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Ringo Boitano: Highway 49 Revisited

Highway 49 Revisited
Exploring California's Gold Country
By Ringo Boitano

log cabin at old mining camp
Courtesy: Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park

There's Gold in Them Thar Hills

In the 1840s, the population of California was only 14,000, but by 1850 more than 100,000 settlers and adventurers had arrived from all over the world - and they came for one reason: gold. James Marshall had discovered the first gold nugget at Sutter’s Mill in El Dorado County, creating the largest gold rush in history.

portrait of James Marshall
James Marshall, the Discoverer of Gold.
Courtesy: Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park

Adventurers poured into the area in search of quick riches, creating a period in American history that has never been repeated. Mexican miners called the area La Veta Madre (The Mother Lode), and the locals called the new arrivals 49ers, due to their year of arrival. Camps and towns sprang up wherever gold was found, and then were abandoned when it ran out.

map of Highway 49
(Click on the map for enlargement)

Highway 49 Revisited

Today, visitors still flock from around the world to California Gold Country to discover the area’s rich history. Reminders of those glory days can be found everywhere along historic Highway 49, which runs 321 miles along the Heritage Corridor and links many of the 19th century Mother Lode mining towns. The region extends from the sweeping Sierra Nevada Foothills in the west to the spectacular mountains of the High Sierra in the east. This is an area brimming with state historic parks, like Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park and Columbia State Historic Park, allowing visitors a look into the days of the Gold Rush history. Almost 300 camps have vanished or are ghost towns in decay. Some are just a stop at the side of the road, but if it is Gold Rush history that you want – this is the place. On these back highways, visitors will also find a wealth of charming small towns with restored Victorian inns, boutiques, antique shops, and award-winning wineries. Scenic wonders include pristine lakes and rivers; giant sequoias, pines, cottonwoods, and oaks; and green hillsides, dotted with seasonal flow.

Gold Country South

Tuolumne County is the recreational and cultural center of the Gold Country. Conveniently located near Yosemite National Park, keep your eyes peeled when exploring the back roads, for a sign or plague can easily be missed, introducing you to an area of countless wonders.

Jamestown

When you see the sign, “Jamestown, California - Gateway to the Mother Lode!” you know you have arrived. Located on Highway 108/49, this small gold rush town is your first stop when visiting Tuolumne County. Main Street is lined with Victorian hotels, saloons, restaurants, antique shops and galleries. The "old west" atmosphere makes historic Jamestown the ideal place to introduce the family to the heritage, charm and authenticity of this historical Sierra Nevada foothill town.

Angels Camp

Angels Camp is nestled on scenic Highway 49, with a history similar to that of many California Gold Rush towns. In 1848 Henry Angel, a shopkeeper from Rhode Island, opened a trading post. Soon there were as many as 4,000 miners working the surface gold of Angels. Today, Angels Camp's population is nearly 3,000, and the entire town remains honeycombed with miles of mine tunnels. One of its most popular attractions is Moaning Caverns, an immense limestone miracle with a main cavern large enough to hold the Statue of Liberty, which is open to the public.

Columbia State Historic Park sign
Courtesy: Columbia State Historic Park

Columbia State Historic Park

Established in 1850, Columbia State Historic Park is the best preserved of all California gold rush towns. Once known as the "Gem of the Southern Mines,” over one-half billion dollars in gold (at today's currency rate) between the 1850s and 1870s was mined in the area. At that time it was the state’s second largest city. Today it is a year-round getaway that offers a unique blend of museums, displays, town tours, live theater, shops, restaurants and saloons. No other location offers a better overview of California’s gold rush history. This is an essential stop on your tour. Docents (trained volunteers) appear in costumes throughout the park, and interpret life in a California gold rush town with living history demonstrations, which give visitors a greater appreciation and understanding of California's early days. Popular events include the annual Columbia Diggin’s, which is a re-creation of the "tent town" days of early Columbia. Docents in costume and character perform various "scenes" depicting life in the rough and ready days of the early 1850s. Gold Rush Days are offered the second Saturday of each month. The park is located three miles north of Sonora, off Highway 49.

