Our decision to explore the California Gold Country happened a bit by chance. We spent a day exploring Yosemite National Park and then headed west without reservations for the night. (Lodging in Yosemite is booked many months in advance, next time we'll plan ahead.) We drove along the Mariposa Scenic Byway 32 miles to Mariposa (pop. 2100). This is one of the closer towns to the park and happens to sit at the south end of Highway 49, a perfect starting point for a drive north toward Nevada City through the heart of the California Gold Country.
James Marshall discovered gold in the Sacramento River, and the gold rush began. It was 1849, and the arriving miners, known as the “forty-niners”, were coming to strike it rich. The California Gold Rush was one of the greatest migrations for the search of riches in the history of the world—more than 300,000 men (and a few women) crowded into the wilderness of Sierra Nevada in search of gold. Coming from China, Chile, Europe, Mexico, Canada, Central America, Australia, and the US, it was truly an international event that lasted for ten years. The heart of the gold country, where miners sought their Mother Lode, was along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada foothills. It stretched from Nevada City in the north to Mariposa in the south, which is where our road tour begins.
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We arrived in Mariposa after dark on this cool October and found lodging. I was anxious to head out the next morning for a stroll along the main street of this once-prosperous mining center. A highlight was my stop at the Mariposa Museum and History Center, which contains dozens of reconstructed interiors shown just as they were in the mid-1800s—including a sheriff's office, saloon, piano room, and a miner's cabin. The friendly staff made it all the more informative and fun to visit. I found a locally handmade rag doll in the gift shop for Mila's Xmas stocking. Rag dolls are easily made from scraps of material and are one of the most ancient children's toys in existence.
While I enjoyed the museum, Ron was happily working and enjoying the best hamburger of the trip at the Happy Burger Diner which was directly across the street.
After leaving here, we decide to drive north on the steep and windy roads of Highway 49, stopping to explore the dozens of small historic mining towns along the way—many of which have not changed much since the 19th century.
One of our first stops is ChineseCamp (pop. 126); home to 5,000 Chinese in the 1850s. One of every ten miners was Chinese. After the initial boom had ended, anti-foreign taxes and racist attacks sought to drive out foreigners—especially Chinese and Latin American immigrants. Many gravitated to San Francisco, where one of the largest Chinatowns outside of Asia exists today.
Next we drive about seven miles north to Jamestown (pop. 3400) in Tuolumne County that offers a restored and picture-perfect main street with many of the false-front buildings still standing. It is in this county that over 350 productions have been filmed including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Gunsmoke, High Noon, and Bonanza. Commercialism has crept in with many restaurants, antique stores, and gift shops. However, you still get a strong sense of the past here—just as you do in all of these small historic towns along Highway 49.
On the second night, we stayed near Sonora (pop 4800). This is one of the best preserved towns on the route. I picked up a brochure in the tourist office that highlights a walking tour of over 70 historical sites and homes in the town. I spent some time strolling around and tracing history through architecture until they all started looking a bit alike. I then entered the Tuolumne County Museum that was built in 1857 as the old county jail. It was rebuilt in 1866 after a fatal fire set by an inmate and continued to be in use until 1960. It was another well-done museum in this area that provided a private tour of the old jail cell, photograph collections, and a lot of interesting trivia. Before jails were built, there were public lynchings that became major events attended by all the townspeople—sometimes, with all of the drinking going on, even more killings occurred.
A modest number of miners were of African ancestry (about 4,000 at most) and came as free men. However, some were brought as slaves. One of the “laws” in prospecting was that the gold belonged to the man who discovered it. This provided a way for slaves to earn money during their off-hours. Many bought their freedom during the gold rush as a result of this policy.
|MURPHYS - TASTING ROOM|
As we drove further north, we discovered more and more wineries in the historic towns and surrounding countryside. Murphys (pop. 2,213) was established by two Irishmen back in 1848, and its historic Main Street is interspersed with 25 charming tasting rooms. We enjoyed a stop at the Frog's Tooth Winery. Most of the wineries offer free tastings provided you purchase a bottle of wine. Consequently, we arrived home with a half dozen colorfully labeled wine bottles to help us reminisce about our visit to the old west and a step back in time.