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Relive the California Gold Rush

Jonas Sutter did not discover gold in California. In fact, the discovery of gold by James Marshall, at the location of the new sawmill site belonging to Sutter, was a very expensive venture for both Sutter and Marshall. Both men attempted to keep the gold discovery a secret so that they could finish the work which they had begun on two different projects.

Unfortunately, it was impossible to keep the secret for long. Within two weeks of the first sighting of the few flakes of gold in the stream next to the new sawmill, there were people everywhere searching for more gold.

Many of the prospectors badgered Marshall constantly because they thought he had the secret to finding gold since he was a one who discovered it in the first place. Marshall finally left California to get away from the golddiggers and is said to have died in apparent poverty.

Meanwhile the Indians, Mormons and gentiles employed by Sutter abandoned their work after becoming struck by gold fever. Sutter established several camps to help former employees in their search for gold. These efforts failed and Sutters Mill and other projects also failed or were left without workers as most of the men became prospectors or vendors of supplies for prospectors.

The site of Sutters sawmill in Coloma, Calif., is now home to Marshall Gold Discovery State Park. This park offers a visitors center with five different videos which are shown on request of the audience. These videos are about different phases of the discovery of gold.

Sutters 2 -- reconstructed mill
A reconstruction of the famed Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, Calif.

Self-guided tours then lead to a few stone buildings which remain from the original town of Coloma. There are also reconstructed buildings including a sawmill, blacksmith shop and a few other shops.

The state park grounds offer many picnic tables and access to the river. However there is no RV parking or camping on the state park grounds. After crossing the river on a narrow, one-way, ancient bridge, there is an RV park with several camping sites immediately on the riverbank. At those sites, the sound of a flowing river may provide soothing music for RVers and tent campers.

There is a small resort complex with lodging nearby. Rather than stay overnight in Coloma, you may wish to drive nine miles down California Hwy. 49 to Placerville/Hangtown for improved lodging. Because I did not have my motorhome, I actually stayed at the historic Cary House Hotel in the center of Hangtown.

Cary House

Placerville — The Old West hanging town

Placerville is located midway between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe at the intersection of California highways 49 and 50. Many events are scheduled annually in this town and county. Several museums, a few RV resorts and more than 70 wineries are located in and near this living remnant of the ‘49er Gold Rush days.

Take your choice of names, this is still the county seat of El Dorado County, a designation wrestled from Coloma at a time when both were growing, successful towns. Known as Hangtown due to several hanging events that occurred during the gold rush days, the town now features a man hanging above Hangman’s Tavern on Main Street as the local logo.

Across the street is the historic, haunted Cary House Hotel that has provided fine rooms for such celebs as Mark Twain, Gen. Ulysses Grant and Elvis Presley to name a few.

Cary House window

Four beautiful stained-glass windows highlight the lobby of this hotel which has been a centerpiece of the town since 1857. These stained-glass windows were created by a local artist when she was just 17 years old. Each depicts one of the four seasons.

This community has a definite four season climate. While attending a small function at the Cary House, I overheard one couple explain that they always want to stay in Room 212 with their expectation of experiencing a family of ghosts said to haunt that special room.

Further up Main Street is the Bell Tower, which was first purchased and used to announce fires that occurred in Hangtown. It is now a symbol of the past and located at a fork in Main Street.

Bell Tower

Near the Bell Tower is Placerville Hardware, possibly the most unique, colorful, intensely stocked hardware store in the United States. The store’s motto is, “If we don’t have it, then it does not belong in a hardware store.” Although the sign above the door declares Ace Hardware this is not just any Ace Hardware store. One feature of the hardware store are the ladders which reached to the ceiling.

Of course, the store is stocked with a magnificent variety of all types of goods on shelves which reach from the floor to the 14-foot ceilings. Each of several ladders is attached to a strong metal railing or track anchored in the ceiling. These ladders may be moved on their wheels along the wide aisles throughout the store to enable employees to reach items on the top shelves. These mobile ladders are entirely too tempting for children and even adults to ride on. Many have been disciplined for taking an unauthorized “ladder ride.”

However, I talked with two Placerville long-time senior residents who shared memories of their ladder rides when they were children.

About Dr. Bob Gorden

Dr. Bob Gorden is an RVer, hiker and writer. He has a PhD in microbial ecology from the University of Georgia in Athens. He is a retired research scientist from the University of Illinois Natural History Survey. He has owned and operated more than 55 RVs of various types, and has visited every state, except Hawaii, in his RV. He also traveled by RV in New Zealand, Canada and Mexico. He currently owns and travels in a 1978 GMC 26-foot Class A and 2013 Thor ACE 30.1 Class A motorhome. He has a compelling desire to be “On the Road Again!”

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