In its heyday, Columbia was known as the “Gem of the Southern Mines” for its prodigious output of gold, averaging $100,000 or more per week during its first decade of existence.
It was March 27, 1850, when Maine native Dr. Thaddeus Hildreth, his brother George, and their three friends claimed a rich gold strike in the Sierra Nevada foothills about five miles north of Sonora, a booming gold town and trade center. First called Hildreth Diggins, the camp quickly drew thousands of prospectors. The name changed to New Diggins, then Dry Diggings due to the lack of water, then American Camp because of the large numbers of Americans at the site.
In May 1850, its 5,000 inhabitants decided to call their settlement Columbia City.
That same month, Stockton newspapers reported these “extraordinary discoveries”: Columbia’s placer deposits covered a surface of three square miles, and were extraordinarily deep. A large hole was dug to a depth of sixty-two feet without reaching quartz, and from six feet below the surface, gold in great abundance had been taken out. As if that wasn’t enough, a lump of gold weighing four pounds seven ounces had been found, and another lump weighing seventeen ounces had been found near the same spot. Columbia was a bonanza!
Within two years Columbia boasted eight hotels, four banks, seventeen general stores, two firehouses, two bookstores, three churches, and over forty saloons and gambling houses. The Columbia Brass Band, one of ultimately thirteen brass bands, formed in 1851. Also in 1851 George Gore founded the Columbia Star, which closed after two issues due to Gore’s inability to pay for the old wooden press he had purchased, but in 1852 experienced newsman Thomas Falconer founded the town’s most important newspaper, the weekly Columbia Gazette, which ran through October 1855. Over time Columbians were served by ten local newspapers until the last one, the Columbia Citizen, folded in 1867.
Like most other gold towns, Columbia was built of wood. Vulnerable to untended candles and lanterns, it was all but destroyed by fires in 1854 and 1857. The community rebuilt each time with sturdier materials, fortified with fire-resistant iron shutters and doors. Town founder Dr. Hildreth returned home to Maine in 1855, but his brother George, who owned the Star Spangled Banner Saloon, stayed on to eventually become Columbia City Marshal, and later Tuolumne County Deputy Sheriff.
Settling families started ranches, and planted gardens. A one-room schoolhouse was built in 1860. The community thrived; in its prime Columbia was one of the largest cities in California. Yet after 1860 the easily-mined gold was gone, and inevitable decline followed. In the 1870s and 1880s, the only land left to mine was the city itself; many vacated buildings were torn down so miners could get to the gold underneath. Now down to about 500 residents, Columbia nevertheless continued to survive, while retaining much of its same 1850s character.
As the centennial of the Gold Rush approached, California saw an opportunity to preserve a typical Gold Rush town as an example of its colorful history. After purchasing Columbia’s downtown district in 1945, the State Legislature created Columbia State Historic Park.
Today Columbia is a popular, year-round destination for vacationers and day-trippers. Although modern conveniences such as electricity and indoor plumbing have been added to period-authentic structures, visitors can experience a taste of what Gold Rush life was like while strolling through shops stocked with old-time provisions and staffed by clerks wearing 19th century clothing, take a ride in a real stagecoach, try their luck at panning for gold … and perhaps spend a night in a genuine Gold Rush inn.