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Coloma - Gold Town to Ghost Town

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Coloma, California in 1857

Coloma, California in 1857.

 

 

"The roads were so wretched that supplies could be got to the mines only by pack-animals. A dollar per pound was the customary rate to Coloma and to Hangtown, which were about the same distance from Sacramento.

 

"Gold dust was the universal currency, and the "blower" and the scales were a fixture in every place of business. The weights were often home-made, and of very dubious specific gravity."

 

-- David Leeper, 1849

 

 

 

Settled along the banks of the South Fork River between Sutter's Mill and Mormon Island is Coloma, California -- the first important mining town of the 1848 gold rush days. It was here, on the South Fork River, that James Marshall first found the gold that started the great California Gold Rush. News spread quickly and by the time it reached San Francisco, thousands began to flood the area.

James Marshall was a construction foreman for Johann (John) Augustus Sutter, who operated Sutter's Mill on the banks of the American River. Sutter had come to California from his native Switzerland in 1834. By 1839, he had settled in the heart of the Sacramento Valley, where he wanted to establish a "great colony.”

He began to "build” his colony when he was granted 50,000 acres of prime land by Governor Alvarado, the Mexican governor of California. He then purchased a number of properties that were moved to the area and began raising a herd of cattle. Calling his new colony "New Helvetica,” he used Indian labor to build a "fort,” from which he oversaw his new settlement.

However, he was badly in need of lumber for his buildings. In 1845, he contracted with James Marshall to build a sawmill in the Coloma Valley, about 40 miles east of New Helvetia and Sutter’s Fort. However, it would be two more years before construction on the sawmill would begin. In January, 1848, when the mill was nearing completion, Sutter was inspecting the water flow when he discovered a pea-sized gold nugget. Gold had been discovered in California! Ironically, neither Sutter nor Marshall ever profited from the discovery that should have made them independently wealthy.

As word quickly spread, Sutter's sawmill was overrun by gold miners, around which, a gold camp born. Named for the valley in which it was situated, called Cullumah, meaning "beautiful” to the native Nisenan Indians, the new "town” was called Coloma.

 

By the summer of 1848, some 80,000 miners had flooded the area, spreading up and down the length of the Sacramento Valley, overrunning Sutter's domain and trampling his visions of grandeur. Also displaced were the native Nisenan Indians who had called the Cullumah Valley home for centuries.

 

In the meantime, the new town of Coloma was booming, already boasting about 300 frame buildings and a large hotel was under construction. It was the first place fortune-seekers headed when they arrived in San Francisco, until gold was discovered in surrounding areas.

 

By 1849, when the California Gold Rush was in full force, Coloma had several stores, hotels, businesses, and a number of the ever popular saloons and gambling houses. But, for those many new area residents, they would be shocked to see the outrageous prices. Due to its remote location and the rules of "supply and demand,” miners could expect to pay as much as $50 for a pick or shovel.

 

The following year, El Dorado County was created in February and Coloma became its first county seat. Just seven months later, California would become the 31st state in the union. That same year, a six mile "ditch” was completed to bring water to Coloma from the snow melt and rain in the mountains so that miners could work placers.

 

 

Continued Next Page

 

Coloma, California Main Street

Coloma, California today, July, 2009, Kathy Weiser.

This image available for photo prints & commercial downloads HERE!

 

Sierra Nevada Hotel

The Sierra Nevada Hotel was a was a way station for miners and tradesman during Coloma's mining heydays. Today, it houses an Inn and Restaurant.

 

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