Columbia State Park just outside of Sonora is a gem of a tourist attraction with its stage plays in the Fallon House Theatre in addition to its Main Street “City Hotel” and restaurant, gold panning and an occasional stage coach ride.
During the 20 years of its heyday between 1850 and 1870 over $100 million in gold was taken out of the mines in a community that was once lauded as the second largest city in California. Fire, vandalism and time left its mark on the town over the years, but the city has survived and never completely deserted in contrast to many of the Old West ghost towns.
Seen as a colorful and typical Gold Rush community, the state legislature moved to name it one of its State Historical Parks, a part of American history dating back to the days of the gold mining 49ers.
The historic two-story brick school house and nearby cemetery are but a short walk from the downtown with its saloons, candy, and black smith shops. The school has been completely restored to its original finery and the cemetery is an interesting aside for those who like to take note of who is buried there and what years they passed away including a number of newborn babies.
Columbia, with its early tents and shanties, was in the midst of the gold rush frenzy when hundreds of mining-supported communities sprung up throughout the Mother lode. It is still located in the center of a mile-wide network of gold-bearing quartz, extending more than 100 miles along the western edge of the Sierra Nevada from Mariposa to Georgetown. Columbia miners realized nearly $90 million in gold through their tireless efforts – at mid-1800 prices.
The lack of water during its first year of operation almost ended its gold mining focus since there were no streams other than the snow and rain runoff that went through the gulches of the camp. The Tuolumne County Water Company was organized to supply water but its rates were said to be prohibitive to the miners. Subsequently, three years later, a 60-mile-long aqueduct brought water into the community through the efforts of the Stanislaus River Water Company – not fully completed until 1858.
As the miners were moving out of the community for better locations, the Tuolumne County Water District purchased the aqueduct for just $150,000. It had cost about a million dollars to build.
Water monitors shot highly pressurized water in the new hydraulic mining efforts blasting gold-bearing gravel that washed out the gold ore. The method was destructive and the present day parking lot is some 10 feet lower than it was before miners arrived in the mining camps, first known Hildreth’s Diggings and then to become known as American Camp.
It was just over 160 years ago that the streets of the community were mapped and built as Columbia celebrated having nearly 150 stores and shops. A Masonic Lodge, a church and Sunday school were up and running. Fire was the scourge to many of the mining towns, and Columbia saw much of its central business district struck by a blaze in 1854.
Some three years later another fire all but destroyed the 13 blocks of the business district. As a citizen rebuilding effort got under way, a volunteer fire department was organized. With the lack of easily mined gold, the town began its decline after 1860 with homes and businesses being vacated as miners and their families moved away.
Following years of lobbying to have Columbia recognized as a California State Park, residents realized their goal in 1945 when the Legislature passed a bill allotting $50,000 to be partnered with public funds for the acquisition of open land and structures in the Columbia business district. It was some 70 years ago that saw the birth of Columbia State Park.
The City Hotel and its mirrored Fallon Hotel are both restored as 19th century country inns. Elegantly appointed with Victorian antiques, the rooms reflect custom-crafted wall coverings along with beautiful lithographs. The City Hotel Restaurant offers full dinner and lunch attraction with service from the adjacent What Cheer Saloon.
There’s also the Fallon Ice Cream Parlor with its sarsaparilla, sodas and milkshakes adjacent to the theater. The Jack Douglass Saloon, the Bixel Brewery and the Matelote Gulch Mining and Hidden Treasure Gold Mine Tours are added attractions.