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Columbia State Park is 209’s living Gold Rush town

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POSTED March 23, 2013 2:06 a.m.

COLUMBIA — Amidst the rugged oak woodlands of the Sierra Nevada foothills lies Columbia State Historic Park — once a busy, brawling gold rush town. The search for gold in the Sierra Nevada foothills offered hope and, for a fortunate few, riches.

It drew prospectors from all over the world and of every nationality, including California Indians. Besides digging and panning for gold, they bought, sold and traded to try to make their fortunes. The authentic mid-nineteenth century backdrop of Columbia remains today to tell the colorful stories of these miners and merchants.


Native People

For thousands of years, Indian people resided in the valleys, foothills and mountains of Central California. The Central Sierra Miwok lived in the Columbia area.

Traditional Miwok culture was sensitive to the land and changing seasons, which sustained and guided their daily activities. Large, multi-family villages were located in clearings near oak groves and dependable water sources. Acorns were a major part of their diet, supplemented by fish, birds, deer, small game, insects and native plants. Evidence of camps and grinding rocks can still be seen in or near oak groves.

The native people’s way of life was drastically altered when newcomers to the area introduced diseases and increased warfare in the region. In spite of the devastating epidemic of 1833 and abuses and deaths suffered during the gold rush, the descendants of native Miwok and Yokuts Indian people survive today.

Columbia’s Beginning

On March 27, 1850, a group of prospectors discovered gold here. Passing through this area, Dr. Thaddeus Hildreth, his brother George, John Walker and others were caught in a rainstorm. While drying out their gear, Walker decided to try his luck in the nearby gulch. Within six weeks his findings attracted thousands of miners. Their crowded camp of log cabins and canvas tents, known as Hildreth’s Diggings, was formally renamed Columbia on April 29, 1850. By 1852 more than 150 stores, shops, saloons and other business enterprises were operating in Columbia.

The town also boasted three churches, a meeting hall, a Masonic Lodge and a branch of the Sons of Temperance.

A Diverse Population

Miners from the nearby towns of Sonora and Jamestown were the first to arrive. Two-thirds of the miners were Mexican, but by the summer of 1850, many had left Columbia due to the exclusionary Foreign Miner’s Tax, which required foreign-born miners to pay the state $20 a month for the privilege of mining. Like many mining towns, by 1852 Columbia had a sizeable population of Chinese, French, Irish, Italian, German and Jewish miners and merchants who contributed to the growing cultural and ethnic diversity of Columbia.

Water and Fire

Water was essential for placer mining. In a dry “diggins” like Columbia in 1850, when the seasonal rains were gone most of the miners left. In June 1851 the Tuolumne County Water Company was formed to transport water from the Stanislaus River about 20 miles away. The company engineered and built a complex system of wooden flumes, pipes and ditches to convey the water to Columbia. Its high water rates sparked a competitor in 1854 -  the Columbia and Stanislaus River Water Company. This company of miners was determined to build a 60-mile aqueduct known as the Miner’s Ditch to supply water more cheaply. However, before its completion, the threat of bankruptcy prompted the sale of the system to the Tuolumne County Water Company.

Water was also extremely important for fire protection in the booming town. Columbia’s first fire — in 1854 — destroyed six city blocks, leaving the only brick building, the Donnell and Parsons store, standing at the corner of Main and Washington Streets. After the fire, a company called the New England Water Company constructed seven cisterns beneath the streets of Columbia to hold water for domestic and fire-fighting use. A square lid to one of these cisterns may be seen today in front of the firehouse on State Street. The town was quickly rebuilt using locally produced red brick. In 1857 another fire struck Columbia’s downtown, leaving only brick buildings with thick walls and iron shutters intact.


With improved water delivery to Columbia, miners began to employ more efficient mining methods in their quest for gold. In some places, open pit placer mining operations removed more than 60 feet of dirt and washed it through a system of sluices to remove the gold. Using water power, the miners hoisted gravel from deep placer deposits to higher ground, where it could be processed using hydraulic methods. The result of their efforts left expansive limestone formations, visible today below the main parking lot. The diggins were enormously productive, at times averaging $100,000 or more per week.

Columbia, “Gem of the Southern Mines”

By 1853, Columbia was one of the largest cities in California, with an estimated population of 25,000 to 30,000. Between 1850 and the early 1900s, as much as $150 million in gold was mined here. Gold from Columbia helped to finance the United States government and the Union Army during the Civil War. As mining dwindled in the late 1860s, Columbia began to decline. Miners tore down the vacated buildings and mined vacant lots in search of gold in the crevices of the limestone bedrock on which the town was built.


While Columbia never became a ghost town, by the 1940s the buildings had deteriorated to the point that many were considered unsafe.

When Columbia became a state park in 1945, restoration efforts began on the 150-yearold structures to capture and preserve their historic value.

Today Columbia State Historic Park contains the largest single collection of existing gold rush - era structures. These 19th-century buildings continue to tell the stories of Columbia’s enterprising miners and merchants.


The town is located at an elevation of 2,100 feet. Summer days are usually hot, with temperatures sometimes reaching into the 100s. Winters can be rainy, with snow at times.

Accessible Features

• The main streets of Columbia are mostly level, but shops and structures are on raised boardwalks.

• Assistance is usually available to open historic doors and cross high thresholds or to reach sales items and counters. Most merchants have portable ramps available by request; look for window signs indicating availability.

• Assistance may be needed at the Columbia Museum entry or along its sloped boardwalk.

• Accessible parking is designated in lots near Columbia and Jackson Streets, at Main and Jackson Streets, at the Lower Lot at Columbia and Washington Streets, and at the Old Columbia Schoolhouse.

• Accessible restrooms are at the Lower Lot, the Jack Douglass Saloon and at the Old Columbia Schoolhouse, behind the museum.

• An accessible trail leads from Washington Street to the lower parking lot restrooms.

Please remember

Businesses are generally open between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Restaurants, saloons, hotels and the theatre stay open later. Park exhibits and businesses are closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas days.

Public tours

Free town tours led by docents and staff are offered on weekends at 11 a.m. The tour begins at the museum and takes about an hour. Ask about additional programs at the museum desk.

Living history events

During Columbia’s Gold Rush Days, docents in period attire lead programs and offer hands-on activities throughout the park.

Many special exhibits are open. This unique event is offered from 1 to 4 p.m. on the second Saturday of each month. Come visit a replica of the original tent town of 1852, and interact with miners, businessmen and artisans portrayed by costumed docents and staff during Columbia Diggins, held the first weekend in June each year.

Many other special events are offered throughout the year by the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, park concessionaires and community groups. For more information, visit

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