Columbia about picture-perfect as preserved Gold Rush town

By Janet Fullwood
Bee Travel Editor
Published May 3, 1998

Columbia State Historic Park
Gold panning, tours of gold mines and gold jewelry are all offered through this shop in Columbia State Historic Park.

Janet Fullwood photograph

COLUMBIA STATE HISTORIC PARK -- If Main Street looks familiar, with its Old West storefronts and dusty stagecoach making the rounds, that's because everyone who grew up in America has probably seen it before, either on a movie screen or on TV.

"Let's see," recollects park ranger Sherrin Grout, counting on her fingers, " 'High Noon' was filmed here, 'Little House on the Prairie,' 'Young Guns,' 'Bonanza Returns,' 'Shadow Ridge,' the 'Wells Fargo' TV show, 'Hopalong Cassidy' . . . I could go on and on.

"One of the advantages of filming in Columbia," she adds, "is that there are no overhead wires. They don't have to do anything but put dirt on the streets."

California's best-preserved Gold Rush town is a hit with producers for the same reason it's a hit with tourists: "It's real," explains Grout. "It's not prettied-up or make-believe. In the early morning and evening, especially, it's easy to imagine what the town would have been like."

What it's like now is, well, unlike any other state park in California. The park consists of approximately four tree-lined blocks of brick and wood buildings harkening to the 1850s, when Columbia, with perhaps 6,000 residents, was the state's second-largest city after San Francisco.

Some of the buildings are originals (though most of the originals burned down in devastating 19th century fires), and some have been reconstructed. And they don't just stand there empty, like museum pieces. Many are occupied by park concessionaires -- small businesses whose proprietors, in period clothing, sell merchandise tied, however loosely, to the Gold Rush era.

You can sip a sarsaparilla in Columbia, or buy your daughter a bonnet or your son a coonskin cap, but you won't find a T-shirt shop here.

Columbia's history, which began with the discovery of gold in March 1850, is told in an intriguing museum filled with relics of the times. A film, shown throughout the day, puts the exhibits into context. Visitors learn how, by 1852, Columbia had become one of the most prosperous towns in the Mother Lode, with more than 150 businesses, a fifth of them saloons. To overcome a shortage of water, elaborate systems of ditches and flumes were built to tap the Stanislaus River, some 20 miles distant, for mining operations near town. Underground cisterns, meanwhile, held water for firefighting purposes (and still do).

Evidence of 1850s mining still can be seen, most glaringly in the outcroppings of limestone bedrock at one end of town. What looks like a rock sculpture garden was in fact blasted into being by high-pressure hydraulic hoses. Today it's an irresistible lure for kids.

Elsewhere around town, visitors can go for a stagecoach or pony ride, have their pictures taken in old-timey garb, visit a working gold mine or pan for gold in seeded troughs. Those activities cost money, but it doesn't cost a dime to watch a blacksmith at work, examine a collection of buggies or peer into the windows of miner's cabin, butcher shop, firehouse, drugstore, Chinese herbalist shop, dentist's office, assay office and Wells Fargo station.

Two of the hundreds of artifacts on display are especially gripping: a set of 19th century dental tools (ouch!) and the original balance scale used by Wells Fargo agents in Columbia to weigh more than 1.4 million ounces of gold. A sign claims that the instrument was so precise it could weigh a signature in pencil on a piece of paper.

When hunger strikes, visitors have choices: The state park includes within its boundaries three restaurants, an ice cream shop, a small grocery store and picnic grounds. It also boasts two operating hotels, the City Hotel and Fallon Hotel, both of which offer lovely, high-ceilinged rooms furnished with antiques. The City Hotel's restaurant is justifiably acclaimed, if pricey, with dinner entrees in the $24 range.

And Columbia might be the only state park in California to boast two saloons (the St. Charles and the What Cheer) and a theater. The historic Fallon House Theater, where miners once came to see raucous traveling shows, is today home base to the Sierra Repertory Theatre. Its recent production of "Dames at Sea," a musical set in the 1930s, featured rollicking tunes and tap dance that kept kids and adults alike heartily entertained. Coming up: "The Unvarnished Truth," May 15-June 14; and "SUDS," July 3-Aug. 23.

Operated as a living, breathing town, Columbia manages to instruct without feeling stuffy. The overall feel -- minus the asphalted streets -- is about as authentic as can be found at the end of the 20th century.

"Columbia was what most people experienced during the Gold Rush," says Grout. "Most people didn't get rich, but they made a living for themselves and their families."

Bruce Thomsen, district interpretive specialist for the park, takes that sentiment a bit farther: "What I like about Columbia is that it's very typical of all the California Gold Rush towns," he says. "It had canvas and wood buildings that would burn down and be built again, burn down and be built again -- in brick, which is mostly what survived."

When the mining boom ended in the 1870s, Columbia's population shrunk to a few hundred. Although the town was in a state of dilapidation by the 1940s, when the state began assessing its potential as a historic park (the designation came in 1945), it never became a ghost town. "It was just far enough from the highway not to have been modernized, but just close enough that it had been maintained. Its integrity was there," said Thomsen.

To an amazing degree, it still is.

Travel wise: Columbia State Historic Park

Getting there: Columbia is about 100 miles southeast of Sacramento, on Parrotts Ferry Road off Highway 49, between Sonora and Angels Camp.

The scenic route from Sacramento is Highway 16 east to Highway 49, and 49 south through Amador City, Jackson, Sutter Creek, San Andreas and Angels Camp. The Columbia turnoff, a few miles before Sonora, is well marked with road signs.

Another way is Highway 99 south from Sacramento to Highway 4, east on 4 to Angels Camp, and south on 49 to the Columbia cutoff.

Allow a minimum of 21/2 hours for the trip.

Hours: The park is open daily except Thanksgiving and Christmas. The museum and most exhibits are open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; stores keep their own hours. Some stores and attractions close on Mondays and during bad weather. There is no charge either for parking or for admission to the town.

Reservations: At the City Hotel, call (209) 532-1479. The Fallon Hotel can be reached at (209) 532-1470.

Other lodging choices within walking distance of the park include the Blue Nile Inn, (209) 532-8041, and Harlan House Bed-and-Breakfast, (209) 533-4862.

For Fallon House Theatre tickets, call (209) 532-3120.

Special events: Living history events and other activities are scheduled weekends throughout the year. The most popular annual events include Columbia Diggins living history days (June 4-6), the annual Fourth of July Celebration, the Poison Oak Show (Sept. 26), the Banjo and Fiddle Contest (Oct. 3) and Miner's Christmas (Dec. 5,6,12 and 13).

Reservations are needed far in advance for the Docent Lamplight Tours on Dec. 4-5 and the City Hotel Victorian Feasts Dec. 1-20.

For more information: For questions about the park, call (209) 532-0150. For information on events, lodging, dining and such, call the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, (209) 536-1672.

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