Chinese Camp

During the mid-1850s, an estimated five thousand Chinese immigrants from Canton lived in this area that was known by names like Chinee, Chinese Diggins and eventually Chinese Camp. Like everyone else, the Chinese came for the gold. Many had been driven away from other camps, and settled here due to the openness of the early population of Salvadorians, who accepted the outcast miners without problem. Others then gravitated to the camp, feeling safe and comfortable among others of their nationality. Chinese Camp is easy to find -- it's right on Highway 49 about 5 miles south of Jamestown. Today it has less than 200 residents, but there is ample evidence of its colorful past. Much of the camp, though, is in dissreappear and surrounded by barbed wire. St. Xavier’s Catholic Church (circa 1855) and cemetery sits on a hill, overlooking the town, and makes a great stop for photo opportunities.

Sonora

Known as the “Queen of the Southern Mines,” this pristine city offers historic charm with many of its existing buildings dating back to the 1800s. Even side streets are lined with Victorian homes and old-fashioned gardens that hark back to the days of ‘49. Mark Twain’s cabin, where he wrote "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" is located on Jackass Hill, just outside of Sonora.


Feedback for Ringo

I love Ringo's piece on historic hotels. I once stayed at the Laurentian in Montreal - is it still around, is it historic? And then there was the Heups in Bismark.

It is interesting that two of your entries are in CANADA.

Brent, Seattle, WA

It's no mystery that you are great at what you do.

Sandee, Seattle, WA

* * * *

The Mystery on the Oasis pics are very funny!

Ramon, Kansas City, MO

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Ha ha ha ha ha...love your "schtick" Ringo!!

Dolly, Las Vegas, NV

Hello the travelling Boitano's hope you enjoy. Best wishes.

Elsa Magdalena Berno-Boitano, Laussane, Switzerland

My Irish roots understand terrible beauty. So do my human roots. The concept has such a ring of truth to it, doesn't it? Great article, Ringo. I hope to get to Ireland eventually, and thanks for blazing the trail!

Sandeee Bleu, Seattle, WA

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No wonder I've been hearing all these wonderful stories about Ireland. I used to think that it was just for Irish Americans seeking their ancestral roots but your article seems to call out to the non-Irish like me. Fascinating and intriguing.

Peter Paul, Pasadena, CA

Thanks for this great post wow... it's very wonderful.

Key Logger, New York

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Lets not forget that the Marriot Harbor Beach is within walking distance to the world famous Elbo Room - Fort Lauderdale's oldest bar.

Jeff, Fort Lauderdale, FL

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Jeff–

Thanks for taking the time for the message and reminder. Indeed, I had a quick drink at the Elbo Room. My trip to Ft. Lauderdale would not have been complete without a visit to this historic institution.I have been reading about it for years, and was not disappointed. It felt like a real local's hangout.

- Ringo

Ringo,

I thoroughly enjoyed your article about Dick and Liz. I remember seeing that article back in the heyday of Life Magazine.

To remember the "behind-the-scenes" stories like that makes you genuine fan of the 60's. The famous couple's turbulent relationship was just a precursor of today's headline-grabbing media stars like Britney Spears and her colleagues. Life was simpler then. The paparazzis still had some sense of decency. You "coulda" been a good paparazzi. I say "coulda" because you kept this to yourself all these many years.

Looking forward to other media trivia you can remember.

Peter Paul, South Pasadena, CA

Hey, Ringo –

Enjoyed your article on Antarctica --- cool photos, too. One thing, you mentioned that Ushuaia in Argentina is considered the most southern city in the world. I read that Chile lays claim to that distinction, with Punta Arenas, the southernmost city in the world.

Mick, Greenbay, WI

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Mick –

Now that football season is over --- I’ve often wondered what you Packer fans did in the off season ---- it’s great that you took the time to visit TravelingBoy. Great question, unlike my older brother, I adore all lamb products, and Patagonian Lamb --- cooked in a restricted area at the restaurant in an opened wood-fueled fire pit --- is amazing. The chef actually uses an ax to carve it. Frankly, I found it superior to Norwegian fjord lamb, Irish Burren lamb and even those much esteemed creatures down in New Zealand. The crab in Ushuaia is the other thing to eat. Wait a sec, you asked about Punta Arenas vs. Ushuaia as the furthermost city in the world. Well, they both have little disclaimers re populations --- you know, what’s a city, which one is a town, ect – so better let Chile and Argentina brass it out. They seem to be able to argue about any subject.

- Ringo



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