In the 1860s, Mark Twain traveled by coach to California, hoping to strike it rich during the storied Gold Rush. While he never found gold, he had a pretty good backup plan, having begun his writing career as a journalist during his westward journey.
Others who traveled to the Mother Lode weren’t so lucky, including Jacob R. Giddis, a New Jersey native, who failed at mining but — as his tombstone at the Columbia Cemetery notes — suffered an even worse fate afterward.
The still-unsolved murder of Giddis — and the fate of all others whose Sierra dreams went unfulfilled — reminds one of a phrase coined by another writer: “All that glitters is not gold.”
This summer, as Yosemite National Park turned 150, my family and I decided to visit the Gold Rush towns around the famous park, inspired by my 10-year-old daughter’s school studies. As a nice coincidence, I had just read Mark Twain’s “Roughing It,” describing his trip west, which began in 1861.
Fittingly, we decided to stay in Twain Harte, a tiny town named after Twain and fellow writer Bret Harte, located in Tuolumne County, amid the shadows of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
We stayed at the Gables Cedar Creek Inn, just a couple of blocks from downtown Twain Harte. The “Love Nest” cottage ($100 a night) featured a nice little loft and a bird’s nest décor. And, judging by some of the wink-wink messages in the guest books, the Love Nest had indeed inspired plenty of lovin’.
There isn’t much to see in Twain Harte so we spent most of our time in the three neighboring Gold Rush towns: Jamestown, Sonora and Columbia.
Beginning in the summer of 1848, hundreds of miners descended on Jamestown, seeking gold. But the town’s biggest attraction today emphasizes an era a few decades later. Railtown 1897 Historic Park is a preserved railroad depot, featuring old trains, tours and rides. The historic scenery here has been a popular filming location for Hollywood directors in need of old train scenes through the years. Some of its film credits include “Back to the Future III,” “Unforgiven” and “High Noon.” The star of many of these films — an 1891 locomotive known as Sierra No. 3 — is still there, nicely restored and returned to operation in 2010.
Nearby, the town of Sonora has also been a popular place for filmmakers because of its late 19th century appearance. Named after miners who arrived from Sonora, Mexico, in 1849, the Tuolumne County seat still has many buildings dating to the 1800s.
The Tuolumne County Museum, housed at the site of the old county jail, is a good place to start here. Built in 1857, it was once home to the county sheriff and his family, who lived in the front half. His wife made meals for the inmates incarcerated in back.
The sheriff’s old living quarters now houses historic photos of miners, gold mining gear and gold nuggets retrieved from local rivers and streams. In the back, there’s a collection of old pistols and rifles and the small, brick jail cells.
Other Sonora highlights include the county courthouse, with its distinctive clock tower, and two churches built in the 1860s.
The highlight of this trip, though, was the Columbia State Historic Park, the best preserved part of Gold Country. While other Gold Rush towns have vanished or greatly diminished, Columbia still looks like it did when miners cruised the streets with pick axes and pans.
Here you’ll find an old bank, a courtroom, a dentist office, a drug store and a small bowling alley. There are still an operating saloon and blacksmith shop. And at one end of town, you can even pan for gold, as my daughter did, finding tiny gold flakes.
The town is closed to auto traffic, though you can spring for a horse-drawn carriage ride. Near the main drag, you’ll see the school house, built in 1860. Though it hasn’t served as a school since 1937, today the classrooms are arranged for viewing, complete with old desks and wood-burning stoves.
Adjacent to the school yard is the Columbia Cemetery, founded in 1855.
While miners discovered $87 million worth of gold in Columbia, a trip here will reveal that not everyone’s dreams were fulfilled.
Isaac Dore came from Maine, but was killed at age 17 in a 1859 mining explosion. Miner Ernest Faas, a 36-year-old native of the Kingdom Wurttemberg, died of typhoid fever in 1866. And John Graham, a Scottish miner, accidentally shot himself, at age 15, in 1864.
And then there’s poor Jacob Giddis.
A native of New Jersey, he didn’t find gold in the Sierra, so he decided to make a living collecting as an agent for the Tuolumne County Water Company — a key supplier for gold miners. But, apparently, he made someone unhappy. As his tombstone states, he was “murdered on or about the 28th day of June, 1861.”
If there’s ever a cold case TV special on gold miners, I’m nominating the case of Giddis, whose body was found floating in a reservoir in the town of Strawberry.
While these Gold Rush towns were once happening places, as Twain wrote in “Roughing It,” prosperity in Tuolumne County was short-lived — as a visit to near-ghost town Tuolumne City will illustrate.
“When the mines gave out, the town fell into decay, and in a few years wholly disappeared,” wrote Twain, who prospected in nearby Angel’s Camp.
Of the few folks who remained, he wrote, “They had seen it sicken and die, and pass away like a dream. With it their hopes had died, and their zest for life.”
The towns do still exist, although they live in a “Back to the Future”-style time warp. While gold dreams once brought high hopes for future lives, a visit here is all about the past, where 150 years ago, many chased rainbows but few found a pot of gold.