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Highway 49: California's Gold Rush Road 12

In March 1848 a seemingly insignificant California shopkeeper and businessman named Sam Brannan whipped up a hurricane in downtown San Francisco by running through the city with a bottle of gold dust yelling 'Gold! Gold! Gold from American River!' The hurricane rapidly turned into a human stampede toward the Sierra Nevada as word spread that the stories were all true. The California Gold Rush had begun. As the founder of the California Star, the San Francisco newspaper which spread the news in the first place, the Gold Rush made a millionaire out of Brannan and he was the first of many as gold-thirsty, would-be American prospectors and people from all walks of life from as far and as Mexico, Peru, Chile, and even Hawaii and China, descended on the creeks and rivers of eastern California seeking to strike it unimaginably rich and make a name for themselves in the process. Over 150 years later, California's Gold Rush has become the stuff of American legend and today State Highway 49 runs along the shadow of the Sierras from the tiny hamlet of Venton, down towards the town of Oakhurst, and the road takes its name from the '49ers', the tidal wave of American and international gold panners who rushed to the area in 1849. Exploring an area as rich in stories as the millionaires it made, we head from the sensationally-named Rough and Ready in the north, to Jamestown in the south along state route 49, California's Gold Rush highway.

Rough & Ready, California

Apr 3 2016

Sixty two miles northeast of Sacramento in California's Nevada County, the town of Rough and Ready was first settled by the miners and prospectors of a Wisconsin geological company under the command of politician and US Army officer Absolom Austin Townsend in October, 1849. Due to being part of a battalion lead by recently-elected US president Zachary Taylor, whose nickname during the conflict was 'Old Rough 'n' Ready', during the Mexican-American War, Townsend named the town after Taylor. Home to 3000 gold miners at the height of the boom period, Rough and Ready played a full and lucrative part in California's 1849 Gold Rush and continued to prosper well into the early part of the twentieth century until it was decimated by a series of catastrophic fires and fell into obscurity. With a population of less than one thousand people, Rough and Ready now lies just north of the official start of Highway 49, half Gold Rush ghost town, half nineteenth century outdoor mining exhibition. Image Date: 06/07/2007

Rough & Ready, California

Apr 4 2016

What makes Rough and Ready so remarkable, aside from its sensationally unique name, is that that the settlement was the only mining to have tried to secede from the United States and it even attempted to do so over a decade before the southern states left the Union in 1861, igniting the American Civil War. The problems began when Californian authorities, backed by the US government, introduced a new gold dust tax in 1850 and to say that this did not sit well with Rough and Ready's gold miners and prospectors would be a complete understatement. The disgruntled mining staff reacted with disgust to the new tax's introduction and on April 7th, 1850, a colonel in the company by the name of E.F. Brundage called a mass meeting and read aloud Rough and Ready's 'Declaration of Independence' from the United States, immediately installing himself as first president of 'The Great Republic of Rough and Ready'. The new republic barely lasted three months before re-uniting with the United States in July of 1850 and legend has it that the miners never paid a cent in the gold dust tax which caused the original disagreement. Image Date: 04/04/1850

Gold Discovery Spot, Sutter's Mill, Coloma, California

Apr 5 2016

Forty miles southwest of Rough and Ready along Highway 49, Sutter's Mill is sawmill owned by Swiss-American pioneer-era trailblazer Johann Augustus Sutter, better known as John Sutter, which sits on the west bank of the South Fork American River in the town of Coloma in El Dorado County, named after the mythical South American king and city of gold. Sutter's Mill is now part of the mining ghost town of Coloma's Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park and a monument sits at the exact spot on the American River where James W. Marshall discovered the first flakes of gold which would ignite the powder keg of the California Gold Rush - and fuel Sam Brannan's outburst in San Francisco two months later - in January, 1848. Image Credit: Bobak Ha'Eri (Wikimedia Commons) Image Date: 07/24/2009

Sutter's Mill, Coloma, California

Apr 6 2016

On January 24th, 1848, James Marshall spent the morning overseeing the construction of John Sutter's water-powered sawmill on the South Fork American River in Caloma. As he looked into the creek, a something glittering caught his eye and in his curiosity, he bent down to investigate further. Unearthing the mysterious sparkling object from the river bed, he discovered 'that it was a thin scale of what appeared to be pure gold' and after a test bite his suspicions were confirmed. James W. Marshall had just discovered the snowflake-shaped sliver of gold which would ultimately set the scene for one of the most mythic and storied periods of American history and by the summer of 1848 the whole of California went into a frenzy of gold-lust, news reached New York and in Washington President James K. Polk declared to Congress that gold had been discovered in California. The Gold Rush had begun. In 2012, the Sutter's Mill also had a meteorite named after it which entered the planet's atmosphere and promptly broke up, scattering most of its diamond-studded black space dust around the site where the Gold Rush was first ignited in 1848. Image Date: 07/14/2009

