Gold Country Tour

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.

One of two genuine 19th-century Concord coaches at the Wells Fargo Museum in downtown San Francisco.
This exhibit has displays about early banking in the U.S., including a reproduction of the first check ever drawn on an American Bank in 1781, and Louisa B. Stephens, the second woman to head a national bank.
This display illustrates how bankers could distinguish which area gold had come from based on its appearance.
Give Morse Code a try with this working telegraph set-up!

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.

The Solano County Genealogical Society is housed in the old Vacaville Town Hall building.

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.

This sturdy rope graced the neck of Stephen Richards in 1884, the last man hanged in Auburn in front of the Placer County courthouse.

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.

This detail from a relief map at the Wells Fargo museum shows Georgetown in the middle. Oregon Bar up to the left is about where I drove down to the Middle Fork. Just south of that is the location of Sardine Bar.
There are few roads leading in to the American River canyon.

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!

A mild section of the road down to the river.
View of the Middle Fork of the American River from Oregon Bar looking south. In order to get gold, miners had to reach bedrock, which was far below the surface here.

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 American River Inn, built in 1853.
Victorian charm and good food await you at the Georgetown Hotel and Saloon.

The cemetery was a short walk away and I photographed some of the old headstones from the early days.

A sad memorial to two infants, the only children of J.L. and I.E. Atkinson in the Georgetown Cemetery.
This odd little grave marker appears to have had a handgun embedded in it for some reason.

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.

St. Paul’s Catholic Church at Coloma, established 1856. There are a couple small cemeteries nearby.
James Marshall’s cabin at Coloma.


Monument to James Marshall, discoverer of gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma.

Feature image: Monument to Sutter’s Mill on the South Fork of the American River at Coloma.

29 thoughts on “Gold Country Tour

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  1. That’s a fun little detour. I’ve stumbled across some old mining claims here in Washington. How did they get all that stuff in there? Really quite amazing.
    A few years ago I was backpacking from Cle Elum to Leavenworth, going cross country from Cradle lake down snowall basin I found an old camp in a remote place that made you feel like nobody has ever been there. Pretty remote. I found an old growth tree with a large carve-out on it and with the names of three guys—it said “Elk Camp 1938” So much for being the first, again.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. It’s easier to spot the white man camps because you can always find trash. I’m sure the Nez Perce beat any others to the spot. A lot of the names in the area came from sahaptin, which is nearly extinct now and mostly lives on in some bastardized place-names.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I love that stagecoach! And I must confess I had no idea there was a variation to the color of gold depending on where it came from.

    Cool little side note. There is a beautiful hotel and restaurant in downtown Lititz, Pa named in honor of Sutter. He spent the last few years of his life in Lititz. We had our wedding reception there many years ago.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. That B&B is so cute! I wish Britain did more whimsical Victorian architecture, instead of bleak and imposing Victorian (I do like both, but American Victorian is just so much more colourful and charming). The Wells Fargo Museum looks great too, though I worry a simulated stagecoach ride would give me motion sickness!

    Liked by 2 people

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