May 8, 2007
Traveling along historic Hwy 49 in California’s Gold Country, my father as a travel companion, I pulled into the town of Columbia, just a few miles north of Sonora. We had a reservation at City Hotel, an historic inn that sits inside Columbia State Park.
The history of the hotel takes on a few differing stories, according to research. It’s possible that it started as a blacksmith shop, as early owners in the 1850s were blacksmiths. It changed hands many times, going through a variety of improvements and declines and suffering through many fires that caused substantial damage. Saloons of varying names, a retail and liquor store, the newspaper office of The Columbia Gazette and the Columbia Opera House all occupied the building between 1852 and 1865.
By 1871, it was operating as Morgan’s Hotel, with the Columbia Theatre and Music Hall housed upstairs. Fires would continue to threaten and damage the hotel during the 1900s, but it managed to persevere and stands today as historic lodging for those visiting the state park and surrounding former gold rush areas.
Columbia itself began when gold was discovered by prospectors in 1850. Briefly called Hildreth’s Diggings, it officially became the town of Columbia within a few weeks. Starting off as a tent city, it quickly built into a thriving community as people flocked to the area in search of fortune. It has seen many changes over the last hundred and fifty some years. It now stands as a living history town that is less touristy than it is educational. It’s a fascinating place.
We settled into the “Parlour Room,” a comfortable upstairs accommodation with two double beds and a private bath, though the shower room was down the hall. A central parlor on the floor provided antique sofas, chairs and a game table and allowed access to the front balcony of the hotel, which overlooked Main St. and the activity below.
Cars are required to park in specified lots, allowing the main streets of the park to be traveled only by foot, horse or horse-drawn wagon. Our view from the second floor balcony therefore took on the semblance of an authentic gold rush town. A costumed docent walked a horse down the center of the street. Two children stepped eagerly into an old-fashioned candy store, emerging with sugar-laden treats.
One advantage of staying in a living history area is that there’s no shortage of things to see. We took to the streets with our cameras and visited restored buildings such as the Miner’s Cabin Interpretive Site, the Wagon Barn, the Jail and the Chicken Coop, which was indeed complete with chickens. Especially interesting were many exhibits of life during the gold rush days – dentist’s office, livery stable, court of justice and drug store, to name a few.
Morning led us to a breakfast buffet that would match a spread at a wedding reception, served in the hotel’s restaurant area. We found a table near the window and helped ourselves to scones, fresh slices of honeydew melon and pineapple. An absolutely delicious zucchini, bell pepper and cheese quiche was also presented. The linen-covered tables held small vases of freesia. I was fairly certain the miner of the 1800s lived on quite different fare. But it was a perfect way to start the day. There were no objections from these twenty-first century guests.
While sipping coffee after the feast, I noticed a hotel attendant polishing the stairway banister. It was no surprise to see care being put into maintaining the restored premises. It was clear that the hotel staff took pride in the upkeep of the historic building. We would later learn that City Hotel is a hospitality management training facility for Columbia College.
After more camera-toting wanderings, we checked out of City Hotel and headed south to Sonora, a larger gold rush town known as the “Queen of the Southern Mines.” While still maintaining a small town ambiance, it had a bustling main street filled with shops, restaurants, bookstores and all the businesses that make up a small city. We grabbed a bite to eat at a small Mexican café and browsed the local shops before leaving the area.
California has a rich gold rush history. The visit to City Hotel and Columbia State Park, as well as the outlying areas both north and south along Hwy 89 allowed a unique view inside the lifestyle of miners long ago. Living history, up close and personal – it’s the best kind of lesson.