Tired and discouraged, the Hildreth party decided to call it quits after a dismal month of prospecting in Calaveras County. The trail back to Woods Crossing led to Pine Log, where they crossed the Stanislaus River over a fallen tree, the only “bridge” for miles in either direction. Passing near a large Indian rancheria, the trail then snaked down a gulch to the foot of a small hill where they camped for the night, spreading their blankets beneath a large oak tree. It rained during the night, obliging the men to remain the next morning in order to dry out their clothes and blankets.
Led by Dr. Thaddeus Hildreth, who had arrived in California on the steamship Oregon on December 1 of 1849, the other members of the group included his younger brother George, John Walker, William Jones, and Alexander Carson. While waiting for their blankets to dry, Walker decided to prospect the area and headed down into a gulch leading from what is now known as Kennebec Hill. Finding a fine bit of color in his first pan, Walker excitedly called to the others, and soon all five men were digging and panning with great enthusiasm. Even though they had to carry the dirt to water, their efforts were richly rewarded, convincing the men to remain and locate at this site. Thus was Hildreths Diggings born. The date was March 27, 1850.
Captain Francis Avent was likely the next man to locate a claim in what came to be known as Matelot Gulch. From his first day’s work he realized two and a half pounds of gold, afterwards averaging between twelve and fifteen ounces per day until July when the water failed completely. A few days after his arrival, miners from Sonora joined the camp, and within two weeks a wild, sprawling tent city was home to upwards of one thousand inhabitants. Known as both Hildreths Diggings and American Camp, the citizens felt they needed a more eloquent and lasting name. On April 29 of 1850, Majors Farnsworth and Sullivan, and D. C. Alexander named the town Columbia, later referred to as the “Gem of the Southern Mines.”
Saloons and gambling houses were always the first ventures to open in any new camp, which generally attracted a rough crowd. The miners determined that the best way to help keep law and order was to elect an Alcalde. Major Richard F. Sullivan was chosen, along with a man named Gregsby to serve as the town constable. The first case reportedly brought before Sullivan was a matter of theft; An American miner accusing a foreign miner of stealing a pair of leggings. Sullivan’s judgment: The foreign miner was fined three ounces for stealing, and the American miners once ounce for bringing the complaint.
Columbia was rich in gold, but poor in water. Even with its great wealth and phenomenal growth, it almost didn’t reach its first birthday. In July of 1850, the creeks and streams dried up, forcing the mining activity to cease altogether. The camp became a ghost town, with only a hatful of miners remaining through the summer. But toward the end of the year, miners again began to congregate in Columbia, hoping the winter rains would furnish enough water to resume mining. They were lucky; the rains came, allowing them to work the rich area, and the town’s population began to grow. At the end of May in 1851, Mrs. Sarah DeNoielle joined her husband Arnold and they opened the first boarding house in town. As Sarah was the first white woman in Columbia, she was given a royal welcome by the miners, who reportedly formed a mile-long procession, complete with brass band, and escorted her all the way from Sonora. Sarah later gave birth to the first child born in Columbia on January 31 of 1852.
Unfortunately, the winter of 1850/51 was a relatively dry one and Columbia soon became a “dry diggings” once more. Without an adequate supply of water to work the gravels, reclaiming the gold was almost impossible, so in June of 1851 the miners met to discuss the problem. The solution was the Tuolumne County Water Company, organized to build a ditch to Five Mile Creek to insure a steady supply of water to the mines. The company’s efforts were frustrated at first by the very problem it was created to solve: there was no water to power the sawmill needed to cut the lumber to build the flumes. Heavy steam equipment had to be hauled in and finally, by late November, the mill was in operation. The ditch was completed by the following spring.
On May 1 of 1852, amidst great rejoicing by hundreds of miners gathered for the occasion, the waters of Five Mile Creek were turned into camp, courtesy of the Tuolumne County Water Company. The celebrating was short-lived; however, as the ditch could not fully supply the camp’s needs. More water was needed, so the ditch was extended to the South Fork of the Stanislaus River. This extension cost much more than anticipated, but thanks to the pecuniary assistance afforded by D. O. Mills & Co., Bankers of Sacramento, in the amount of $300,000, the company was able to complete the project by August, bringing in sufficient water for Columbia’s mining and domestic needs.
