Columbia: The any-day getaway

July 6, 2008 

COLUMBIA -- In fast-paced California, one town remains dedicated to preserving its past: Columbia, Tuolumne County's meticulously maintained "time in a bottle" vestige of the Gold Rush era.

On a walk down Main Street, visitors can choose to pan for gold, watch a horseshoe being made, stomp along with street musicians playing Gold Rush ditties, sample hand-made candy or try their skill in an old bowling lane -- then cap it all with a picnic under the trees or enjoy a meal at a saloon.

Today, miners still populate Columbia. One, Gil Morrison of Matelot Gulch, says gold pan sales are up 40 percent, meaning "gold fever" is still alive. Geologists claim that up to 80 percent of the Mother Lode vein is still waiting to be tapped. However, Morrison says "the gold is buried deep and takes a lot of hard work."

Visitors are mostly weekend miners, spending their weekdays working 9 to 5 and weekends "digging for color."

Columbia, just up Highway 49 from Sonora, had a slow start in California's Gold Rush but then boomed for 10 years.

Like all Gold Rush towns, fire was a tremendous threat to the shantylike construction that used whatever materials were at hand. Early canvas and wooden buildings succumbed to two major fires in 1854 and '57 before residents rallied to buy Tuolumne County's first fire engine to guard against future conflagrations.

Nevertheless, two more devastating fires, one in 1861 and another in 1920, destroyed more buildings. The town's two hand- operated fire engines were critical in confining the fires, preventing further catastrophe.

As suddenly as the rush began, it ended when the gold ran out. It wasn't until the 1920s and '30s that people began to think of saving the town as a Gold Rush monument.

Through a grass-roots campaign, interest in the town slowly grew. In 1945, after the Depression and World War II, Columbia State Historic Park finally was signed into law.

Mom-and-pop truck farms have been replaced by wineries and Christmas tree farms. Columbia, with the help of California State Parks, was reborn and now helps visitors see a side of long-gone California.

The fire company still owns it's two hand-powered engines, and while modern firefighting equipment protects the community, they still host an annual firefighting competition where antique fire apparatus is the center of attention.

Cars are not allowed on the streets, but visitors can ride a real stagecoach. The shops are an eclectic collection of small- town Americana.

Tourists wander through town, visiting a candy store (where they can watch confections being made before their eyes), a fabric store (where electronic gadgets can't be found on the next aisle), brick hotels with antique furnishings, coffee and ice cream stores and, of course, the miner's favorite: a real saloon, the same one where miners of the 1850s raised a glass.

A saloon still serves local sarsaparilla, beer and wine across the same long wooden bar.

On the road to Columbia, stops at Railtown in Jamestown and shops in downtown Sonora add to the experience.

Info: www.columbiacalifornia.com or 536-1672

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