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Picking a fortune: living history in California's gold country

PLACERVILLE, Calif.

In the foothills of the Sierra, in a small city once known as Hangtown, I sit quietly in the corner of an abandoned mine tunnel sipping cappuccino.

It is just after 9 on a Saturday morning and the Cozmic Cafe has been open for more than an hour. The Cozmic is the latest business to inhabit this building, constructed around an idle mine shaft in 1859. I study walls of brown and green rock bearing the chisel marks of picks and axes. Floodlights illuminate the splintering gray beams that brace the 5-foot-high ceiling.

I try to imagine the Cozmic 140 years ago when it was the Pearson Soda Works, and the surrounding creeks and ravines were littered with gold flakes and nuggets.

In 10 steps, I pass through the tunnel's entrance and back into the front room of the cafe, abandoning 19th century twilight for 21st century sun. On the Cozmic's massive wooden beams, posters advertise yoga classes, upcoming events at nearby Lake Tahoe, and a music concert later in the evening.

Placerville sprang into existence in 1848 when James Marshall discovered gold in nearby Coloma. During the next couple of years, thousands passed through, purchasing picks and wheelbarrows, coffee and sugar.

They lifted, dug, panned, scooped and otherwise extracted millions in gold from the surrounding creek beds and ravines.

Traveling in a time warp

Today, daytrippers stop in Placerville (pop. 94,000) en route to Tahoe, 57 miles to the east, or Sacramento, 45 miles to the west. The orchards on Apple Hill draw thousands every fall, and the diverse collection of pine trees in Eddy Arboretum is said to attract botanists from around the world.

Anyone interested in gold-rush history would be hard pressed to find a more intriguing destination: Placerville is one of the few U.S. cities with its own gold mine.

I spend the next few hours stepping between centuries. One minute, Main Street looks very contemporary — a baker peddling free slices of cake from shop to shop — and the next minute, I imagine 1856 and a fire raging across town, or 1860 and a Pony Express rider galloping through.

Bakeries and cafes, lodged in buildings dating to the 1800s, project Placerville's densely layered history into the present.

Many structures bear the dates of their construction on their stone and brick facades. The Masonic temple was erected in 1893, and the Cary House Hotel — the former home of Wells Fargo Bank and a stagecoach stop — opened in 1857.

Coaches and characters

Coffee pots and brooms, miniature stagecoaches and sluicing pans fill the front windows of Placerville Hardware, reportedly the oldest continuously operating hardware shop west of the Mississippi. Around the corner, an outdoor mural honors John "Snowshoe" Thompson, who, twice a month, carried mail and supplies 90 miles over the winter Sierra.

As I study the hills above town, pine trees dense as porcupine quills, I try to imagine strapping on a 70-pound pack and heading east without so much as a compass.

Across from the Cary House, a dummy dressed in a white shirt and black boots dangles from a noose. A red and green martini glass hangs between his heels and a neon sign for the Hangman's Tree saloon.

Justice, then and now

I'm not clear about the incident that turned the town originally known as Dry Diggins into Hangtown, so I walk a block to the oldest building on Main Street, a former soda water factory that now houses the El Dorado County Historical Society.

"They only hung three," says Bob Gatlin, one of the volunteers who staff the place. There was, he adds, "More publicity than hanging."

From what I can tell, the hangings occurred when someone jumped someone else's claim or purse or poker winnings and — there being a pronounced lack of prescribed legal process in post-Mexican, pre-statehood California — the locals settled the matter as they saw fit.

Things have changed a bit since then. In the next two blocks I count 11 law offices. One is lodged between an insurance company and Hangtown Tattoo & Piercing.

It took a few such lawyers, one incorporation (1854), one disbanding (1870), and another incorporation (1900) before Hangtown transformed itself into Placerville, the El Dorado County seat.

Gatlin shows me a photo of John Studebaker, who spent a few years in Hangtown building wheelbarrows before he went back east to found his wagon and auto empires.

I head across town to the local museum for a quick look at its collection of Studebaker wagons. The El Dorado County Historical Museum is the antidote to blockbuster exhibitions with endless masses of headphone-clad art-lovers crammed before an oil painting. I have this museum to myself.

I pore over a ledger from the Cary House dated 1902.

Step into another time

Around the corner, a Pony Express poster advertises job openings:

"Riders Wanted. Young, skinny, wiry fellows. Anxious for adventure and chance to see our great WEST. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred."

Mounted on the wall — beside a stagecoach, a surrey and a sheepherder's covered wagon — hang Snowshoe Thompson's skis. Carved from an oak tree on his ranch, they measure more than 9 feet long, weigh 25 pounds, and attach to the foot with a single toe strap.

Thompson spent 12 years traversing the snowy Sierra, delivering mail, medicine and news to the remotest areas, even though the Placerville postmaster couldn't pay him a dime.

In the next room, the museum has re-created a turn-of-the-19th century General Store. Its shelves are lined with things I store in my kitchen — vanilla extract, salted almonds, mustard and cloves — and brands I'd never heard of — Bale's smoked Lunch Herring, Meysee's Oysters and Crystallized Canton Ginger.

Next door, the apothecary stocks hog cholera cure, lice killer (liquid or powder) and animal dip.

The exhibitions allow me to envision the buildings I saw earlier on Main Street, emptied of their contemporary trappings and furnished as they might have looked nearly 150 years earlier, when would-be millionaires were swarming from every corner of the Earth.

Caught up in the Rush

I head southeast to the Coloma Valley and Sutter's Mill.

In January 1848, while trying to free the water wheel powering John Sutter's sawmill, James Marshall shoveled aside a pile of gravel, picked up four or five gold nuggets, and set off one of the largest voluntary migrations in history:

Within a year, 50,000 people had arrived from Mexico, Hawaii, Germany, France, England, Peru, Chile, Australia, China and Africa.

Miners in Coloma found placer gold — gold particles freed from decomposing quartz over millenniums and washed downstream.

Much of the Sutter's Mill area — James Marshall's cabin, the Wah Hop store and the Olde Coloma Theatre — is now preserved as the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. In the distance, white gold hills roll down to the river, which curls through groves of yellow aspen in the former home of Nisenan and Miwok Indians.

After a quick tour of the park, I wander down to the river, thinking about how Marshall's discovery had changed California. It strikes me that Sutter's Mill is California's true epicenter — its effects rippling through and much of the world.

Staring at the river sparkling in the sun, I think about the value of gold in the 19th century and the value of water in the 21st. The relative value of resources is shifting in ways not even the most prescient miner might have imagined.

Mija Riedel is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.

Picking a fortune: living history in California's gold country 06/23/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 23, 2008 4:30am]
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