COLUMBIA. Designated a state historic park in 1945, the main street of this well-preserved gold rush town with a population of 1,799 near Sonora is closed to automobile traffic. The town features an unparalleled collection of restored buildings and mining memorabilia. Today more than 250 acres have been incorporated into the state park.
Dr. Thaddeus Hildreth found gold here on March 27, 1850 while he was placer mining with several other goldseekers. The gold camp was hence named Hildreth's Diggings. Later it was known as American Camp and was formally named Columbia when the town was incorporated in 1852.
Nicknamed "Gem of the Southern Mines," during the peak Gold Rush years, production here reached between $90 and $150 million. 15,000 miners worked the mines here, and in 1854 it was the second largest city in the state. There were four banks, three expres offices, eight hotels, a daguerrotype parlor, 17 general stores, two fire companies, 40 saloons, and countless fandango halls and gaming establishments; tempering this melange were three churches, two bookstores, a temperance league and choral society. The town was a cultural center; at the three theaters in Columbia, Edwin Booth performed Shakespeare's Richard III and Lola Montez performed her notorious spider dance.
Columbia missed being the capital of California by only two votes.
The town was neglected for 50 years after the last mines closed, and by the time it was made into a park, most of the structures were in ruins. Today, docents and shopkeepers dress in period costume, adding to the authenticity of the setting. Visitors can ride in an old stagecoach and shop in replicas of Gold Rush stores. At Matelot Gulch, visitors can pan for gold. The William Cavalier Museum gives an overview of local history with exhibits, slide shows and films.
You'll gain a better appreciation of this amazing town on a guided walking tour. Leaving from the main museum at 11 a.m. and 1:30 daily, the 45-minute tour takes visitors into historic structures not available to the general public. Cost is $2.00 per person. Contact: Walking Tours, Columbia State Park, 22708 Broadway, Columbia CA 95310; (209) 532-4301.
In Columbia you'll also find fine dining and great year-round theatre at the Fallon House Theatre. The Columbia City Hotel features special dinners throughout the year plus a opulent Christmas celebration. Make reservations well in advance (209) 532-1479.
|Columbia's main street.|
|An old-time pharmacy.|
|The City Hotel features gourmet meals.|
|No longer actually used for formal instruction, the Columbia Schoolhouse crowns a hill a few blocks from "downtown" Columbia. A dunce cap awaits misbehaving "students" in reenactments conducted by docents.|
|Visitors climb aboard an old stagecoach that regularly takes folks on rides through the town.|
|Dust settles on old carriages in a barn on Columbia's main street. A hearse is barely visible in the rear.|
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