Once a steady water supply was brought to Columbia, the miners found the gold production to be almost beyond their belief. Discoveries of large nuggets and pockets of gold became a common occurrence, the camp’s output reportedly averaging $100,000 or more per week. Columbia was booming. Streets were laid out and by the end of 1852 more than one hundred businesses, including thirty saloons, twenty-one groceries, seventeen dry goods stores, seven boarding houses, four hotels, four banks, three express offices, three theaters, two fire companies, and numerous doctors, lawyers, and dentists served the estimated four to five thousand inhabitants. There was also a church, a Sunday School, a Masonic Lodge, and a branch of the Sons of Temperance. Three papers were being published and the first post office was established in November, with A. A. Hunniwell as postmaster. There were even enough children to start a small school, marmed by a Mrs. Haley.
Columbia was incorporated in May of 1854, at which time the town officers were duly elected. The town was thriving and up to this point had not suffered a serious fire, which was somewhat of a miracle as most of the structures were made from canvas, brush, logs, and split or sawed lumber, in other words, tinder. Only three fire-proof brick buildings stood in town, completed sometime during June. And they were put to the test at two o’clock in the morning, on July 10 of 1854.
H. “Babe” Crowell was accused of setting the fire. He had been refused credit in several of the town’s businesses, after which someone claimed to hear him remark that Columbia hadn’t had a “real” fire like some other towns. The blaze began near the corner of Broadway and Washington streets, in an empty house owned by Soloman Trues. Roaring north, the flames consumed nearly everything in their path, the only building to survive in the business section was Donnell and Parson’s brick store. One of the other fire-proof buildings was destroyed by an explosion of accumulated gas within the tightly closed, iron-shuttered building. The hook and ladder company couldn’t do much for downtown, but was instrumental in saving the residential section where the buildings were farther apart. When the fire was finally controlled, the losses to Columbia’s merchants amounted to more than $500,000.
The rebuilding began before the ashes had cooled. Temporary structures were erected first, followed quickly by sturdy, fire-proof buildings of brick and stone. Most of the new buildings were furnished with heavy iron doors and shutters which could be closed at night, affording an added measure of security against future fires. Over thirty brick buildings were erected after this fire, many of which are still standing today. Partially as a result of this fire, the New England Water Company was organized, and seven water cisterns were built under the streets of Columbia for fire-fighting and domestic use. The water was piped to the cisterns, each capable of holding about fourteen thousand gallons. These early pipes were still in use to 1950, at which time the state installed a new water system.
By 1855, Columbia was one of the largest and most important cities in California. The mines continued to produce fantastic amounts of gold, which in turn continued to attract more inhabitants. Substantial buildings lined the streets, private homes covered the nearby hills and flats, schools, churches, theaters and fraternal organizations served the community.
It was on the afternoon of October 10th of 1855, that John Huron Smith of Knickerbocker Flat stopped by Martha Barclay’s Lone Star Saloon for some refreshment. The Lone Star was not the first saloon Smith had visited that day, but it would prove to his last. Either by accident or on purpose, the story goes that Smith broke a glass pitcher and became embroiled in a quarrel with Martha Barclay. High words followed and Smith reportedly “laid hands” onto the woman. John Barclay, Martha’s husband, happened to enter the saloon at this time and witnessed the events. He pulled a pistol and shot Smith dead. Barclay was immediately taken into custody and confined in the town jail.
In a short time a large mob had gathered outside the small jail. J.W. Coffroth, the popular and accomplished lawyer and orator, spoke to the excited crowd stating he was normally in favor of sustaining the laws but that this occurrence was “of a character to demand the speediest vengeance, and to warrant the people in taking the execution of the law into their own hand, and to mete out justice upon the spot.” The murdered man had been a good friend of Mr. Coffroth, and his little speech incited the mob to rush the jail, where they overpowered the town marshal and a few officers. A keg of powder was placed in position to blow the iron doors open, but cooler heads advocated the use of crowbars, sledge-hammers and axes. When the doors gave way, the prisoner sprang out as if to escape, but was instantly apprehended and carried off by the excited mass, “amidst cries, oaths and imprecations.”
