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Jamestown and Columbia: Mining the Past

They're mining the past in Jamestown and Columbia.

The Emporium in Jamestown California, image
Photo caption
The Emporium in Jamestown, built in 1897, started off as a department store. These days it sells antiques.

There was a lot of gold in them thar Sierra foothills. There probably still is, but the real mining these days in Gold Country is of the area’s history and the gold rush atmosphere that still lingers, in somewhat gentrified form, among its picturesque small towns. Two of the best places to enjoy a weekend of mid-19th-century California with amenities of the late-20th century are Jamestown and Columbia. They’re only a few miles apart in California’s southern Gold Country.

Jamestown survives mostly as a picturesque main street. "The Queen of the Southern Mines" looks like a Gold Rush town cleaned up and thoughtfully modernized (which is exactly what it is), but its heritage is obvious. Many 19th-century buildings survive along this cheerful street. It’s easy to picture gambling joints and saloons alternating with each other along its few blocks, even though the old buildings now are more likely to house B&Bs and antique shops.

Stop in at the Visitor Center in the Royal Hotel building and pick up a copy of "Early Days in Jamestown" for a walking tour of Main Street and some local history. Browse the antique shops (a dozen by the Visitor Center’s official count), get a "Cowboy Collectible," take a gold-panning tour, pause for home-made pastry and coffee at the Coffee Emporium or for a bracer at the Willow Steak House & Saloon. Sounds of extroverted camaraderie floating from the bar’s capacity crowd at 3:30 the day we were in town made television beer ads seem less an exaggeration.

Be sure to follow the signs a couple of blocks to Railtown 1897 State Park. Jamestown has had a real railroad since the 1890s. The Sierra RR still has its original steam locomotive (built in 1891 and familiar to "Petticoat Junction" viewers). Over a hundred movies and a bunch of television programs have been filmed along the Sierra’s tracks.

Now run by The California State Railroad Museum, the park offers self-guided tours of the working turn-of-the-century machine shops and roundhouse where four steam locomotives are maintained. You can take steam train rides weekends May through Labor Day on the hour from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. There’s a newly created history room in the depot, and picnic tables on the shaded, grassy area between the wisteria and the roundhouse.

While Jamestown looks like a somewhat evolved, if well-preserved, Gold Rush town, Columbia seems to have changed very little in 140 years. Jamestown was already a going concern in 1850 when gold was discovered in Columbia. The title of Queen having been taken, Columbia soon became "The Gem of the Southern Mines" and quickly grew to a raucous peak of several thousand hopefuls.

The place still is a gem, and it still can get crowded, especially on weekends. Although a state park and a preserved bit of the 19th century, Columbia is also to some extent a going concern. The blacksmith shop, carpenter shop, bakery, confectioners, two hotels (more accurately, B&Bs), restaurants, a saloon or two, and stores line the streets.

You can still ride the stagecoach. Gold panning opportunities still exist; get a little practice at the handy troughs by the Matelot Gold Mine Supply Store (where you also can buy a ticket for a gold mine tour). Stop by the fire station for a look at some truly antediluvian equipment. After dinner, enjoy an evening of theater at a Columbia Actors’ Repertory presentation in the Fallon House, (209) 532-4644. 

Photography courtesy of EPoelzl/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in July 1997. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.