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Northern Gold Country

Along this 80-mile stretch of Route 49 you'll see picturesque towns, gold mines, stateparks, countless antique shops, and maybe get a glimpse of what life was like during the Gold Rush.

memorial at site of Sutter's Mill, image
Photo caption
A memorial on the American River in Coloma, Calif., marks the site of the original Sutter's Mill, where gold was discovered.

James Marshall started it all—but he may have gained the wrong impression when he discovered that first nugget. His gold strike was pretty easy; all Marshall had to do was pick it up. Nuggets never again came that easily to him—or to many other people.

But those thousands of hopefuls lured to California by the prospect of getting rich did manage to drag a lot of gold out of the ground anyway. To do it, they had to chip and blast through rock, grub through gravel beds, or—most colorfully—blast away hundreds of acres of land with high-pressure hoses. And, when not thus occupied, the ’49ers built a string of rawboned towns.

Large-scale mining may be gone for good, but California’s Gold Country still benefits from the extremely accessible legacy of the Gold Rush. State Route 49 winds through the heart of Gold Country, linking its towns and chief attractions. Route 49 is a long road; its indirect course covers over 300 miles, from Oakhurst in the south to beyond Yuba Pass in the north.

We explored the approximately 80 miles between Placerville, of hanging tree fame, and Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, where an abandoned town and acres of moonscape are what remain of the country’s biggest hydraulic mining operation. Along the way are mines to explore, historic towns, rolling California countryside, and the very spot where Marshall started the Gold Rush.

Colorful history presented as amusing quaintness is the stock in trade of much of Gold Country. Placerville offers a fair example. First known by the descriptive name "Dry Diggins," the mining camp became "Hangtown" after a triple hanging in 1849. The event looms large in local legend: Near the commemorative effigy that hangs by the neck from an upper story window on the town’s main street, a plaque notes that "hangman’s tree historic spot," including the original tree’s stump, is beneath the building.

Farther along, at the corner of Main and Sacramento, there’s a larger marker recalling that the Pony Express had a station there.

Although Placerville’s historic area includes many 19th-century buildings, probably the best gold-related sights are a little outside the immediate downtown: Gold Bug Park (a city park; go north on Bedford Avenue) and the El Dorado County Historical Museum, 104 Placerville Drive.

You could hardly ask for a more convenient hard-rock mine to explore than the Gold Bug, the country’s only municipally-owned gold mine. It’s level, straight, reasonably dry, and even has a flat floor and electric lights. It’s not particularly photogenic; the experience is akin to strolling through an uncommonly direct colon—but gold is where you find it, and this is a genuine, 19th-century hard-rock mine. Nearby, there’s a stamp mill accompanied by a working model that demonstrates the process of transforming boulders into gravel—the better to get at any gold that may be inside. Both mine and mill are worth your while.

The El Dorado County Museum has some unusually interesting exhibits. Its grounds resemble a salvage yard where old wagons, mining machinery, farm equipment, and railroad memorabilia (including a small locomotive) mingle with such items as a GE turret-top fridge and piles of material identifiable only by industrial archaeologists. But the jumble of more delicate exhibits inside the spacious building includes a Studebaker wheelbarrow (Studebaker later graduated to cars), Snowshoe Thompson’s skis, and a stagecoach. Those given to orderliness will see great opportunity here; everyone will find something of interest.

Despite having a classic tube-through-rock mine, Placerville got its name from placer mining—extracting gold from sand and gravel based on the fact that gold is denser than surrounding material and so can be separated from it by such methods as panning. The most historically appropriate place to indulge in a little panning is a few miles north, at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. You can buy a pan of time-hallowed design at the museum there.

Route 49 takes you right through the heart of Marshall Gold Discovery SHP—to within a few yards of a re-creation of Sutter’s Mill and the spot where Marshall got the ball rolling.

The park has many attractions and requires considerable leisurely strolling. Sutter’s Mill, Marshall’s cabin, the Marshall Monument, the discovery site, a nice museum, and many Gold Rush buildings are there to explore. Relax at the large picnic area; try panning along the river directly opposite the gold discovery site.

If time seems to have stopped in parts of Marshall SHP, progress has charged along in many of the other mining towns nearby. Auburn, where I-80 crosses SR 49, is probably the biggest and most bustling of the northern Gold Rush settlements. It has preserved a pleasant, concentrated Old Town area set off from the rest of the city. Touristy though Old Town may be, with at least its share of antiques shops and boutiques, you need squint only a little to imagine how this small neighborhood looked long ago.

Auburn’s Old Town has its belfry-topped firehouse and jumbo statue of local gold discoverer Claude Chana, but the city’s most noticeable—and perhaps handsomest—building is the hilltop Placer County Courthouse. Inside is an especially well designed museum and a visitor center where you can pick up a walking tour map.

The museum has exhibits on the Gold Rush, local Indians, farming, and daily life, but the most unusual exhibit is on transportation. A laser disc presentation on the Lincoln Highway and I-80, which clips a corner of Old Town, nicely summarizes the local history of those roads.

Route 49 loses a bit of its appeal in Auburn, where it becomes an urban sprawl strip without local character as you go north toward Empire Mine State Historic Park. Eventually, the road briefly becomes a freeway—as though a leftover bit of interstate were plopped down.

