Monday, November 4, 2013

Western Time Diary: The Gold Rush Town of Columbia, California

The first word in my mind when arriving in the late evening in the former gold rush town of Columbia, California, was not gold. It was stars. I had never seen so many stars in my life, except for maybe the American Southwest.  There is so much light pollution in our congested northern New Jersey area, stars here were my gold dust in the night sky. 

We stayed at the Harlan House bed and breakfast, for adults only (unfortunately the owner had a few bad experiences with ill-behaved children). Families might want to check out the historic City Hotel or Fallon Hotel which was our next choice.

A front porch seems so inviting.

The rose room. Are there ghosts here? Do you believe in them? It seems like these old homes must have spirits.

Bonnets getting me in touch with my Laura Ingalls Wilder.

A beautiful cross stitch reminds us, "To love and be loved is the greatest joy on earth." I do believe this is indeed one of the greatest joys, but it doesn't have to be romantic love. It can be the love of a family member, cherished friend or pet.

Remember that Little House on the Prairie episode where the Ingalls and Edwards families tries their luck at panning for gold? Laura encounters an old man whose wife lay buried in the river, her grave robbed by hungry gold seekers.  Before her death, he always wanted more gold to buy her more things, but after he said everything he ever wanted was buried in the river. 

A breakfast scramble with hash browns, bread, fruit with jam, tea and juice. I adore a beautifully set breakfast table, accompanied by a pot of tea.

Right across the road from Harlan House is a trail leading up to a restored school house. This marker remembers a teacher Karen Bakerville Smith, who taught with the same effort toward excellence as the pioneer teachers. If you get the Hallmark Channel, you might enjoy (as I did) the adaption of When Calls the Heart, about pioneer schoolteachers, a film that is being developed into a series for 2014. In an age when so much of entertainment is shallow, I'm so glad original content is being produced showcasing teachers and the West. Who cares about the vapid lives of today's reality starlets or limited talented celebrities who can't get press without shedding their clothes? I'm so tired of hearing about them. These women's lives were far more interesting.

I like what the singer Tori Amos said, "Every day you wake up and say not,“What do I know?” but you wake up and say, “What can I learn today?” I learn so much from traveling.  We should all strive to continue learning.

I'm a little obsessed with old schoolhouses. Maybe I was a schoolteacher once in a past life?

""Gold" someone yelled above the noise of the river. "Miles north of Old Dry Creek!"

Suddenly the noise of picks and shovels stopped. Before our eyes was a swarm of men hurried out of camp to where their horses were grazing. They mounted and disappeared into the woods. Others packed tools and bedrolls onto their mules: some just started walking.

I was amazed at the power of that one word: gold." - Seeds of Hope: The Gold Rush Diary of Susanna Fairchild, California Territory 1849 by Kristiana Gregory, part of the Dear America series, an engaging fictional diary line introducing U.S. history to readers young and old.

Gold. It was on my mind for a few weeks before my wedding. I used my grandmother's engagement ring from the 1920s, but we needed wedding bands. My grandfather's didn't fit Steve and the engravings might have been jeopardized with stretching and I didn't favor the look of the yellow gold. I opted for a rose gold band for myself with tiny specks of diamonds. I asked about the origins, since I started reading H.W. Brands' "Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream"  (a book I need to get back to). I quickly learned how hard it is to trace the origins of gold.

I thought about Brands' remark in an online lecture about how he was raised in Oregon and traveled with his father seeing parts of the Lewis and Clark trail, while his wife from Maryland thought in the context of the Civil War sites. A lifelong New Jerseyan, we have revolutionary war history reminders, and so often you'll see a plaque from the historical society retracing Washington's army's steps. His wife and I never thought much of the gold rush, which brought California to statehood in just two years and was one of the largest migrations of people since the Crusades, according to Brands.

It's easy to romanticize legions of people coming from all corners of the globe seeking riches, but there was so often a root of desperation bringing the 49rs there, and the aftermath was even darker. Journalist Chris Bowman noted,

"Opportunists swarming the Sierra Nevada like grasshoppers, rearranging its rivers and streams, choking them with mining debris, polluting them with everlasting mercury, scalping hillsides, denuding forests, overfishing, overhunting, overrunning meadows with livestock, introducing diseases, displacing native plants, ousting thousands of environmentally conscious American Indians and forever shattering the primeval stillness of the mountains...Undeterred by law or conscience, the 19th-century Argonauts simply helped themselves to billions of dollars' worth of Sierra gold."

The courts would take 35 years before imposing the first restraints on the hydraulic mining. Until then it was a free-for-all.  As historian David Beesley said simply,

"There's no evidence that anyone stood up for the mountains."

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At the local bookseller, I spotted McGuffey readers. I can just hear Mrs. Beadle telling students to take these out on Little House on the Prairie. I read the readers emphasized spelling, vocabulary and public speaking which was more important in 19th century America than it is today. I think the beauty of the word isn't valued enough in our modern age.

I wondered about the lives of those pictured here.

