Tired and discouraged, the Hildreth party decided to call it quits after a dismal month of
prospecting in Calaveras County. The trail back to Woods Crossing led to Pine Log, where they
crossed the Stanislaus River over a fallen tree, the only “bridge” for miles in either direction.
Passing near a large Indian rancheria, the trail then snaked down a gulch to the foot of a small
hill where they camped for the night, spreading their blankets beneath a large oak tree. It
rained during the night, obliging the men to remain the next morning in order to dry out their
clothes and blankets.
Led by Dr. Thaddeus Hildreth, who had arrived in California on the steamship Oregon on
December 1 of 1849, the other members of the group included his younger brother George, John
Walker, William Jones, and Alexander Carson. While waiting for their blankets to dry, Walker
decided to prospect the area and headed down into a gulch leading from what is now known as
Kennebec Hill. Finding a fine bit of color in his first pan, Walker excitedly called to the
others, and soon all five men were digging and panning with great enthusiasm. Even though they
had to carry the dirt to water, their efforts were richly rewarded, convincing the men to remain
and locate at this site. Thus was Hildreths Diggings born. The date was March 27, 1850.
Captain Francis Avent was likely the next man to locate a claim in what came to be known as
Matelot Gulch. From his first day’s work he realized two and a half pounds of gold, afterwards
averaging between twelve and fifteen ounces per day until July when the water failed completely.
A few days after his arrival, miners from Sonora joined the camp, and within two weeks a wild,
sprawling tent city was home to upwards of one thousand inhabitants. Known as both Hildreths
Diggings and American Camp, the citizens felt they needed a more eloquent and lasting name. On
April 29 of 1850, Majors Farnsworth and Sullivan, and D. C. Alexander named the town Columbia,
later refered to as the “Gem of the Southern Mines.”
Columbia was rich in gold, but poor in water. Even with its great wealth and phenomenal
growth, it almost didn’t reach its first birthday. In July of 1850, the creeks and streams dried
up, forcing the mining activity to cease altogether. The camp became a ghost town, with only a
hatful of miners remaining through the summer. But toward the end of the year, miners again began
to congregate in Columbia, hoping the winter rains would furnish enough water to resume mining.
They were lucky; the rains came, allowing them to work the rich area, and the town’s population
began to grow. At the end of May in 1851, Mrs. Sarah DeNoielle joined her husband Arnold and they
opened the first boarding house in town. As Sarah was the first white woman in Columbia, she was
given a royal welcome by the miners, who reportedly formed a mile-long procession, complete with
brass band, and escorted her all the way from Sonora. Sarah later gave birth to the first child
born in Columbia on January 31 of 1852.
Unfortunately, the winter of 1850/51 was a relatively dry one and Columbia soon became a
“dry diggings” once more. Without an adequate supply of water to work the gravels, reclaiming the
gold was almost impossible, so in June of 1851 the miners met to discuss the problem. The
solution was the Tuolumne County Water Company, organized to build a ditch to Five Mile Creek to
insure a steady supply of water to the mines. The company’s efforts were frustrated at first by
the very problem it was created to solve: there was no water to power the sawmill needed to cut
the lumber to build the flumes. Heavy steam equipment had to be hauled in and finally, by late
November, the mill was in operation. The ditch was completed by the following spring.
On May 1 of 1852, amidst great rejoicing by hundreds of miners gathered for the occasion, the
waters of Five Mile Creek were turned into camp, courtesy of the Tuolumne County Water Company.
The celebrating was short-lived; however, as the ditch could not fully supply the camp’s needs.
More water was needed, so the ditch was extended to the South Fork of the Stanislaus River. This
extension cost much more than anticipated, but thanks to the pecuniary assistance afforded by D.
O. Mills & Co., Bankers of Sacramento, in the amount of $300,000, the company was able to
complete the project by August, bringing in sufficient water for Columbia’s mining and domestic
Once a steady water supply was brought to Columbia, the miners found the gold production to
be almost beyond their belief. Discoveries of large nuggets and pockets of gold became a common
occurrence, the camp’s output reportedly averaging $100,000 or more per week. Columbia was
booming. Streets were laid out and by the end of 1852 more than one hundred businesses, including
thirty saloons, twenty-one groceries, seventeen dry goods stores, seven boarding houses, four
hotels, four banks, three express offices, three theaters, two fire companies, and numerous
doctors, lawyers, and dentists served the estimated four to five thousand inhabitants. There was
also a church, a Sunday School, a Masonic Lodge, and a branch of the Sons of Temperance. Three
papers were being published and the first post office was established in November, with A. A.
Hunniwell as postmaster. There were even enough children to start a small school, marmed by a
Columbia was incorporated in May of 1854, at which time the town officers were duly elected.