Placerville, California

Apr 7 2016

Nine miles southeast of Sutter's Mill, the town of Placerville is one of the largest settlements along Highway 49 and was officially founded on May 13th, 1854. The town gets its name from the placer gold deposits found in the river bed between Spanish Ravine and the town's central plaza and also acted as a kind of supply depot for the surrounding mining camps. Placerville is also known by the ironically graphic name of Hangtown, a moniker which stems when the town acted as the site of one of El Dorado County's sets of gallows in the nineteenth century According to a local legend, the name 'Hangtown' originates from one eventful night in January 1849, when a famously successful gambler name Gonzalo Lopez was celebrating his latest casino parlour triumph in one of Placerville's saloons. On his way home, Lopez was set upon by three muggers attempting to steal his winnings. Having fought them off with the help of some of the townspeople, Lopez helped El Dorado's county judge in securing court confessions that the three individuals had committed a murder and a robbery at a gold camp on the Stanislaus River. Justice was served and they were sentenced to a date with the noose in Placerville, hence the name 'Hangtown'. Image Credit: Helen Gordon (Flickr) Image Date: 01/09/2010

Placerville, California

Apr 8 2016

Gold mining is hard work on an empty stomach and so the miners naturally needed something substantial to keep themselves going all day. Usually, a typical meal for a Gold Rush miner was the ubiquitous 'Pork 'n' Beans', supplemented with a few boiled potatoes and washed down with copious amounts of coffee. Placerville, however, is the birthplace of the famous 'Hangtown Fry', a lavish omelette made with bacon, onions, peppers, spices, and deep fried oysters and, if anything, is the signature dish of California's Gold Rush. The omelette's oysters play a key role in the birth of the dish and, as the story goes, Hangtown Fry was invented when a miner came across a lucrative gold vein and walked into Placerville's Cary House Hotel to celebrate. Overjoyed at striking the jackpot, he discarded the menu and instead demanded the most expensive dish the chef could make. With the fragile eggs and oysters, which had to be specially shipped in on-ice from San Francisco at the time, being the most expensive food items at the hotel, the miner was presented with his luxurious omelette and the Hangtown Fry was born. The other story of the Hangtown Fry is the tale of a man convicted of the theft of several thousand dollars-worth of gold dust from a nearby mining encampment who, awaiting execution in Placerville's jailhouse, was asked what he wanted for his last meal before his meeting with the hangman. The convict requested an oyster omelette for his last meal, knowing that the shellfish would have to shipped in from San Francisco by horseback over one hundred miles of rocky roads along the foothills of the Sierras, thereby delaying his execution until after the oysters arrived. Image Date: 04/16/2010

Angels Camp, Calaveras County, California

Apr 9 2016

Home to just under four thousand people today. the town of Angels Camp is sixty miles south of Placerville along Highway 49 and dates back to when a Rhode Island shopkeeper named Henry Angell established a mining supplies tent on the banks of a nearby creek in 1848. During California's Gold Rush, the settlement produced an estimated twenty million dollars worth of gold-bearing quartz and among Angels Camp's claims to fame is the fact that the town is home to the largest crystalline gold nugget in the world which was unearthed from nearby Angels Creek. Weighing 44 pounds, the nugget is worth an estimated 3.5 million dollars. One of Angels Camp's aliases, Frogtown, came about when a young Mark Twain booked in for a stay at the Angels Hotel in 1865. The icon of American literature put the town on the map for something other than the Gold Rush when he based a short story named 'The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County', which tells the tale of an old gold miner named Jim Smiley who, having wasted away his wages in Angels Camp's Gold Rush casino parlours, makes one last wager with a passerby that he can out-jump any frog in Calaveras County. Because of Twain's short story, Angels Camp hosts its own annual Jumping Frog Festival. Image Date: 11/28/2012

