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Birthplace of the California Gold Rush


COLOMA, El Dorado Co., CA




Gary Speck



History hangs thick in the air at Coloma, the birthplace of the world’s greatest treasure hunt, the California Gold Rush.  175 people still live where history drips from the trees, flows through the icy waters of the South Fork of the American River, and is recorded on the film of thousands of travelers. 


This IS where it all began 150 years ago on the cold, frosty morning of January 24, 1848.  It was on that particular morning that the construction foreman inspecting the water flow through a recently completed sawmill, spotted a shiny object twinkling in the frigid water flowing through the mill’s tail-race.  He stooped to pick up what proved to be a pea-sized gold nugget. 


James Marshall changed California history – American history – World history. 

The California Gold Rush, was underway.  Like tens of thousands of mythical Jasons, the Argonauts came from all corners of the world... Europe, China, and South America, in search of their own golden fleece.  Many found gold, and many were fleeced.


The hills were swallowed up and digested.  Rivers rerouted, and their former beds scoured by the gold-crazed miners.  It all began on the South Fork of the American River, in the valley called Culloma...The birthplace of the California Gold Rush  


Johann (John) Augustus Sutter emigrated from Switzerland to the United States in 1834, and in 1839 had found his way to the rich agricultural land in the heart of what is now the Sacramento Valley.  He wanted to establish a “great colony” where the American River and the Sacramento River came together in the heart of what today is the City of Sacramento.  In 1841 he purchased the cattle and other “movable property” from the deserted Russian Fort at Fort Ross, up north along the Sonoma County coast.  Sutter’s wealth and importance to Central California grew, when he was granted 50,000 acres of prime land by Governor Alvarado, the Mexican governor of California.


Sutter called his tract of land New Helvetia, and using Indian and other labor built up his “fort”, from which he would rule his domain.  He desperately needed lumber, and in 1845 he contracted with James Marshall to build a sawmill along the South Fork of the American River in the Culloma Valley, about 40 miles east of New Helvetia and Sutter’s Fort.  By late 1847, construction on the sawmill and its supporting camp began. In January 1848, the sawmill was nearing completion, and on the 24th Marshall picked up some small golden flakes and nuggets.


After the discovery, Marshall quickly returned to New Helvetia where he and Sutter ran tests on the material and determined it was indeed gold.  The mill crew was sworn to secrecy, but no matter how hard Sutter and Marshall tried to keep the discovery a secret, word got out.  Within a few months Sutter’s sawmill site was overrun by gold miners, and within a year he and Marshall were nearly destroyed by the stampede of people from all over the world.  They were unable to obtain mineral rights for the property, while thousands of squatting miners usurped it, stripping it of its gold, leaving Sutter powerless to legally do anything about it.


Two years after the gold rush began, Sutter left California, a broken and penniless man.  James Marshall didn’t fare much better either.  Long after their deaths, history has finally awarded them the position they deserve, as the harbingers of the gold rush.


The site of Sutter’s Sawmill rapidly became a booming gold mining town as thousands of miners flocked to the golden riverbanks. Stores were quickly established, selling provisions for highly inflated prices to those that didn’t come prepared.  Coloma was the first gold rush boomtown, but it didn’t last long. 


A walk along the now quiet streets of this wonderful little town evokes the aura and mystery of the gold rush.  The first stop should be the visitor center where after paying the nominal entrance fee, you can view displays that breathe life into 150 years of history.  Here also you can add books on local history to your personal library.


But, to really appreciate and become one with the town’s heritage, pick up the walking-tour brochure and stroll the main street.  Here both buildings and vacant lots contain small plaques with vignettes of the town’s history.  The main street follows along the South Fork of the American River, which flows south to north past the sleepy community.  In the heart of town a 1930s-era bridge reaches across the gold bearing gravels of the river.  If you enjoy gold panning, the riverbanks are open for recreational panning (no shovels or power equipment or metal detectors).


A short distance north of the bridge a large cairn of river-rock marks the site of the original sawmill.  Midway between the mill site and the bridge is a reproduction of the sawmill and a small building containing timbers from the original mill.


Just west of the mill is the “Mormon Cabin,” a reproduction of the cabin that housed some of the sawmill workers.  


Across State Highway (SH) 49 are two squat rock structures with green and black painted iron shutters.  These rebuilt stores were in the center of Coloma’s Chinatown, once one of the largest in the state.  It was destroyed by fire in 1883.  During the mid-1850s, the Chinese accounted for nearly 20% of the total population in the mining region.  They were generally heavily discriminated against, and were not allowed free association.  Most lived in squalid shanty-towns, called “Chinatowns” in most major mining camps.  The Man Lee and Wah Hop stores are furnished as a museum and show how they acted as the community center for the Chinese populace.


South of the bridge road, along the west side of the highway, are a couple small white houses.  The first structure housed the “Coloma Greys”, and was built in 1855.  The larger white clapboard structure just to the south is the 1856 Weller house.  Mr. Weller owned a general merchandise business in town, but his store is now just a site.


Down the road a tad are the 1885 Papini House, and the 1854 IOOF Hall.  Across the highway, starting form the south end is the 1921 Coloma School house.  It is not the first school building in town.  That honor goes to a structure that was built in 1851 near the site of the present building.  In 1858, the abandoned courthouse was remodeled into a school, and the first building abandoned.  On Sep 02, 1919 the courthouse/school burned, and a new structure had to be built.  Nine miles away, an abandoned schoolhouse was torn apart and brought to town where it was reassembled.  On Jan 14, 1921 the new building was dedicated. 


In 1957 the school was closed, as the county reconsolidated all of the small school districts.  In 1963 the building became an antique shop, and in 1978 it was purchased by the state.  Restoration began in 1984, and in July 1987 it was opened as a museum.  BUT...fate sometimes lends an interesting hand to man’s best interests.  Three months later a runaway logging truck with 72,000 pounds of logs remodeled the building.  Unfortunately the truck and driver were uninsured, and $44,000 worth of damage to the structure occurred.  Money was raised, and on September 09, 1995 the building was re-dedicated.


Other buildings of interest on the east side of the street include the brick shell of the 1855 Bell’s Store, a row of four small buildings (one housing the present post office), and the 1852 Bekeart’s Gun Store, which even today is still a gun shop.  Scattered to the west of the main street is the 1849 Pioneer Cemetery with over 600 graves, the remains of the old jail and the Coloma Winery.  A replica of James Marshall’s cabin stands just below a large statue of the ill-fated construction foreman who started it all.


Unfortunately time has been unkind to this historic old community.  The early miners tore down buildings to get at the gold under them, and left behind holes where places like the Fashion Saloon, Coloma Brewery, Winter’s Hotel and the American Hotel once stood.  Plaques with historical vignettes mark the sites today.


Coloma nestles in the trees along the west bank of the northward flowing South Fork of the American River, eight miles north of Placerville, some 40 miles east of Sacramento.  Come visit Coloma, the birthplace of the California Gold Rush!  It is well worth a visit. A visitor center shares the history of this wonderful old mining town.  Coloma is California Historic Landmark #143 & 530.


COLOMA also has its own website, and State Park website.


This was our GHOST TOWN OF THE MONTH for February 1999.



·        SW¼ Sec 17, T11N, R10E, Mount Diablo Meridian

·        Latitude: 38.7999014 / 38° 48’ 00” N

·        Longitude: -120.8902160 / 120° 53 25” W




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FIRST POSTED:  February 01, 1999

LAST UPDATED: September 21, 2009






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