It may not have been immediately obvious from the relatively antiseptic example of Gold Bug Mine, but the most dangerous and unpleasant way to get at gold undoubtedly was hard-rock mining. That’s what they did until fairly recently at Empire Mine.

Only two years after Marshall’s strike, someone found gold in what is now the Empire Mine parking lot. But this gold was imbedded in rock. Unlike panning and to a degree far greater than hydraulicking, blasting and chipping solid rock proved a job requiring organization, capital, and technical skill.

The Bourn family provided the first two; Cornish miners provided the third, and the operation lasted until some 40 years ago. Underfoot, 367 miles of tunnels wind their way through the rock, some descending close to a mile beneath the surface.

Today, Empire Mine SHP is in two contrasting sections. One looks as you would imagine a mining operation to look on the surface: stone and corrugated steel buildings surrounded by gravel yards with large, slightly rusted machine parts forming a postindustrial sculpture garden.

The other part, where the owners lived, looks like an elegantly woodsy retreat for corporate bigwigs. There’s an informative visitor center with an explanatory, circa 1960 film that’s a classic of its kind ("Hi, I’m Troy McClure..."), and a small museum. You can also take a 50-minute mine tour (you don’t really go down into the mine, but do get an idea of how things were in the not-so-good old days).

Equally interesting are the frequent living history tours at the Willis Polk-designed Bourn home. Often, actors impersonating the Bourn family greet visitors. They portray such convincing formal domesticity you may feel you should have written to let them know you were on your way.

The Bourn home, while a somewhat later creation than Gold Rush buildings, seems appropriate to Grass Valley and Nevada City. Even the Gold Rush aspects of these towns appear unusually settled and prosperous.

Grass Valley especially has numerous attractions: The home of Lola Montez (dancer, entertainer, consort of kings and numerous 19th-century glitterati) is now the visitor center (248 Mill Street). Lotta Crabtree lived down the street at number 238 (the green house, much altered from its glory days, is a private home). The 1861 Holbrooke Hotel on Main Street hosted Gilded Age presidents and still welcomes guests today.

The 1865 Grass Valley Museum, which has an excellent collection of 19th-century domestic artifacts, is all the more interesting for its flower-decked, high-ceilinged Victorian architecture. It was an orphanage, and one can just picture the tykes asking for more porridge. The North Star Mining Museum, housed in a former powerhouse, displays enough mining equipment to satisfy any normal person’s urges in that direction for quite some time.

Of the towns along this part of Route 49, Nevada City probably has the biggest and nicest old central section. Its unusually attractive main street isn’t overly touristy, nor are the side streets, many with their share of old buildings and cameo views. Visit the museum (on two floors of the old firehouse); it concentrates more on domestic life than mining and has some artifacts from the Donner Party. The 1850s National Hotel is said to have hosted not only Lola and Lotta, but Black Bart, the highwayman poet. Aimless walking can be a rewarding experience in Nevada City.

The farthest you’ll have to stray from Route 49 on this trip is the approximately 17 miles to Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, which includes the small town of North Bloomfield, a museum, and many acres of moonscape. These are the remnants of hydraulic mining—the third method for getting at gold (panning and hard-rock mining being the other two).

Running water, such as the river where Marshall found his nuggets, can uncover gold, carry it along, and even concentrate it, getting rid of considerable useless dirt in the process. But streams often are slow, inconveniently situated, difficult to discipline. In most places they make only low-pressure efforts at erosion. Nature’s leisurely pace is hardly adequate for economic mining; the ’49ers knew they could do better.

The first improvement on nature’s hydraulics was diverting streams to more promising locations. But water still flowed too languidly for large-scale washing away of mountainsides. By 1853, hoses and nozzles had pretty much solved that problem.

Hydraulic miners used their huge, high-pressure equipment to blow away entire hills. They directed the resulting mud through troughs where the heavy gold had a chance to settle out against wooden blocks attached to the trough bottom. Then they returned everything else to nature somewhat the worse for its experience—to a stream that, if all went well, took at least some of the mud and gravel away. This is how the 1,200 residents of North Bloomfield created the biggest, richest hydraulic gold mine in the world.

A lot of gold came out of the resulting crater, but people downstream grew increasingly unhappy as thousands of tons of tailings caused rivers to silt up and flood. A landmark California court decision in 1884 placed enough restrictions on hydraulicking to make it relatively uneconomical. Although the end was in sight for North Bloomfield, hydraulic mining didn’t entirely peter out until 1910.

Today, the gold and the people are gone, but both town and crater remain. The white buildings along North Bloomfield’s bucolic main street—out of sight of the pit—make this part of the park look more like small town New England on Sunday afternoon than a rawboned mining town. The museum gives a good overview of what was here during the mine’s rise and fall. Pick up the map/brochure to get the most from your park exploration.

There’s a short drive down the road to where the main moonscape is. A trail beginning near an overlook takes you into the diggings. You’ll find an even better viewing point a few yards into the woods across the street from the church. A nozzle there points to the LeDu Mine, another open pit, which isn’t immediately visible but appears after a few yards’ walk.

Photography courtesy of Bobak Ha'Eri/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in May 1998. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.