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On our way back to South Lake Tahoe following our mini-vacation, we stopped off for one night in Placerville, CA. More or less midway between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, Placerville is on Highway 50 in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains. They describe their location as “above the fog and below the snow line” which gives them something of a four seasons climate.
Eight miles from Placerville is the site of Sutter’s Mill where, in 1848, the California Gold Rush began. John Sutter was an early settler in what would soon become California. He established Sutter’s Fort, which became a major trading center in the area of what we know as Sacramento . He dispatched James Marshall to the foothills to build a sawmill on the American River. Very shortly after he began operating the mill, he found a gold nugget in the mill’s water flow. Word spread quickly and very soon the area around the mill, which became known as Coloma was overrun with prospectors.
Coloma went from boom to bust in only about 5 years. Panning for gold in the river, which is known as “placer mining” played out fairly quickly which meant that the miners had to start “hard rock” mining that involved digging up and crushing rock in order to extract the gold. Once this began, mining operations spread up and down the American River leaving Coloma to the history books.
Ironically, neither John Sutter nor James Marshall profited from all of the activity that they spurred. Sutter’s Fort was largely abandoned when the workers fled to Coloma to pursue their gold fortunes. By 1952 Sutter was bankrupt and his property was filled with squatters. Eventually, his son established a new city he named Sacramento. James Marshall tried to establish his own gold claims but was unsuccessful. The sawmill failed because nobody wanted to do this type of work when the possibility of fortunes was nearby. He attempted to establish a vineyard and returned to prospecting but ultimately died penniless. In 1890, a monument to Marshall was erected in Coloma to honor his role in the Gold Rush.
Next stop: Lake Tahoe