The mob gathered at a spot on the road to Gold Springs, beneath the flume of the Tuolumne County Water Company. Judge and jury were appointed, Coffroth appointed prosecuting attorney and John Oxley counsel for the prisoner. But the outcome was predetermined. Witnesses for the defendant were not allowed to speak, even his advocate was interrupted and his voice drowned out. Coffroth; however, was allowed all the time he needed to further inflame the crowd. As the jury retired to render their verdict, Sheriff Stuart arrived. Demanding that the crowd turn over the prisoner, he attempted to cut the man loose, but violent hands restrained him, bruising his face and disarming him A heavy blow from the butt of a pistol knocked him to the ground. His very life may have been lost but for a solitary friend who intercepted a bowie knife aimed at the sheriff’s body.
The History of Tuolumne County, published in 1882, replays the events which followed: “The miserable prisoner, haltered by the rope suspended from the flume above, was drawn up by his executioners overhead, ascending with a savage yell from the multitude. No precautions had been taken to pinion the victim, and he, reaching upward, seized with desperate grip the rope, above his head, and held on with the force given by the fear of death. To break his hold, those above drew him up and let him down suddenly, several times, but still his powerful grasp held good. One of the executioners, leaning over the flume, called out, ‘Let go, you _____ fool, let go!’ Finally his strength gave out; the hands fell to his sides. Drawing up his legs, he gave a few convulsive movements, and then hung straight. All was over, for body and soul had parted. The spectacle was well said to be truly horrifying: a human form, hanging by the neck, in mid air; a vast throng of men, shouting, yelling and jumping; while the red and lurid glare of torches and bonfires sent a horrid flash upon the terrible scene.” It may not have been the most gruesome lynching of the Gold Rush, but it certainly ranks among them.
Hydraulic mining arrived in Columbia during 1856. Although this method of mining was extremely profitable, it was also very destructive. Using giant monitors to shoot water at tremendous pressure, the miners literally blasted the gold from the ground, leaving a vast expanse of oddly twisted limestone formations, visible directly across from the Wells Fargo building and throughout the surrounding countryside as their legacy. Before the miners arrived, these areas were ten feet or more below the earth’s surface. That’s a lot of dirt to wash away.
Columbia was incorporated as a city on August 9, 1857. Life was good.
FIRE! Once again the cry was heard in Columbia. On August 25th of 1857, a Chinese miner was cooking his dinner when the grease caught fire, catching the canvas-covered wall, and in short order, the whole building. The fire raged through town, burning from Pacific Street on the north to the Main Gulch on the south, and from Columbia Street on the east to Broadway on the west. The fire companies sprang into action almost immediately, but the water gave out shortly afterwards and there was nothing they could do to prevent the destruction. Thirteen square blocks were lost, with many supposedly fire-proof buildings vanishing in the intense heat of the flames. One block managed to survive the inferno; however, when a Mr. Knapp extinguished the flames on his roof with two barrels of vinegar. The fire proved a costly one to the town, in terms of both lives and property. Five men were killed when a large quantity of gunpowder exploded in H.N. Brown’s store, and when the list of damages was completed, more than $1 million in property had been lost.
Once again Columbia faced rebuilding. In order to prevent the town from ever perishing in blazes again, several new fire prevention ordinances went into effect: All black powder would be stored out of town; all brick buildings would be built with double thick common walls; merchants would be required to keep on hand two barrels of water and three buckets; and the city would purchase a fire engine and other fire-fighting equipment. Blamed for the fire, the Chinese were banned from the city limits. The town rebuilt, on an even larger and grander scale, and mining life went on.
Columbia is on record as the first town in California to have gas lighting. A group of citizens formed the Columbia Gas Company in October of 1857, and for two years, beginning in January of 1858, the city was illuminated by gas lighting. In consideration for the privilege of tearing up the streets to lay the gas mains, the company agreed to furnish fifteen lights free of charge to the city, besides lighting the schools, churches and other public buildings. The street lamps were set on top of cedar posts, providing light where there was none before. The rates were 15 cents per light until 9:00 p.m., and 20 cents for all night. The gas works were eventually abandoned as the gas, made from pitch, formed tar deposits in the mains, effectively stopping them up. Also, the light was of a poor quality.
Life during the Gold Rush was often demanding, but it was never dull. The Argonaut relates a humorous incident involving William Knox, the town drunk. After some slight or affront, Knox challenged a local gambler to a duel. The gambler proved to have the steadier hand and put a bullet through Knox’s head, “causing considerable portions of the brain to be spattered on the ground.” Knox survived the encounter and within a month was visiting the saloons, caging free drinks for telling what it was like to get shot in the head.
