Tuesday, August 12

11 Days Of Vacation

Day 20: Columbia, CA

Columbia is the very embodiment of a classic Gold Rush town. It is far from being a museum piece, or a living history site like Plymouth or Williamsburg (both fine destinations in their own right). This is a state park, a historical landmark, an educational institution, and a vibrant modern community all in one place. I've been here a hundred times, and it never gets old.

Like sister cities Auburn and Placerville to the north, Columbia was born, boomed, and busted during the California gold rush of the 1850's. Unlike most others, it was never completely deserted, nor added to in subsequent decades until it was no longer recognizable. A walk on the main street of Columbia must be similar to one 150 years ago. There are two parts to the town. The quaint residential area where the population actually lives, spreads over the hills and under oaks, never too crowded or overgrown. There is a beautiful little trout farm, a fine plant nursery, a popular melodrama theatre, and one of the prettiest community colleges I've ever seen. Given a different direction in my life, I could have lived very happily here.

The historic state park is the place for a day's visit, however. There is some touristy kitsch, but most of it is a friendly, relaxing place. The wide main street is lined on both sides by historic buildings. Original brick storefronts and massive metal doors anchor the Gold Rush ambience. The wooden walkways and benches allow for wonderful people watching. Stop by the Douglass Saloon, a large airy bar where families can gather for sandwiches, sodas, beer, and a game of dice. Visit the blacksmith and have your name stamped on a horseshoe. Try to resist the yummy stuff at the candy kitchen. Shop at several stores for old west clothing, leather goods, classic hand-made wooden toys, or a thermometer mounted on a fake goldpan. Try your hand at finding gold, or just buy a little bottle of flakes, at the gold mine at the end of town. While you're doing that, the granite blocks and boulders next door are a perennial favorite for antsy climbing youngsters. You might see a lone fiddler, a western string quartet, or other period specific entertainer (no jugglers or balloon animals here). Grab a snow cone and visit the exhibits open to the street: the firehouse, a miner's cabin, a Chinese apothecary, the Wells Fargo depot, even an active judge's office. Tour the small museum full of mid-nineteenth century relics found here, a collection of minerals relevant to the gold rush, and take in the slide show. Take the kiddies for a stagecoach ride; you might even get held up by bad guys before your return. Give the little ones a horsey ride. Have a picnic. Once a year, the town re-creates the tent town it sprang from. I had a ball there, chewing on a cheroot, downing a beer, and having my picture taken with bosomy dance hall girls in a makeshift saloon.

Columbia, and its neighbor Sonora to the south, make an excellent base for exploring the Gold Rush country. One visit to this area of the Sierra foothills and you will be hooked. It has an important and unique history, one often overlooked elsewhere in the country. Without the things that happened here, the U.S. might have stopped at the Great Divide.

Teasers on this trip: Railtown 1897, Highway 49, gold panning, jumping frogs

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