prices.

Some of the folk that operated the old Harvard Mine.

Jamestown is home to some beautifully restored hotels.

We moseyed into Gold Prospecting Adventures on Main street for our guide to finding gold.

Here is their 1849 Mining camp on Woods Creek. This is where we are going to pan.

After “booting up” we jumped right in to panning.

Cindy's searches her pan for her early retirement.

Let Prospector Parkie learn ya the finer points of panning:

First, shovel some oar from your diggin's into your pan and take it down to the creek for “processin'”. We's going to let the water do most of the work.

Submerge the pan at an angle into the water careful like so's not to let any oar slosh out.“Massage” the silt out of the oar. Let the water work for ya, not against ya.

When the water runs clear, agitate the pan so that the heavier material settles to the bottom, again careful not to let any of the oar fall out. Gold is heavy, so it will settle to the bottom.

Lift the pan out of the water at an angle, allowing the lighter oar to wash out. Do this 3 or 4 times. Remember: Water is your friend.

Using a little bit of water left in the pan, swirl the water lightly over the remaining sand, gently washing it away to reveal that the pan contains absolutely no gold whatsoever. Repeat said steps until your at your wits end.

Oh boy~ this is going to be a long day. I guess I won't be quitting my day job anytime soon.

Next, we moved on to using a sluice box. Now this is the way to go. The average one can pan is about 5 pans per hour. Using a sluice box, we can now process an average of 100 pans per hour! Heck yeah! The odds have got to be in our favor now.

Your friend, the water, is now doing all the work. In this photo, the water is flowing left to right. Those metal ridges help trap the heavier oar behind it while the lighter stuff tumbles on down. There is a screen and a mesh that will hopefully trap the gold. Old timey prospectors learned this from finding gold trapped in moss growing in the water. Clever old timey prospectors.

After running oar through the sluice for an hour, the sluice is carefully removed from the stream and disassembled. Each part is then rinsed into a bucket. Now all the oar in the bucket has to be panned. Since Rachelle is the only one out of all of us who had any luck finding gold while panning, she gets the honor of panning the bucket.

Eureka! Gold! Now thats more like it.

Well, here it is, our haul for the morning. About $30 - $35 worth of gold. Of course it cost us over $100 to find it!

A warm sunny day. A cool, shaded creek. Fresh Sierra Nevada air. The prospect of finding gold. Away from electronic entertainment. All the ingredaments for a great family outing. Now thats the real gold, ain't it?

Next blog on A California Adventure:

After spending the morning doing the equivalent of about 100 squats while panning for gold, we were ready for a relaxing ride on the “Movie Train”. See ya then!