The mines eventually began to play out in the early 1870’s, but not before the area had yielded some $87 million in gold. That would be nearly $2 billion at today’s prices. After the easily mined placer gold was gone and there was no other reason to stay, the population began to drift away to other camps and other ventures. The town began to decline and over the years many buildings were torn down to mine the land upon which they stood. Columbia joined ranks with numerous other gold camps and became a ghost town.
As the centennial of the Gold Rush approached, the old mining camps began to attract the attention of historians and others interested in preserving what remained from the days of gold. In 1945, the State of California created Columbia State Historic Park. The remaining buildings were restored to their former appearance, while other buildings not lucky enough to survive were reconstructed into exact replicas, with the aid of old photos and documents. Today the business district is a living museum, with the buildings open for viewing, complete with artifacts, tools, goods, and regalia from the Gold Rush years.
Of all the towns in the Mother Lode, Columbia is the one which can best return you to the days of the Gold Rush. Though only a small fraction of what it once was, the town contains the best collection of Gold Rush architecture anywhere in the world. Evenings or early mornings are the best times to visit, when no one is around to distract the imagination. Walking along the quiet streets, the buildings have many stories to tell for those willing to spend the time to listen.
Columbia is located two miles off Hwy 49 via Parrots Ferry Road, which branches off of Hwy 49 just north of Sonora.
The Fallon Hotel and Theatre is undoubtedly one of Columbia’s most impressive buildings remaining from the Gold Rush. Owen Fallon, a stone cutter from Ireland, arrived in Columbia with his family in 1856. Choosing the life of an innkeeper over that of the miner, Fallon purchased a miners’ boarding place known as the Main House in April of 1857. Constructed sometime after the fire of 1854, which destroyed the previous wooden stores on the site, the Main House survived until it was claimed by the fire of 1857. Fallon rebuilt, his second building lasting until 1859, when it too went up in flames. Learning his lesson, Fallon built his third structure of brick. It was completed in 1860 and opened as the Fallon House. His two neighbors to the east also built of brick after the fire in 1859, and in 1863 he purchased the building next door from a Mr. Cardinell and joined the two buildings by opening a hallway. Fallon later acquired the Gunn Saloon which was the next building to the east. These three buildings became Fallon’s Hotel.
Fallon's son, James, took over the operation of the hotel some years later. A native of Columbia, James built a new theatre and dance hall behind the hotel in 1885. Supported by iron springs, the floor of the dance hall was known for its "bounce." James was also an accomplished artist who painted the scenery for the stage sets of the theatre, as well as the altar paintings of St. Anne's Catholic Church. Thomas Conlin purchased the Fallon House in 1889, remodeling and adding the arch doorway in the center of the building using marble from the Columbia quarry. Restored, the Fallon Hotel is available for travelers in need of lodging.
The Columbia Gazette Office was originally built in 1853, with a book store being added to the office the following year. The building also housed a drug store, and later a saloon on the ground floor. Built of wood, this structure was destroyed by fire in 1859. It was reconstructed in 1966.
The Eagle Cotage was originally a miners’ boarding house which could sleep up to one hundred miners on a crowded night. A barber shop also operated here, providing the miners with a place to spruce up for a night on the town. It too was destroyed by fire in 1859, being rebuilt in 1964. The mis-spelling of the word “cotage” on the sign pole in front of the building was taken from a lithograph of the town published during the early 1850s.
The Masonic Hall stands upon a lot which was originally a mining claim in 1851. By 1853; however, a large wooden building known as the Saint Charles Hotel and Restaurant stood on the site. The hotel was destroyed by the fire of 1854, after which a man named Gillespi purchased the cleared lot, erecting a two-story brick building in 1855. The lower floor housed the Columbia Flour & Feed Store while the upper floor, reached by an outside stairway, was used as a meeting hall by the Masons. The building was torn down sometime later in order that the owners might search the lot for gold. It is not recorded how they fared. The present building, an exact replica of the original 1855 structure, was built in 1949 under the supervision of the Grand Lodge of California.