Angels Camp, Calaveras County, California

Apr 10 2016

Angels Camp and its surrounding area were also some of the area which saw the biggest influx of ambitious international miners and prospectors during the Gold Rush era. Mexican miners were the first foreigners to arrive in Angels Camp in 1850 but the 'Foreign Miners Tax' enacted two years later. The Chinese were unquestionably the largest foreign mining group in Angels Camp and the town even had its own Chinatown which featured Chinese food shops, wooden buildings converted into Buddhist and Taoist temples, opium dens and mahjong and xiàngqí gaming and gambling parlours. One particular exhibit in Angels Camp museum which highlights the foreign influence is the reconstructed work space of a Gold Rush-era Chinese prospector or mining captain. The desktop features a set of chopsticks, Chinese candles as well as mining records and journals written in Mandarin. Image Credit: Iszatso (Flickr) Image Date: 02/16/2007

Columbia, California

Apr 11 2016

Twenty minutes southeast of Angels Camp, the town of Columbia is a time-frozen Gold Rush boom town established in 1850 and which became an official US State Park one hundred years later. Founded after brother George and Thaddeus Hildreth struck gold in the area on March 27, 1850,Columbia as a mining town has a tumultuous history and its first year of operations was almost its last as the water which is essential for the mining placer gold was almost non-existent due the area immediately surrounding the town having no natural streams of creeks of its own. The only water available either fell from the sky as rain or came from snow run off from the Sierra Mountains and so in 1858 the the miners formed the Columbia and Stanislaus River Water Company in 1854 to funnel much needed water the area via an aqueduct. Image Credit: Chris Krylov (Wikimedia Commons) Image Date: 10/26/2007

Columbia, California

Apr 12 2016

Today, Columbia's status as one of the main settlements along Highway 49 during the boom years is still writ large as the town showcases by far the largest collection of Gold Rush era buildings and structures in the whole of California. Columbia proudly markets itself as a kind of Gold Rush time capsule as a mid-nineteenth century stagecoach still ferries visitors around town and coal can still be smelt as it smolders away in the stylised 1850s blacksmith's hut. The Gold Rush-era wooden buildings in Columbia now house an ice cream parlor, candy stores, Old West-themed saloons, a theatre and a bookshop and one of the most famous souvenirs during a trip to the town is a bottle of the trademark Sarsaparilla, a kind of ginger-beer like soft drink which was a favourite of the miners during the Gold Rush days. The town also has special gold panning shacks where visitors in specially installed troughs of water containing tiny flakes of gold dust. Image Date: 07/17/2012

Jamestown, California

Apr 14 2016

Historically considered to be the main southern gateway to the gold grounds of eastern California, Jamestown rose to prominence in 1848 when a prospector named Benjamin Wood tried his luck just outside town after hearing the story of James Marshall hitting the jackpot at Sutter's Mill two months earlier. When Jamestown became a profitable source of gold, the town enjoyed a meteoric rise and within two years had its own mayor in Colonel George F. James, a wealthy attorney from San Francisco who also lent his name to the town. As is often the case when profit comes easy, Jamestown was also one of the seediest places along California's Gold Rush highway as the town became notorious for shady mining companies who scammed arriving miners of their pay and scammers skipping town under cover of darkness after being exposed for fraud. Jamestown's famous railroad was established during the town's genesis and is proudly exhibited today as the Railtown 1897 and freight trains along the railroad transported gold, quartz crystals and timber along the Sierra Railway. Jamestown has also historically been one of the main California Gold Rush-era which finds itself on the silver screen, appearing in 1990's Back to the Future Part III as well as featuring in iconic westerns High Noon in 1952 and 3:10 to Yuma in 1957. Image Date: 02/01/2013

Woods Creek, Jamestown, California

Apr 15 2016

The founder of Jamestown, Benjamin Wood, also lends his name to the creek where he first struck gold in 1848. For its size, Woods Creek was the most bountiful and lucrative gold panning site in the Sierras but fortune came at a price as the area was notorious for grizzly bears and mountain lions and the craggy banks of the creek were a haven for venomous rattlesnakes. Famous jackpots struck in the Woods Creek include a single nugget of gold which weighed 72 pounds, a 210 pound individual haul of crystalline gold and a 43 pound chunk of solid gold which was unearthed in the creek as recently as 1989. Interestingly, and with gold trading near nine hundred US Dollars per ounce, the waters of Jamestown's Woods Creek have seen a resurgence in gold panning in recent years as people are increasingly flocking back to the Sierra Nevada in a kind of miniature, twenty first century repeat of California's 1849 Gold Rush. Image Date: 05/06/2008

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