Evangeline and Other Poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, published in 1847. What will the popular storytellers of our times tell future generations?

The Columbia cemetery.  In a New York Times op-ed piece, "The Man Who Loves Cemeteries," author Allan Gurganus writes, "A novelist needs both a dictionary and a cemetery. Graveyards offer more than your eventual remaindered resting-shelf. Approached in the joyful spirit of mortal play, they provide historic bullet points, bird sanctuaries, excellent fictitious names, and the lifelong source of such sweet calm." I think many of his points could be true for non-novelists too.

In the cemetery that sits behind his North Carolina home, he aches "most for child brides perished in childbirth. One epitaph runs: “Mother — she did all she could.”

Here lies a soul who lost their life at 26 years of age from falling down a shaft. What's so striking walking through here is the short life spans. A few celebrities were in the news of late passing away in their seventies and the first thought I had was that seems so young, but in this time it would be ancient. Many gravestones marked not just years but days. Each day mattered.

This marker is in memory of the Chinese pioneers, whose remains were disinterred and returned to their homeland.

Natalie Merchant's rendition of Poor Wayfaring Stranger from The House Carpenter's Daughter folk album comes to mind when I stroll these old cemeteries. Despite how downtrodden the narrator is, I think of the comfort they find in going on to beautiful fields to meet "my mother, said she'd meet me when I come" and to see "my loved ones, gone on before me one by one."

"Who were the homestead wives who were the gold rush brides, does anyone know? Do their works survive their yellow fever lives in pages that they wrote," Ms. Merchant pondered in the 10,000 Maniacs songs Gold Rush Brides.

At the local bookshop, I picked up A Columbia Diary, the real life diary of Clementine Brainard, covering her life from 1853-1858. Clementine wrote in the first entry on October 19, 1853 of her intentions to keep journey during her sea journey but didn't. I brought a diary with me I had romantic notions of keeping during my trip, and alas was to exhausted at day's end. My blog is the closest thing I keep to a diary of my thoughts and memories.

Clementine writes, "Do I ever have any thoughts that are worth being transferred to paper? I must be a singular individual if I do not." Do you keep a diary?

Clementine recorded memories of her husband's frequent ill health, mail deliveries (but doesn't elaborate much about what's in the letters) and speaks matter-of-factly often when talking about death (maybe unsurprisingly seeing how common early death was). She bears her first child with barely any mention before and after the event. Clementine's husband dies at age 30 and she remarries and bears six more children, four of whom die in infancy.

So much is documented (arguably overly documented) in our digital age. Will these modern forms have the permanence though of the older forms of diaries and journals?

I needed some tea to ponder all of this. I read about Columbia Kate's teahouse doing trip research beforehand, and knew I would love it before I even set foot in it. I was right.

Their dining room was bustling, so we ate in their airy, cheerful screened patio.

Tea cups adorn each table with names of mines and claims.

An autumn feast of blackberry sage tea, pumpkin soup and an apricot scone with the trimmings. Love the tea cozy!

A Meyer lemon bar to share. I've loved blue and white dishes for ages. They always bring back memories of eating mashed potatoes in my grandparents' house in Switzerland as a child.


A Columbia welcome wagon. How welcoming this town did feel, and left me with so much to think about.

On the road to Yosemite next. Coming in to Columbia, we passed by a field of wind mills. How different this view was from what the gold seekers saw, and the preservation of the environment was on my mind again. Election Day is tomorrow, with as usual little mention of how the candidates plan to protect our air, oil and water supplies - the greatest gold we have. Our local paper had a section on where the gubernatorial candidates stood on the issues and unsurprisingly the environment did not make the list, even though issues like gambling did. This in spite of the fact that New Jersey has 113 active  toxic Superfund sites, the most in the nation, and a natural gas formation has been discovered in New Jersey, opening up the possibilities of fracking in my home state. I thought about all the harm the gold seekers did, intentionally or not, with no regulation or protections of our lands.
I'll be voting tomorrow for my own gold.


  1. I'm enjoying listening to Natalie Merchant as I read this post -- must go back and pull that CD out again, it's been a while. During a summer many years ago that my famly spent up in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, my sister and I and a couple of friends took to exploring old cemeteries in the area. My father named us the Cemetery Girls. We always thought it would make a great series of books: The Cemetery Girls Take a Trip, The Cemetery Girls and the Mystery of the Old House, etc. Ah that we could get the old Cemetery Girls back together for lunch at Columbia Kate's Teahouse, what fun that would be!

  2. Natalie's House Carpenter's Daughter is one of my favorite albums to play during autumn. There's something about the wonderful storytelling in folk music and crisp weather when the soul needs warming.

    There's an old 10,000 Maniacs song called "Lilydale" from The Wishing Chair where Natalie sings,

    "come as we go far away
    from the noise of the street
    walk a path so narrow
    to a place where we feel at ease

    some think it is haunting
    to be drawn to the cemetery ground
    as we
    there's a stillness here
    thankful found"

    That would be a great series of books that I would read!