The Wells Fargo Office Building, complete with its iron shutters and fancy wrought iron balcony, is a Gold Country classic which dates back to 1858. Run by William Daegener, the express office was originally housed in a large wooden building known as the American Hotel which stood on this site in 1853. This structure was destroyed by the fire of 1854, after which its owner, Willard Vanarsdall, quickly rebuilt of wood. Vanarsdall died in San Francisco in November of 1855, and Daegener purchased the building from his widow the following April. In August of 1857, it went up in flames. But Daegener was not to be daunted. On April 24 of 1858, he contracted with B. Stout of Sonora to erect a two-story brick building on the south portion of his lot, to be built for the sum of $4,400. When the distinctive building was finished, Daegener ran the Wells Fargo Express business in the front room of the bottom floor. The rear portion was the living room for his family and upstairs were located two bedrooms. The beautiful cast iron balcony grille on the second floor was shipped from Troy, New York, and arrived in Columbia via mule train.
This branch of Wells Fargo was one of the busiest in all of California. Old documents report that Saturday’s waiting line of miners wishing to bank or ship their weekly earnings often stretched for over three blocks. The handsome gold scales on the front counter – so accurate they could measure a miner’s signature written in pencil – weighed over $55 million in Columbia gold dust and nuggets over their sixty-one years of service, during which time only three men served as Wells Fargo agent. On May 1st of 1872, Daegener sold his property to Henry Sevening who was then appointed as agent. On November 15th of 1884, Thomas Conlin took over the operation in place of Sevening who had resigned.
The Stage Depot which adjoins the Wells Fargo building was built in 1858 by William Daegener for use as a warehouse, but was later used to accommodate the many stage lines which ran through Columbia. Here miners could buy a ticket and catch the next stage out of town, ship or receive letters and packages, or meet visiting friends of relatives.
The D.O. Mills Bank Building is the last building on the Wells Fargo Block. Constructed shortly after the fire of 1854, this branch of the Mills Sacramento Bank was one of the fanciest change houses in the Mother Lode. Its steps were made from Columbia marble, its counters of Honduras mahogany. An enormous scale was on hand, capable of weighing up to $40,000 in gold at one time. In May of 1857, the bank was sold to W.O. sleeper & Co., becoming the “Sleeper Bank,” which operated successfully for a few years. During the late 1850s and 1860s, the Tuolumne County Water Company and the Columbia post office occupied the rear portion of this building.
The Brady Building was built in 1899 by Matthew Brady, a Columbia merchant who intended to operate a general store on the premises. The metal “brick” siding was used as a means of fire protection.
The L.C. Tibbetts Home, a neat little wood plank building, was originally constructed in Gold Spring. It was moved to this site in 1886 and was the home of “Doc” Tibbetts who operated a drug store for many years across the street in the D.O. Mills Bank building.
All that remains of the Brainard Building is the front brick wall which abuts the porch of the Tibbetts home. At one time this building housed the Wells Fargo Express while it was awaiting completion of its new office. The Levy Brothers clothing store also conducted business from this spot. Joel Levy, his wife and small sons, arrived in Sonora in 1852. After Columbia’s fire of 1854, they moved here and ran their store. In time, Levy’s sons grew up and took over the store, when it became known as the Levy Brothers Store.
The Cheap Cash Store was put up after the 1854 fire. Originally operated as a dry goods store, this building has housed many different businesses over the years, including a grocery and equipment store, an ice depot, a laundry, a boot and shoe store, a boarding house, a saloon, and a variety of mercantiles.
Charles Koch’s Barber Shop was built in the late 1850s. Its first few years were spent in a variety of ways, but in 1867, a German barber bought the property and opened what was known as Koch’s Shaving & Hairdressing Rooms. The front portion was a first class tonsorial parlor; shaves, haircuts, and gossip. The back of the building held the bathing rooms, complete with big tin tubs for the miners’ baths, an important service provided by early day barber shops. Koch ran his shop for thirty-one years and at his death, another Columbia barber, Frank Dondero, took over the shop and ran it for another sixty-six!
The New York Dry Goods Building, also known as the Schwartz Building, was constructed after the 1854 fire. It has housed a dry goods store since that time. It’s interesting to note the differing brick trims atop these adjoining buildings. The fancy and intricate brickwork tend to give each building its own special character and help identify where one building ends and the next begins.
