California: Columbia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A National Historic Landmark, this gold rush town, called the “Gem of the Southern Mines,” yielded fifty million dollars in gold deposits between 1850 and 1870; during its boom in the 1850’s, it was the second-largest city in California and narrowly missed selection as the state capital. The majority of the restored buildings can be found within Columbia State Historic Park.

Site Office

Columbia State Historic Park

P.O. Box 151

Columbia, CA 95310

ph.: (209) 532-0150

fax: (209) 532-5064

e-mail: calaver@goldrush.com

Columbia had a meteoric rise after gold was found in the dry Columbia Gulch by five miners in 1850. The relative accessibility, large amount, and rich character of the gold extracted made the settlement grow so quickly that within three years it was one of the largest mining camps in California. More gold was mined from gravel in the 640 acres around Columbia than from any other equal area in the Western Hemisphere. With the decline in mining, Columbia’s population diminished to a few hundred by the late 1860’s, but Columbia never became a ghost town.

The town has been well preserved and resembles its gold rush-era prime of the 1850’s and 1860’s. It has an unparalleled collection of reconstructed buildings and mining artifacts. Many of the early commercial buildings have been returned to operation as restaurants, hotels, and theaters. Once called the “Gem of the Southern Mines” for its gold output, Columbia, during its peak, had fifteen thousand miners working its gold fields.

Gold Is Discovered

Dr. Thaddeus Hildreth and a group of four other prospectors that included his brother George, William Jones, John Walker, and Alexander Carson discovered gold in Columbia on March 27, 1850. Hildreth’s party chose to camp for a night near the spot that was to become Columbia’s Main Street. The next morning, after a rainstorm forced them to wait and dry their blankets, John Walker went prospecting and recovered an ounce of gold dust in the Columbia Gulch. In the next two days, they took out thirty pounds of gold, and news of the incredible strike spread to nearby Sonora.

After word reached the older Mother Lode mining camps, which had been established between 1848 and 1849, miners began to pour into the Columbia foothills. Within one month, five thousand miners had pitched their tents in search of gold near the gulch that led to the Kennebec Hill. The spot was originally called Hildreth’s Diggings, then the name was changed to American Camp, and finally in 1851 to Columbia.

The stampede into Columbia was representative of the phenomenal growth throughout the Sierra foothills region. From 1848 to 1852, the population of the three-hundred-mile area from Downieville in the north to Mariposa in the south exploded from 400 to 100,000 miners, and five hundred new towns sprang up overnight. The early miners who came to Columbia could be successful at their trade with the simplest tools. A pan and shovel were all that were necessary as the miners frequently worked river and creek beds or dry ravines whose streams had changed course.

California was sweeping to the forefront of the nation’s mind. Armies of individuals and “California mining associations” quickly prepared to make the trek west. Mail steamers via the Isthmus of Panama were the fastest way to get to the mines. While moving across the jungles of Panama, the enthusiastic travelers taught the native canoemen the gold rush song “O Susannah.” When arriving by ship in San Francisco, they fanned out to the booming mining camps.

The geologic history of Columbia made the area particularly well suited to become one of the richest districts in the Sierra Nevada. The town stands in the center of a flat open valley underlain with prevolcanic limestone deeply pitted with retentive potholes. As the surrounding foothills began to erode, gold fragments became lodged in crevices all across the two-mile-wide Columbia basin.

Rapid Growth of the Town

In the spring of 1851, Columbia continued to grow at an explosive rate. Main Street was home to forty saloons and gambling halls with a combined capital of two million dollars. According to historian Robert O’Brien, “there were seventeen general stores, eight hotels, three churches, three theatres, two fire companies, and four banks,” all on land that one year before had been an open area surrounded by a forest of oak trees. By September, 1851, a citizens’ committee was appointed to lay out the streets and lots.

