COLOMA — The place that triggered California’s two-year journey from wilderness to statehood and ballooned San Francisco’s population 2,000 percent in 20 months today is a quiet wide spot along Highway 49 that winds through the Gold Country from Nevada City in the north to Sonora in the south.
Every fifth grader in California knows Coloma is where James W. Marshall discovered gold on Jan. 24, 1848 while working on a sawmill along the American River to supply lumber to Sutter’s Fort some 45 miles to the west in what is today Sacramento. That discovery took California — that today has 39.5 million residents — from a non-Indian population of 14,000 to 200,000 within two years.
Coloma, roughly a two-and-a-half hour drive via Highways 99, 50 and 49 or a more pleasant sightseeing drive taking Highways 120, 108 and 49 through the spine of the Gold Country — is home to the Marshall Gold Discovery Park.
And while Coloma has a multitude of river recreation attractions once the weather warms, visiting the El Dorado County community that has a tad more than 300 residents in the Lotus Valley area where it is located, there is something magical venturing there during the same month gold was discovered 170 years ago.
It might be the bright and deep greens that sweep over the hills thanks to the rainy season. By March, the Sierra foothills and its blankets of oak trees will turn to golden hues. That in itself makes it a classic Sunday — or Saturday — drive as you pass through or by historic mining towns such as Jamestown, Sonora, Columbia, Angels Camp, Murphys, Jackson, Sutter Creek, and Ione, to name a few. The Highway 120/108 journey also takes you across New Melones Reservoir struggling to reach 30 percent of its design capacity of 2.4 million acre feet of water.
The state park features a replica of the sawmill that started it all as well as more than 20 historic buildings including a school, stores, housing, and mining structures.
Overlooking the park from a hill above is California’s first historic monument. Fittingly, it is a statue of James Marshall pointing toward the gold discovery site below.
A gold discovery tour is offered twice or more a day if weather permits. You can call the museum at 530-622-3470 for times. The tours are not offered during special events such as Second Saturday of every month.
During the ‘second Saturday’ special programs, docents are throughout the park dressed in period costumes. They engage visitors in discussions about the 1850s and other various demonstrations. Attendees are invited to participate in Dutch oven cooking, candle dipping, rope making, period games, and sawmill wood working. There are also Indian grinding rocks and other points of interest.
There are several easy hiking trails as well as picnic areas if you choose to pack a lunch.
If not, the small burgs along Highway 49 offer plenty of quaint restaurants and cafes or — if you prefer — chain style establishments in and around Jackson and Sonora.
The drive alone is worth it although history buffs and the curious alike will enjoy a leisurely stroll through and to the various state park sites. This is the place that inspired the phrase “and the world rush in” given that the gold rush triggered what still stands as the greatest migration in the Western Hemisphere.