By: Grainne Rhuad
This road trip begins at the beginning. Or at least the beginning I remember. Columbia, a gold rush town turned state park in Northern California which is the first home I remember living in as a child.
Columbia sits in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, it’s blessed with a temperate winter and a hotter than the hinges of hell summer, which I guess makes for good gold mining conditions, particularly hydro-mining. When gold was discovered here in1850 it became an overnight boomtown. Mostly due to the fact that everyone was already in the area mining in places like Sonora (3miles away) and Jackson (same).
It’s a fact that things seem bigger to you when you are younger. Perhaps an overstated and trite one, but a fact nonetheless. I think about this as I stand in front of the overgrown undeveloped property where the first home I remember once stood. I didn’t really expect to be wowed by my homecoming, after all I had told everyone all my life I had lived part of my childhood in a ghost town. The home I remember was falling down while we lived in it. I remember the back stairs being particularly precarious. But the lot itself, while it still matched up to my topographical memories, was like a miniature of what was still held inside my child mind. Minus the house of course. This lot we had lived on was owned by the state of California and let out to low income families with special provisions to keep them looking authentic to the gold rush period and with the understanding that they wouldn’t be kept up and would eventually fall. The house next door was doing its level best to fall back into nature and yet the one next to that was in perfect repair.
The stranger thing which I found somewhat disconcerting was how large in comparison the town of Columbia itself is, even still. In fact, it is a good deal larger than I ever remembered it. I suppose at 4 years old the one block walk “to town” seemed a bit farther and the town didn’t exist past the grocery, bakery and candy store for me. I believe I was faintly aware of the saloon in which I would get sarsaparilla occasionally, I think… and a hotel. Although I found there was more than one hotel and bed and breakfast in town.
Columbia is not really a Ghost Town per say as it is still inhabited. It is a California State Historic Park and a unique one at that. While it is run by the state with all lands and buildings protected, many people live and work and go about their lives in this town still today. There is a school here, many restaurants, a grocery, businesses that cater to all needs while keeping a gold rush feel, like candles and soap and sundries, as well as museums providing displays of all things gone past, like liveries, dentist/doctors and bowling alleys. Not to mention the business of mining itself.
But then Columbia was never a normal Gold Rush town. It was a metropolitan township with entertainment, culture and food that could rival San Francisco. It was early on named “The Gem of the Southern Mines.” It is to this day not yet played out, although mining has slowed due to environmental awareness and preservation. It remains a gem.
The area drew to it immigrants from around the world. 49’ers quickly staked their claims and brought their families out or married Mexican and Native women in the area. In fact the Mexican population of Columbia was such that it hosted the very first Cinco de Mayo Celebration in California following the battle of Puebla in 1862. The family population was so large here that California’s first two storey schoolhouse was built and it stands to this day as a beautiful building deserving of such a rich town. I can clearly remember going up to the school when I was young fully believing I was going to go to kindergarten there. I never did, it was in fact closed in the early 1930’s. I do remember my momentous excitement thinking it was going to be mine. It was overwhelming and exciting and important feeling to climb those impressive steps. It only opens as a museum now and only on the weekends so we didn’t get to go inside, it being mid-week.
On the weekends in the summer historical re-enactments take place including the things you would expect like candle making, sluice boxing, panning, gun fighting in the street. All manner of people in costume go about their daily routine looking for all the world like they stepped out of the 1800’s. It has been rumored that ghosts inhabit some of the sites here. The Fallon Hotel has been featured on a couple of Ghost Hunting shows including The Haunted Collector (SyFy) this year. (Which I have mentioned before I love for its MST3K effect) I imagine that if someone’s spirit was going to linger for whatever reason, the constant life continuing in such a familiar way would be a bit confusing.
I however feel perfectly at peace. I’m sure this is because I was a part of this place, a piece of me belongs here. I can remember taking our mule Mariah down to the main street and allowing tourists to sit on her for pictures to supplement our income. We were active in the community and gifted pieces of ourselves to the visitors who would take pictures of our hanging laundry and wash bucket from the seats of the stage coach as it drove past our house.
On the way out I take a moment to roll a couple of balls at the Alley. It is made of the same boards the boardwalk is made out of they are old and reclaimed from someplace, it could be anywhere, it could be my old house. Unevenly they lead to the pins which are carved of wood but lighter than modern pins. A sign on the wall invites people to bowl so long as you set up your own pins again. Kids are dancing about from foot to foot wanting to play and their nervous parents, not wanting to disturb the display hold them back. So I give them a wink step up and grab a cast iron ball. It’s about the size of a large grapefruit. I bowl a 9 on my first try. But on my second, magick! A strike. Victory fingers in the air I turn around to see kids pointing and their parents letting their hands go so they can try.
As we leave the town for our next destination, we pass a cowboy playing his guitar in the street; with one single small girl twirling around him as her parents listen to a park ranger. I usually walk everywhere I go with small bills and change in my pockets. I give to buskers as an obeisance. I reach to my pockets to find them uncharacteristically empty, which makes me a bit sad as he is now breaking into a yodel meant originally to call across cattle to his compatriots. It is stunningly beautiful. However, he has no hat, or case of any sort out. He is playing purely for love which seems just right.
*Traveler’s tip: The RV campgrounds listed at the Visit Columbia Website are very accommodating to tent camping and shady. Also, the town of Sonora is only about 3 miles up the road and offers more in the way of motels and chain restaurants as well as grocery. About 5 miles away from Columbia is the Calaveras County fairgrounds where in the late spring you can also catch the famous Frog Jumping competitions written about by Mark Twain. In the summer months the fairgrounds host several music festivals. If you want to see historical re-enactments as well as visit all the museums and shops, go on the weekend. Many are closed midweek as the volunteers who live and work in the town have day jobs.
For more information on visiting Columbia visit: http://www.visitcolumbiacalifornia.com/#
For Camping in the area: http://www.gocalaveras.com/family-vacation-camping-in-calaveras-county/