Golden memories glitter in Coloma on Jan. 24

By Janet Fullwood
Bee Travel Editor
Published Jan. 11, 1998

The grounds will be swarming with prospectors. Buckskin-clad mountain men will come out of the woods to participate. Children will sing, speech-makers will pontificate, scholars and historians will weigh in with their theories. Meanwhile, visitors can entertain themselves with food, wine, music, dancing, games and gawking as they witness the arrival of a wagon train and try their luck panning for gold.

It may not go down in the history books, but the 150th-anniversary observance of James Marshall's discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill on the American River nevertheless figures to be one of the defining events of the year in Northern California.

Coloma miners
Costumed characters help bring Gold Rush history to life in Coloma.

Bee photo: Dick Schmidt

Organizers are expecting as many as 15,000 people a day to attend the Coloma Gold Discovery Days Sesquicentennial, a Jan. 23-25 shindig that kicks off with an evening gala (1840s attire encouraged) and continues with two days of activities themed around those heady days of 1848-50.

"There will be nothing like this weekend again in our lifetimes," promises event planner Carolyn Taylor.

The three-day observance takes place at Marshall Gold Discovery State Park in Coloma, where James Marshall plucked that first prodigious nugget out of the American River on Jan. 24, 1848. Despite January's reputation for fickle weather, organizers promise that, come rain, snow or shine, the show will go on.

"Unless it's an absolute downpour, we've got it covered. We have huge tents with enough room for everybody. It'll be fun, warm and dry," Taylor said.

Visitors to the riverside site will find a recreated gold-mining camp as it would have been between 1848 and 1852, along with a merchant's market representative of 1848, musicians entertaining with 19th century tunes and 49er characters (that's people from 1849, not football players) strolling and telling their stories.

Mining activities of the era will be showcased, and Gov. Pete Wilson is tentatively scheduled to make a 10 a.m. appearance on Jan. 24, about the same time a wagon train from Madera rolls down Coloma's main street.

About 400 to 500 people, many of them volunteers, have been involved in putting on the Gold Discovery Days event, which has been in the planning stages since 1992, said park supervisor Matt Sugarman.

The weekend's program relies heavily on living history re-enactors to communicate the spirit of the times. Highlights will include four "Chautauqua" presentations by historians presenting themselves as characters from Gold Rush days. Featured will be John Sutter, Sacramento's founder and proprietor of the mill where the first gold was found; Lee Fong Chong, a Chinese herbalist; Dame Shirley, a woman who came to the goldfields in 1849; and Jose Jesus, an American Indian who worked for the Californios prior to the Gold Rush.

"Everybody looks at the Gold Rush and sees a Caucasian face, but for the most part it was not that way at all. It was very multiethnic, and that's what we're trying to portray," said Sugarman.

The weekend will have its serious side, too, as Gold Rush scholars and authors from around the country gather to present symposiums and panel discussions, and to dedicate a Gold Rush Research Library.

Gold Discovery Days kicks off a three-year, statewide celebration of the 1848 discovery of gold, the 1849 Gold Rush and subsequent statehood in 1850. Dozens of communities have scheduled festivals, historic reenactments and other special events tied to the grandly named California Gold Discovery to Statehood Sesquicentennial. A calendar of events can be obtained by calling 653-9599. Also, look for a special sesquicentennial edition of The Bee to be published next Sunday.

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