Mail and newspapers were brought in daily by pony riders of the chain Lightning Express. Eight stagecoaches a day traveled between Columbia and Sonora, and supply wagons arrived around the clock bearing goods from nearby river ports. At its peak, Columbia’s population was between fifteen and thirty thousand. Columbia had become the recognizable center for all the nearby southern mining camps, such as Gold Springs, Italian Bar, Yankee Hill, Martinez, Sawmill Flat, Squabbletown, Union Hill, and Springfield.

By the fall of 1851, families began to settle in Columbia. The four-mile road called Columbia Way that ran between Sonora and Columbia became lined with miners’ cabins as the town overflowed with people. In the Columbia Gulch and the Kennebec Gulch, miners were finding twenty dollars of gold apiece every day. Gold dust began to hit the scales of the Wells Fargo office at the rate of $100,000 per week.

The Need for Water

As it always has been in California, water was a big issue in Columbia. Between 1850 and 1851, the first canals were capable of channeling water only a few miles. In June, 1851, the Tuolumne Water Company was formed to bring water to Columbia from Five Mile Creek, a distance of twenty miles. The project was completed in 1852. The miners grew resentful of the company’s high rates, however, and three years later they entered into a deal with the rival Columbia and Stanislaus River Water Company. They were promised Stanislaus water at half the Tuolumne company’s rates, provided that they help construct forty-four miles of water channels. Two hundred Columbia volunteers worked on Miners’ Ditch, digging the canals by hand with picks and shovels. When ravines or canyons were crossed, they were forced to construct costly wooden aqueducts. Ridges of foothills were tunneled through. All told, the effort to bring water to Columbia took four years and cost a million dollars.

The demand for water in the settlement of Columbia was insatiable. While the local water companies had doubled the supply of water every year since the early 1850’s, the demand was increasing even faster. For the first few years of the Columbia boom, prospectors needed to undertake the slow and laborious task of loading dirt into sacks, carrying it to streams or canals, and washing it to reveal gold.

A shift began in Columbia with the advent of hydraulic mining. Whole banks of earth that once would have taken hundreds of men several months to remove could now be removed by a handful of men in few weeks. Not only had the process been made quicker, but it also required greater resources of water.

Lobbying for State Capital

One of the most colorful characters to play a role in Columbia’s early development was James W. Coffroth. When anything notable happened in Columbia, Coffroth would be on the scene. Soon after arriving in Columbia in late 1851, he became known as “Columbia’s favorite son.” His flair for publicity got him elected to the California Assembly and then to the Senate.

Coffroth indirectly played a role in Columbia’s legendary bid to become the state capital of California. In November, 1853, Peter Nicholas murdered John Parrot in a Columbia store, and a band of agitated vigilantes demanded that Nicholas be hung. Coffroth, a friend of Nicholas, argued not to sully Columbia’s reputation by an act of mob violence: “Let all things be done decently and in order. . . . As a matter of course Nicholas will be hanged. . . . but for the credit of Columbia give the man a trial.” His strategy worked; the angered mob decided not to hang Nicholas on the spot. He was later found guilty.

While Nicholas was awaiting execution, his lawyer, Horace Bull, stole a petition that included ten thousand names about to be sent to the State Assembly in Benicia seeking the establishment of the state capital in Columbia. Bull is said to have clipped off the state capital petition and substituted a plea for commutation of his client’s sentence above the signed names. He sent the names to Governor John Bigler, who was impressed by the ten thousand signatures and reduced Nicholas’s sentence from death to ten years in San Quentin.

While the capital question never did get submitted to the ballot, Columbia got the popular reputation as the “town that came within two votes of being the capital of California.” When Columbia was riding its golden wave in the 1850’s, it ranked second in the state in population.

Fires and Recovery

The town was incorporated in 1854. At that time, its canvas and wood structures made it susceptible to fire. In July of that year a fire raced through the town and leveled the business district at a cost of half a million dollars. Columbia sprang back quickly; thirty new buildings were operational almost immediately after the fire. The reconstructed buildings were made larger and virtually fireproof with their brick and iron style.

