California Gold Report

finding california's goldAnd now what you’ve all been waiting for — my official report on the California Gold Rush 2003 Vacation and Anniversary Celebration Tour (the title seems to get longer every time I mention it).

First, the facts. Yes, they did find gold in Northern California. Unfortunately, it was more than 150 years ago, and all the easy pickin’s (placer gold), have long been mined. Once I got over my disappointment, I was more easily able to enjoy my drive through the Sierras.

We started out by driving up Highway 99, which takes you through the heart of California. This is where the real gold is — orchards, and grapes, and lettuce, and nuts. If it can be grown and consumed, California’s central valley probably grows it.

The 99 is a long, straight, flat road. But it’s not as flat as you might think. There are times, you swear, that you are ever so slightly going up hill. I don’t think this is an optical illusion. A check of elevations finds, for example, that Pixley is at 271 feet, Tulare 288 and Fresno 296.

Our first proper stop on our trip was in Tulare, where there is a great Ag Center. It has a museum of old tractors and a fun learning center.

We spent our first night in Merced, which is a cute little town that I would like to revisit some time and explore more thoroughly. After a swim in a motel pool and a good night’s rest, we headed up the 140 into Gold Country. Our first gold mining town was Mariposa. It’s a pretty tourist stop, serving as sort of a gateway to Gold Country and Yosemite. Lawyers would appreciate a stop at the Mariposa Courthouse, which is the oldest, still operational courthouse in the state.

After a couple of hours in Mariposa, we headed north on Highway 49. The 49, which actually starts far north of Mariposa in Oakhurst, strings together a whole collection of old gold mining towns (Gold Rush of 1849, the 49ers, Highway 49 — get it?). Our trip, over two and a half days would take us all the way to Placerville, with stops overnight in Jamestown and Plymouth.

I’m sure we didn’t see all there is to see along the 49. There are probably about 75 historical markers along the highway (we stopped and read many of them), and we would have made slow progress indeed if we parked every time we saw a sign for a museum (we were busy enough stopping at about a third of the antique stores we saw, and all of the bookstores and even a couple of thrift stores).

The best museums were in Mariposa and San Andreas. The best “preserved” gold rush towns were Columbia City and Coloma. The stories these points of historical interest tell gives you a pretty good idea of what life during the Gold Rush was like. It was hard, dangerous, rarely rewarding, sometimes entertaining existence, but made enough men their fortunes that you can’t blame any man (or woman, and there were a few) for taking the huge risk and trying to strike a claim.

The house we stayed in on our anniversary night was in Plymouth. It’s a bed and breakfast called the Plymouth House Inn. It’s been a B&B since the 1970s. It’s a beautiful house, well appointed and comfortable (with a first class breakfast served by the charming proprietress Sandra) and was originally build in the 1880s Dr. E.V. Tiffany, who made enough money digging for gold that he put himself through medical school. After school, he returned to Plymouth and built his house (and doctor’s office) over his old mine. The old mine is now a bar under the house called the “Mine Shaft.”

From Plymouth, we cut through Placerville on our way to Coloma and the site of Sutter’s Mill. It was in a tailrace about 50 yards from the actual mill that James Marshall actually first spotted gold. The old town of Coloma, and area surrounding the old mill (now reconstructed in a different location) is a state park. We spent a good three hours in the park. Even though few of the old buildings still stand, the park service did a great job of putting up signs explaining where everything once was.

Sutter’s Mill was pretty much the end of the Gold Tour part of our vacation. We might a quick swing through Sacramento, doing a quick tour of the Capitol Building. I tried to find some of my old co-workers, but one woman apparently no longer works for the legislature (that’s a surprise) and Bill Cavala, the mastermind behind many Democratic campaigns in this state, works out of a building that now requires ID passes to enter.

I wanted to have a drink at Posey’s, a famous (infamous?) Capitol bar, but all that appears to be left is the sign. If the little outdoor cafe that’s there now is still called Posey’s, I doubt it’s the same atmosphere I was introduced to by Cavala in 1993. It didn’t look the same to me, so we didn’t stop.

The trip back south on the 99 included a luncheon stop at Pollardville, which is probably only a shadow of its past glory, but still a great, campy find outside of Stockton.

We had such great luck in finding classic motels in Merced (we didn’t even stay in the best one because we didn’t find the really cool ones until the next day) that we thought we’d try our luck in Lodi or Stockton. Lodi’s motels were all fleabags, and while driving down the main drag in Stockton, we saw several prostitutes and decided maybe Stockton wasn’t our kind of town.

On the way to Modesto, I suggested to my wife that if the Modesto A’s were in town, maybe we could stay in Modesto two nights and catch a minor league ball game. She thought that was a great idea, so we got ourselves a nice room at a chain hotel and settled in for an “extended” stay.

Minor league baseball is a lot of fun. It’s been a couple of decades since I went to a lower league game, and I’d never seen Class A teams play before, but it’s still baseball and these guys are professionals. It’s not a sloppy or poorly played game at all. Modesto won, which was fine by me.

At the game, some nine candidates for governor showed up and shook hands and threw ceremonial baseballs. For some, I imagine, this will be about the biggest highlight of their political career.

Around the 7th inning, I decided to wonder around the stadium a bit, and all but one candidate had left the promenade. That was Brooke Adams. Adams is 25, an independent, and running for office for the first time. I asked her why she was running and she talked about the problems of the state and how many people were leaving because of those problems. I said, “Let’s be honest, you haven’t got a chance to win, so why do it?” “I think I can win,” she said. “I’m getting a lot of coverage in small town papers and I’m starting to get some name recognition. People are fed up and I think they’re looking for a change.” (or something like that … not an exact quote).

We’ll see.

When you plan a vacation, especially one as important as this one was to us, you’re always nervous. Many things can go wrong. Our vacation, I would say, was about as perfect as they come. We had a great time, enjoyed each other’s company immensely, and even learned a thing or two about our state. For nearly a week, I got to spend everyday pretending I was Huell Howser (though it would have been more fun if I’d had a video camera for the trip). We also met many fine Californians (who uniformly seem to favor recalling Gray Davis, but are leery of voting for Arnold … that’s my very unscientific, unprompted poll … amazing how many people wanted to talk about this issue without prompting). California is a great state and I’m glad I got to spend some time exploring it. Next year, we might head into the same territory and see a few things we missed this time around.

I’ve peppered this post with links to related photos, but I have an entire slideshow/photo essay you can view (all of 71 photos) right here.

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