By Eilene Lyon
After completing my archive research in California (Huntington Library, Bancroft Library, and the California Historical Society), it was time to do some gold rush sight-seeing. My first stop was the Wells Fargo branch on Montgomery in downtown San Francisco. This city owes its explosive growth directly to the gold rush. Wells Fargo was only one of many express services at that time, but the most enduring.
This branch houses a free museum dedicated to the company’s gold-rush origins, their express services, a history of banking and U. S. currency, and many other related subjects, predominantly from the 19th century. Not the least of the objects housed there are two original Concord stagecoaches. These were custom-built for Wells Fargo in Concord, New Hampshire, by the Abbot-Downing Company, and weigh over 2,000 pounds. You can even take a simulated coach ride during your visit.
Leaving Berkeley the following morning, I headed out to visit several towns that my relatives had a connection to in the 1850s to 1870s. I hadn’t planned this portion of my trip, so it wasn’t too surprising that I missed the opportunity to visit the Solano County Genealogical Society in Vacaville when they were open. My 3rd great-uncle and aunt lived in Vacaville in the 1850s. A daughter was born and a son died there.
From Vacaville, I wound my way along small rural roads through farms and orchards, heading to Yuba City, a place where Elias D. Pierce and his first partners had lived for a time. One of them, John W. Lane, purchased two town lots from Samuel Brannan, the man who had loudly announced to San Franciscans the gold find on the American River, leading to a stampede out of town. Downtown Yuba City has a real ‘50s feel – the 1950s, not the 1850s, unfortunately.
Across the river lies Marysville, an even earlier settlement, but equally unimpressive. This was frequently the jump-off point for those heading to the Feather River mines and sits at the confluence of the Feather and Yuba Rivers. My ultimate destination was Georgetown, so I continued east to Grass Valley, then back south toward Auburn.
I managed to pop into the mining museum at the Auburn railroad depot just 15 minutes before closing time. Though small, the exhibits were excellent. I’ll have to return for a closer examination. They didn’t photograph well, because the exhibit lights were off and the room lights reflected off the glass.
Georgetown figures in the family history from about 1870 to 1880. My cousin Sam Jones and family, and his sister and brother-in-law, Rebecca and Elias D. Pierce, lived there and had a mine on the Middle Fork of the American River called the Sardine Placer Mine. I suspect it was something of a debacle.
Today, in order to get to the Sardine claim, you have to hike in. I have no idea how they got all the mining equipment in and out of there. The river canyon is incredibly narrow and steep. I did find a little-used two-track down to the river a bit north of their claim. Being used to mining roads here in the Colorado mountains, it didn’t faze me, but it’s not something most people would want to take a passenger car down!
Georgetown is tiny and lovely. I stayed at the American River Inn, a B & B built and run as the American Hotel in 1853. I had a decadent soak in their outdoor hot tub before heading over to the Georgetown Hotel and Saloon for an amazingly high-quality dinner and a brew.
The cemetery was a short walk away and I photographed some of the old headstones from the early days. Elias and Rebecca Pierce buried their only child here, but his grave is now unmarked.
I ended up staying a second night, needing to take my car into Placerville to check a grinding noise from my front wheel. What I thought might be a bad bearing turned into a set of new brakes. Good thing because it cost a lot less, but I ended up wandering in town all day. That turned out to be less than stimulating. I did meet a couple locals while having a beer and the conversation was…different. But the two gentlemen were game for discussing history, genealogy, and writing, my pet subjects.
The next morning, I took the 11-mile drive to Coloma. This town is located on the South Fork of the American River at the site of “Captain” John Sutter’s mill, where James Marshall discovered gold on January 24, 1848. The epicenter of the gold rush, you could say. Certainly it was a must-see stop on my tour. After that it was a drive over the Sierras to Reno and on home to Colorado.
Feature image: Monument to Sutter’s Mill on the South Fork of the American River at Coloma.