Among American travelers, there’s a perception that if you want to experience history, you have to go to Europe. Europe is after-all a much older continent than North America, with historic sites that pre-date the existence of the USA by hundreds, if not thousands of years!
But that doesn’t mean American history isn’t worth exploring, and one of the most fascinating periods was the California Gold Rush, when citizens of the world descended on California seeking fortune through mining.
It was the success of Irish miners during those years that gave birth to the phrase ‘the luck of the Irish.’ We may not always recognize it, but the cultural influence of the Gold Rush on American society is huge.
Its impact upon pop culture today continues, where games like ‘Gold Rush’ and ‘Wild West Gold’ channel the Gold Rush as a backdrop. For all the riches people may have won from those slots and casino games though, they’ve never made as much as the lucky Californian prospectors!
California is a great destination even if you’re not going there for a history lesson, but if American history is your thing, there’s a whole host of exciting and interesting Gold Rush-related sites for you to partake in.
This is our guide to the best of them.
Experience Gold Rush History in California
Black Chasm Cave
Black Chasm Cave in the tiny town of Volcano is a fascinating place to visit for the whole family. It was discovered by gold miners in 1854, but in truth, it never yielded huge amounts of gold.
It is, however, full of many other treasures and spectacular scenery. It doesn’t just have stalagmites and stalactites – it has lesser-spotted helictites, too! These amazing crystals defy gravity as they twist and curl from the cave wall in every direction.
The rock formations inside the caves are unique, and the cool environment in the darkness of the black chasm is a welcome relief on hot summer days. The cave is vertically oriented with 3 platforms and 5 flights of stairs.
Located about 2 hours outside Sacramento, gemstone mining and panning for gold are available at the site, but if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can try the enormous labyrinth.
Be warned – if you take on the maze, you’ll be delving deep into tunnels dug by 19th-century miners, and you’ll need plenty of energy to make it all the way to the end!
The connection between Sacramento and the Gold Rush is set in stone, and will always remain that way. Sacramento has long-since embraced that fact, and this part of the old town celebrates it in many different ways.
Old Sacramento is like an open-air living museum, with stage shows featuring performers in authentic Old West dress, buildings and equipment untouched since the days of the Gold Rush, and a special festival that’s held on Labor Day weekend every year.
While you’re in Old Sacramento, you may want to ‘double up’ and stop by the California Railroad Museum. It has some truly spectacular displays and exhibits and is cemented in history as the place where the First Transcontinental Railroad was created.
Although it’s probably better known as the town in which the prison Johnny Cash once sang about is based, Folsom had a vital role in the days of the Gold Rush.
Some of the earliest Gold Rush settlers and pioneers arrived and set up home in Folsom, including Sam Brannan – a journalist who founded the California Star and wrote the very first articles about the Gold Rush which attracted much attention.
Folsom isn’t a large town, but it’s very proud of its history, and its Gold Rush landmarks are clearly signposted. Anything you can’t find outdoors will likely be available indoors at the Folsom History Museum.
Columbia State Historic Park
Columbia State Historic Park might be the best known Gold Rush location, and therefore the most obvious one to visit. This is a living a living gold rush town, and it has the largest collection of gold rush-era structures in the state.
If you (or your children) want to get a real taste of what life was like for those 19th-century dream-seekers, Columbia State Historic Park is the place to go. It’s literally like traveling back in time, with all the sights, smells, and sounds of a nineteenth century mining town.
If you’re going to come here, choose the second Saturday of the month to do it. This is when the special ‘Gold Rush Days’ take place, and you’ll get to see the park at its best. There are special tours that don’t occur any other time of the month, and there are also arts and crafts available for visitors to take part in.
Panning for gold is available here, and there are a huge range of shops and boutiques that sell 19th century goods. Restaurants range from ice cream parlors, candy stores, saloons, and a tea house. You can also hit up their portrait studio and dress up for an old-time photo.
Image: David Berry (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr
Empire Mine State Historic Park
Image: KRoark (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr
You’ll get a sense of how the average prospector lived from visiting the other locations we’ve mentioned, but to find out how those who made the most money fared, you’ll want visit Empire Mine State Historic Park.
Here you can spend time in the fabulous mansion that once belonged to William Bowers Bourn Jr, who ran the mine from 1879 onward. Bourn styled his luxury home after the grand estates he’d seen in England, and his creation rivals anything you’ll find there.
It’s not all about living the upper-class lifestyle, though. Once you’re done inside the mansion, you’ll be taken down into the old mine itself. It’s the oldest and the largest of all the gold mines in California, running up below the ground for over 350 miles.
Don’t worry – you won’t be expected to walk all of it! You can take a guided tour any weekend between May and September each year, so time your visit carefully to avoid disappointment.
California has plenty to offer aside from history, so spending a day or two in a Gold Rush town could be tagged on to a week or two enjoying California’s other sights and sounds.
Never let it be said that there’s no history to come and see in America!