The Douglas Saloon was operated by Jack Douglas, who doubled as the ticket agent for the Mokelumne Hill and Stockton Stage Line which stopped at the saloon. Housed in the old Soderer & Marshall building which was constructed in 1857, it was lavishly furnished with fancy fixtures, a long bar, and several billiard tables. Also known as the Stage Driver’s Retreat, Jack’s was a favorite spot with the drivers who like to linger here between stops in order the “clear the dust.” It’s no wonder some of those stage rides were a bit wild. The building occupies a corner lot across the street from the Tibbetts Home.
The Carpentry Shop provided the miners and merchants with any kind of wood wok they might need. It was also located in a portion of the Soderer & Marshall building.
The Candy Shop occupies the north end of the Soderer & Marshall building and the building adjoining. Over the year several restaurants, saloons, a fruit shop, and a butcher shop have served the town from this location.
Hildebrand’s U.S. Bakery & Coffee Saloon opened in 1856. The striking, two-story brick building was not the first structure to stand on this site, however. Several wooden buildings previously occupied the location, but were each destroyed by fire. After the 1854 blaze, a baker named Hildebrand bought the lot, ordered bricks from the Shaws Flat brickyard, and had this building erected. The upper floor contained several rooms which included sleeping quarters and a community bathroom. The cast iron balcony rail was cast at Troy, New York, and was shipped around the Horn, arriving in Columbia by mule train where it was then assembled and put in place by a local blacksmith. Over the years this building has served many purposes; stores, meeting hall and post office among them. It was restored in 1966.
Ed Elias’ Toy Shop once occupied the building located directly next to the U.S. Bakery. Ed stocked as complete a line as possible of books, stationery, and toys and presumably did a good business. A barber shop later occupied the structure for many years. It is now home to the Columbia Justice Court.
The I.O.O.F. Hall, a two-story, brick structure, was completed in January of 1855. Dr. J. McChesney owned the building but was not its first tenant. It was originally occupied by Toomey & O’Keefe who ran a grocery and produce store on the bottom floor. The upper floor provided lodging rooms and office space, from which Dr. McChesney conducted his practice in 1856. The Odd Fellows began meeting on the upper floor in 1857, and finally purchased the building some years later. It is located on the corner of Broadway and State.
The Tuolumne Engine Company No. 1 Firehouse is the home of “Papeete,” a two-cylinder, hand-pumper fire engine. With its leather hoses and buckets, Papeete was used to help extinguish many fires over the years. Still serviceable, it takes twelve men, six on a side, to operate the pumper. Papeete was manufactured by Hunneman & Co. of Boston in 1852. Names for the capital of Tahiti, to which it was supposed to be shipped, it somehow arrived in Columbia during December of 1859, where it has remained ever since.
John Duchow’s Printing Office occupied the top floor of the two-story brick building next to the firehouse. Built in 1856, this handsome building with its heavy iron doors and wrought iron balcony survived the disastrous fire of 1857. Both the Columbia Gazette and the Southern Mines Advertiser were published here in Duchow’s printing office. The lower floor housed a drug store operated by Dr. G.A. Fields and Dr. McChesney. During the days of the Gold Rush, drugs and potions were often made from scratch, right on the premises. Row upon row of jars containing those early day ingredients still line the shelves of this old drug store, along with many of the patent remedies available at that time.
A trip to the Dentist Office in the 1860s was both a similar and different experience from an office visit today. Drills and fillings and crowns and pain and fear and blood were present then as they are today. Novacaine, modern tools, hygienists, and fluoride treatments were not. The only anesthetic was often a shot of whiskey taken before the dentist applied the turnkey to wrench out a bad tooth, occasionally breaking your jaw during the process. During the 1850s, Dr. Field performed his dentistry here, right next door to the drug store. Many gruesome dental tools, implements, and furnishings are on display, capable of invoking vivid imaginations of what a visit to the dentist was like during the Gold Rush.
The Towle & Leavitt Store first opened for business in 1857. Also known as the Leavitt & Walker Building, the site was a prime location in town, on the corner of State and Main, and over the years many businesses have operated inside these doors: express office, stationery store, clothing store, drug shop, saloon, and jeweler.
Heynemann’s Saloon first occupied the brick building sandwiched in between Towle & Leavitt’s store and the City Hotel. Built in 1856, it has also served the town as a fine bakery.
