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Historic Coloma

Gold was discovered here ~ The rest is history!

On January 24, 1848, James Marshall discovered gold at the mill he was building for John Sutter in Culluma Valley, later called Coloma.

The Mill ~ Although Sutter's empire was headquartered at Sutter's Fort near the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers in the Sacramento Valley, his ambition prompted him to enter into a partnership with carpenter James Marshall to build a lumber mill in the foothills so that timber might be sent down the American River to his river-front property in the valley and be used to build and expand his domain. Marshall selected the valley where the Culluma Indians dwelt.

During the mill's construction, the workers diverted the river each night through the man-made ditch, or tailrace, under the mill to help deepen it. When construction resumed in the morning, the flow would be stopped for the day and the race would be inspected.

The Discovery ~ One winter morning, while inspecting the previous night's progress on the tailrace, Marshall noticed some metal glittering in the drained area. Believing that he may have found gold, he tried testing it. One way was by dropping some of it into a big iron kettle where Mrs. Wimmer, the camp cook, was boiling soap. This treatment had no effect on the nuggets, which convinced him it must be gold. Within a few days, he headed for Sutter's Fort, where he and John Sutter subjected the metal to several acid tests. The conclusion was clear - it was gold!

The Gold Rush ~ Sutter attempted to keep the discovery a secret until he could obtain official title to the area in Culluma Valley. But the news leaked out and spread slowly but relentlessly all over the world, bringing people of all nationalities flocking to the mill site and surrounding areas. By 1849, the California Gold Rush was in full swing.

The Celestials ~ With the great multi-national influx, Coloma developed a large population of Chinese, also referred to as Celestials after the Empire. These miners were instantly held in contempt by the others because of their different way of life. They worked long and hard for little pay, were happy to rework claims that had been abandoned, and lived quite frugally compared to their free-wheeling neighbors. The Celestials bore the brunt of vicious discrimination, with many negative expressions originating on their account, such as "He doesn't have a Chinaman's chance."

At one point, a dispute arose over a plot of land in Coloma that was sold to the Chinese but claimed by some Irishmen. The courts ruled in favor of the Chinese, but the Irish vowed to get rid of them. A mob lead by James O'Donnell mustered up their manly courage by getting soused at Bell's bar and attacked the Chinese community, killing some, badly beating many others, vandalizing, and stealing. The town constable ordered the mob to disperse, but they ignored him in their drunken rage, so he took down their names and arrested 16 of them the following day. Many of the rioters either left town for good or went into hiding to escape prosecution. Others spent the summer in jail.

A New Town ~ After Marshall's discovery, a booming little town soon developed, and the name "Culluma", which means Beautiful or Happy Valley in Indian, was changed to Coloma. It was the first place fortune-seekers headed when they arrived in San Francisco, until gold was discovered in surrounding areas. Then Coloma became a trade center for the new camps. By 1849, it had several stores, hotels, businesses, saloons, and gambling houses. Coloma has the distinction of having the first ditch in the region, the El Dorado. It brought water over six miles so miners could work the placers. In addition, Coloma had the first ferry on the South Fork of the American River, and also the first bridge in the county.

A New County ~ El Dorado County was formed in 1850, with Coloma as the county seat. This didn't go unnoticed (or approved) by neighboring Hangtown and Diamond Springs, however. Dissention rose over this issue until the Legislature ordered an election between Placerville and Coloma in 1857. The rumors of fraudulent voting practices during this election were outrageous! The polls were kept open until late into the night and people were voting as many times as they wanted, even traveling from precinct to precinct, voting in each. (Placerville was charged with casting twice as many votes as it had residents.) A stagecoach made the rounds of outlying camps, allowing each distant miner to vote multiple times. (This was blamed on Coloma.) One enterprising merchant used a passenger list from a ship docked in San Francisco Bay, casting one vote for Coloma for each individual named! Both sides challenged the outcome, and the decision went to the Legislature, which officially appointed Placerville as the county seat in 1858.

The First Mayor ~ Mr. Shannon, a general store owner, was the first mayor of Coloma. In those early years, there was little official law and order, so miners made laws as they saw fit at meetings with the mayor. Disputes were settled and offenders punished, if needed, usually by banishment from the camp or worse, by whipping. Not to be overlooked was the ultimate punishment, the hanging, particularly the Crane-Free double hanging.

Hang Two ~ Jerry Crane had the dubious distinction of being the first to be hanged in Coloma. He murdered one of his students because, as he claimed, he "loved" her, although a little investigating revealed that he had a wife and family back East. He was arrested at his home in Ringgold for the murder, and there was a lynching attempt. However, the Sheriff got him out of town and into the Coloma jail. On the gallows at his execution, Crane sang some verses he had composed to a popular tune of the day.

Next in line after Crane was the notorious Mickey Free, who was involved in a cutthroat gang that specialized in raiding and robbing Chinese camps and murdering lonely miners. He was responsible for the murder of a roadhouse keeper. Later, he wrote a confession, "Life of Mickey Free", which was published by the local Empire County Argus paper. At his execution following Jerry Crane's, he cocked his hat over one eye and tossed peanuts into his mouth. When his turn came, he tried to sing, but broke down completely.

The Reality ~ You can just imagine how tales of gold were embellished and fancified as they were passed from person to gold-struck person. Instead of being greeted in Coloma by mounds of nuggets ready to be bagged, hard work awaited greenhorn miners. Fortunately, Georgia miners were able to suggest improvements, including the rocker, or cradle. Then came the long tom, then the sluice box. When placer deposits dwindled, hardrock (quartz) mining became popular. Hydraulic mining made a brief appearance in certain areas but was prohibited because of the widespread damage it did to important waterways and crops downstream. Its awesome path of destruction is still evident today in some areas of California.

Landmarks ~ James Marshall is buried not far from his Coloma cabin, beneath the monument erected in his honor in 1890 in the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. The monument has a bronze statue of Marshall on top, looking towards the mill at the river, with one hand pointing to the gold discovery site.

The Vineyard House was the site of a prize-winning vineyard. It's original owner committed suicide and the second owner is said to have gone mad. The Sierra Nevada House III is a replica built on the former site of two other hotels.


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