Another fire hit Columbia in the summer of 1857 and raced out of control for two days. The efforts of volunteers firefighters were futile as the wells were dry. When the fire reached a town hardware store, forty kegs of blasting powder were ignited and five men were killed by the explosion. In a residential neighborhood, sixteen brick homes believed to be fireproof burned to the ground. Columbia’s business district, valued at $700,000, was completely destroyed.

While the northern portion of Main Street was never rebuilt, the rest of Columbia worked hard to come back. Columbia went brick-crazy; fifty new houses were under construction within a month. The rebuilt town featured iron doors and shutters, thicker walls, and fire-resistant roofs. The response to the fire played a key role in protecting many of Columbia’s finest buildings as historical landmarks up to the present day. A surprising number of the original red-brick and stone buildings have remained, including the Wells Fargo Building and the Saint Charles Saloon on Main Street.

Early on, entertainment in Columbia included liquor, gambling, and weekly bull-and-bear fights. Every Sunday afternoon thousands would flock to a ring outside town to watch these bloody contests. It has been suggested that after journalist Horace Greeley wrote about one of these competitions in Columbia, Wall Street began using the terms “bull” and “bear” to describe the outlook of the financial markets.

By 1856, the rough nature of the town began to shift, as more women and children arrived. The influence of family life on Columbia was soon reflected across its cultural landscape. A deepening sense of community developed as churches, schools, gardens, and homesteads were established.

Decline

In the early 1860’s, Columbia started to decline, as it became obvious that the gold deposits were on the verge of being exhausted. Mining took place mostly on a limited, seasonal basis, depending on the availability of water. Excitement over new strikes at the Fraser River and Comstock Lode drained Columbia’s resources and population.

The extensive use of hydraulic mining took its toll on Columbia as well. The process left the ground level at least ten feet lower than normal; in many places, deep pits and exposed boulders still scar the countryside. The remaining miners in Columbia began to work “city lots,” tearing down structures to wash the gold underneath them or simply digging under their foundations.

By 1870, virtually the only plot of land that had not been washed and tunneled into rested atop Kennebec Hill. On that site stands St. Anne’s Church and cemetery, built in 1856 with funds donated by Columbia miners. As the town’s fortunes declined, miners were continually tempted to work the unviolated piece of land with their picks and shovels. Their digging encroached right to the edge of the cemetery, and it is said that on one occasion they went too far. As they worked near the edge of the cemetery, they dislodged a casket that opened to reveal the body of a richly dressed young woman. After carefully sealing the coffin, the stunned miners left, never to return.

As the legend goes, travelers passing by Columbia late at night have reported eerie organ music and flickering lights behind the Gothic windows at the abandoned St. Anne’s. The church was rebuilt and rededicated in the late 1920’s. It now offers visitors one of the most picturesque views of the once-booming Columbia countryside.

As the supply of gold dissipated, the excavation of high-quality marble, known for its even grain and adaptability, proved Columbia’s most enduring form of mining. The white, rose, and gray marble from the Columbia Quarry was a valued source of building material. It was used in 1878 for the sidewalks around the Palace Hotel in San Francisco.

Columbia was in a rare state of preservation when Frederick Law Olmsted recommended in 1928 that the town become part of the California State Park system. Twenty to thirty of its buildings were in fair to excellent condition. In 1945 the state legislature passed an act to to preserve and rebuild the town as one of the best examples of a mining camp from the gold rush era.

For Further Information
  • Kyle, Douglas E. Historic Spots in California. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1932. Rev. ed. 1990. A solid outline of the historical development and present-day landmarks of Columbia and Tuolumne County. Originally published in three volumes, the work provides a good overview of the town’s preservation efforts.
  • Levy, Joann. They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Press, 1990. Offers an interesting look into the often overlooked role of women in gold rush settlements like Columbia.
  • Meals, Hank. Columbia Hill: Nevada County, California–An Interpretive History. Nevada City, Calif.: S. Lamela, 1997. Maps and illustrations accompany this history of gold mines and mining in north Columbia.
  • O’Brien, Robert. California Called Them: A Saga of Golden Days and Roaring Camps. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1951. A sparkling, informative work on the Mother Lode Country and Columbia.
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