Travel anywhere in Northern California and you can’t help but discover remnants, reminders, and sites dedicated to preserving the history of the California Gold Rush.
California gold was discovered along the American River one icy cold January day in 1848 by James Marshall at the lumber mill that John Sutter had commissioned.
That discovery was like the shot heard round the world that signaled the start of the American Revolution – but instead of a war, Sam Brannan’s shout, “Gold! Gold! Gold on the American River!” started a stampede. Would-be Argonauts scrambled to reach California, and new camps sprouted throughout the Sierra Nevada foothills.
Today, those camps have grown into towns and cities that pay tribute to the past, preserving Gold Rush era buildings, cemeteries, mines and more.
Journey to any of these popular California Gold Rush towns; you’ll delight in historic buildings, old mines, living history encounters, Gold Rush museums, and cemeteries steeped in history.
This article is the first in a series of articles about exploring and reliving California’s Gold Rush history by visiting historic Gold Rush towns.
Pioneer woman at Sutter’s Fort
John Sutter was a German/Swiss immigrant to California in about 1838 who took one look at the Sacramento Valley and had a vision of gold. But it wasn’t the kind of gold you’re thinking it was. This gold involved the rich agricultural land surrounding the Sacramento River and how he could build an empire if he could get people to come and to see his vision as he did.
He built a fort and he set about enticing others to come to California and start a new life – in agriculture. Unfortunately, his mill-site manager, James Marshall, discovered gold in the tailrace of the sawmill and California’s future veered suddenly and drastically from John Sutter’s dream.
But his fort still stands and bears testimony to pioneer life as it existed before the California Gold Rush swept the world off its feet. Visit Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park in Sacramento, California to step back in time and experience life as it was in the early days before the Gold Rush, and before California even became a state.
Special events are scheduled throughout the year and a self-guided audio tour is always available to help you get the most out of your visit.
Park hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day, when the park is closed.
Getting there: Sutter’s Fort is located at 2701 L Street in Sacramento, California
Old Sacramento buildings
While you’re in Sacramento to explore Sutter’s Fort, stop by Old Sacramento as well. This is not someone’s imaginary version of an Old West town – it’s the lovingly restored original town that existed in the mid-1800s, and it’s the site where thousands of 49ers embarked on their gold seeking adventures after traveling up the Sacramento River from San Francisco to head for the gold fields.
Explore Old Sacramento State Historic Park to discover historic buildings like the Eagle Theater (first theater built in California), and the Big Four Building (western terminus of the Pony Express). You’ll find over 50 historic buildings in Old Sacramento, plus the California State Railroad Museum, the Delta King Riverboat (now a floating hotel and restaurant), classic carriage and wagon rides, and historic walking tours.
Old Sac, as it is affectionaly referred to by locals, is also a bustling commercial district with shops, restaurants and bars, and special events throughout the year.
Park hours: The Visitors Center is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Shops, restaurants, museums, etc. each set their own hours.
Getting there: Old Sacramento is located along the Sacramento River in downtown Sacramento. Coming into Sacramento from any direction, take Interstate 5 to the J Street exit and follow the signs into park.
Coloma historic buildings
Coloma is the town that grew up around Sutter’s Mill after James Marshall discovered the first gold flecks that set off the California Gold Rush. Although both he and John Sutter wanted to keep the find a secret (to prevent gold miners from taking over the land in lieu of farmers and ranchers), word soon got out and the treasure seekers came!
Today, Coloma is part of Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, where you can participate in daily interpretive programs at the sawmill – including special events, exhibits, and living history days that are planned regularly throughout the year; or meander through the Visitors Center and Museum, explore the many buildings that have survived from Gold Rush days and some of the mining equipment that was left behind; or pan for your own gold in the American River.
Park hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Labor Day to Memorial Day Weekend; 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. from Memorial Day Weekend to Labor Day
Getting there: Coloma is located in El Dorado County. To reach Coloma from Sacramento, take Highway 50 East toward Placerville, then Highway 49 North to Coloma and Marshall Gold Discovery SHP
To learn more about the California Gold Rush, visit Discover the California Gold Rush