The town was thriving and up to this point had not suffered a serious fire, which was somewhat of
a miracle as most of the structures were made from canvas, brush, logs, and split or sawed
lumber, in other words, tinder. Only three fire-proof brick buildings stood in town, completed
sometime during June. And they were put to the test at two o’clock in the morning, on July 10 of
H. “Babe” Crowell was accused of setting the fire. He had been refused credit in several of
the town’s businesses, after which someone claimed to hear him remark that Columbia hadn’t had a
“real” fire like some other towns. The blaze began near the corner of Broadway and Washington
streets, in an empty house owned by Soloman Trues. Roaring north, the flames consumed nearly
everything in their path, the only building to survive in the business section was Donnell and
Parson’s brick store. One of the other fire-proof buildings was destroyed by an explosion of
accumulated gas within the tightly closed, iron-shuttered building. The hook and ladder company
couldn’t do much for downtown, but was instrumental in saving the residential section where the
buildings were farther apart. When the fire was finally controlled, the losses to Columbia’s
merchants amounted to more than $500,000.
The rebuilding began before the ashes had cooled. Temporary structures were erected first,
followed quickly by sturdy, fire-proof buildings of brick and stone. Most of the new buildings
were furnished with heavy iron doors and shutters which could be closed at night, affording an
added measure of security against future fires. Over thirty brick buildings were erected after
this fire, many of which are still standing today. Partially as a result of this fire, the New
England Water Company was organized, and seven water cisterns were built under the streets of
Columbia for fire-fighting and domestic use. The water was piped to the cisterns, each capable of
holding about fourteen thousand gallons. These early pipes were still in use to 1950, at which
time the state installed a new water system.
By 1855, Columbia was one of the largest and most important cities in California. The mines
continued to produce fantastic amounts of gold, which in turn continued to attract more
inhabitants. Substantial buildings lined the streets, private homes covered the nearby hills and
flats, schools, churches, theaters and fraternal organizations served the community.
Hydraulic mining arrived in Columbia during 1856. Although this method of mining was
extremely profitable, it was also very destructive. Using giant monitors to shoot water at
tremendous pressure, the miners literally blasted the gold from the ground, leaving a vast
expanse of oddly twisted limestone formations, visible directly across from the Wells Fargo
building and throughout the surrounding countryside as their legacy. Before the miners arrived,
these areas were ten feet or more below the earth’s surface. That’s a lot of dirt to wash away.
Columbia was incorporated as a city on August 9, 1857. Life was good.
Columbia is on record as the first town in California to have gas lighting. A group of
citizens formed the Columbia Gas Company in October of 1857, and for two years, beginning in
January of 1858, the city was illuminated by gas lighting. In consideration for the privilege of
tearing up the streets to lay the gas mains, the company agreed to furnish fifteen lights free of
charge to the city, besides lighting the schools, churches and other public buildings. The street
lamps were set on top of cedar posts, providing light where there was none before. The rates were
15 cents per light until 9:00 p.m., and 20 cents for all night. The gas works were eventually
abandoned as the gas, made from pitch, formed tar deposits in the mains, effectively stopping
them up. Also, the light was of a poor quality.
Life during the Gold Rush was often demanding, but it was never dull. The Argonaut relates a
humorous incident involving William Knox, the town drunk. After some slight or affront, Knox
challenged a local gambler to a duel. The gambler proved to have the steadier hand and put a
bullet through Knox’s head, “causing considerable portions of the brain to be spattered on the
ground.” Knox survived the encounter and within a month was visiting the saloons, caging free
drinks for telling what it was like to get shot in the head.
The mines eventually began to play out in the early 1870’s, but not before the area had
yielded some $87 million in gold. That would be nearly $2 billion at today’s prices. After the
easily mined placer gold was gone and there was no other reason to stay, the population began to
drift away to other camps and other ventures. The town began to decline and over the years many
buildings were torn down to mine the land upon which they stood. Columbia joined ranks with
numerous other gold camps and became a ghost town.
As the centennial of the Gold Rush approached, the old mining camps began to attract the
attention of historians and others interested in preserving what remained from the days of gold.
In 1945, the State of California created Columbia State Historic Park. The remaining buildings
were restored to their former appearance, while other buildings not lucky enough to survive were
reconstructed into exact replicas, with the aid of old photos and documents. Today the business
district is a living museum, with the buildings open for viewing, complete with artifacts, tools,
goods, and regalia from the Gold Rush years.
Of all the towns in the Mother Lode, Columbia is the one which can best return you to the
days of the Gold Rush. Though only a small fraction of what it once was, the town contains the
best collection of Gold Rush architecture anywhere in the world. Evenings or early mornings are
the best times to visit, when no one is around to distract the imagination. Walking along the
quiet streets, the buildings have many stories to tell for those willing to spend the time to