The City Hotel was founded by George Morgan in July of 1854 when he purchased this lot and its frame building from I. P. and J. Yaney. The building burned to the ground ten days later. Clearing the site, Morgan immediately began construction of another frame structure for use as a saloon. In April of 1856, he began the construction of a two-story brick building, measuring twenty-four by fifty-four feet, for his Ale House and Billiard Saloon. The fire of 1857 destroyed this building completely, resulting in a $5,000 loss. Morgan was not one to give up; however, and he proceeded to rebuild on an even larger scale. Completed in October of 1857, this beautiful two-story brick building was first known as the “What Cheer House.” It contained “twenty sleeping apartments, a large office, bar, sitting room, dining room, etc.” A spacious hall on the second floor was used for theatrical and concert performances. The name of the building was changed to the City Hotel at some later date and eventually closed down, abandoned. It was completely restored in 1975 and has since resumed it previous purpose, providing shelter and cheer to travelers in need of either.
The Knapp Block, located across the street from the Towle & Leavitt Store, consists of four buildings. Sewell Knapp’s Miners Supply Store, at the southern end, was the first building to be completed after the fire of 1854. Previous to this brick building, a large wooden boarding house known as the O’Bryan House stood on the site. Knapp purchased that building in 1853, opening a merchandise and mining supply store. He lost everything in the 1854 conflagration. His new building soon became known as Knapp’s Corner. During the fire of 1857, Knapp was determined to do everything he could to not lose another building. Legend has it that he save his building by pouring barrels of vinegar on the structure when he ran out of water.
A Saddle Shop was established in the adjoining building in 1858. All manner of leather working was available, saddles, bridles, hitches, whips, etc.
A French Bakery operated from the next building in this block, run by a man known as Dominique.
The northern most structure held the old Butcher Shop. First operated in 1857 by a man named Soderer, this was the place for fresh meat.
Columbia Engine Company No. 2 was formed in 1859, and in 1861 the town’s second hand pumper fire engine was purchased. The Monumental came from the San Francisco Fire Company who were glad to get rid of it. It was much too heavy for the hills of San Francisco and had crushed a man to death. The firehouse which holds the Monumental was built in 1911 and sports metal “brick” siding (available in the Sears catalog) as a means of fire protection.
The Franco Cabin, a small, wooden affair named after its last inhabitant, sits near a water ditch which was once part of a county-wide system that brought water into the diggings. Taking a look through the old windows, its apparent that the life of a miner was not one of luxury, unless he happened to hit paydirt and could then afford to go on a spree. Many of the early day miners lived even rougher than the occupant of this cabin, making do with dirt floors, glassless windows and canvas walls.
The Magendie Building was rebuilt by V.E. Magendie after the fire of 1857 totally destroyed his original store. He ran the grocery on the ground floor, while Henrietta Schultz operated the High Society Saloon, Oyster Parlor and Billiard Hall in the basement. This underground fandango hall was a place of gambling, wine, women and song during the late 1850s and 1860s. During the winter of 1861, this basement – along with most others in town – was flooded by heavy storms and the camp’s two hand-pumper fire engines were called upon to de-water the basements. Always on the lookout for excitement, the miners turned the pumping into a contest between the two engines. The entire camp turned out to witness the even, placing bets on which engine would pump the most water. History leaves us wondering which won.
The Boehmer Building was built in 1857, by Fritz Boehmer who operated a grocery store here until 1870. This building has also housed the post office for many years. Some of the post office boxes still in use were built locally in 1861.
Alberding’s Saloon, another den of assorted wickedness, has also been known as the Pioneer, and more recently, as the St. Charles Saloon. A large, wooden building first stood on this site and served as a general merchandise store. At some time during the early 1850’s, Albert Alberding acquired the property and erected the brick building which still stands today. Alberding’s is reported to be the saloon in which Peter Nicholas stabbed Capt. John Parrot during a brawl. Nicholas was arrested and held at the Columbia jail while the mortally wounded Parrot was taken to a hospital in Sonora. There was much talk of lynching, but as Parrot was still clinging to life, the mob which had gathered about the jail settled down, and during some moment of confusion, the prisoner was taken to the jail in Sonora. Parrot finally succumbed to his mortal wounds, whereafter Nicholas was tried and convicted of first degree murder. Sentenced to hang, at the last moment the sentence was commuted by the governor to just seven years. A local legend gives one possibility for the governor’s action. Apparently a petition had been circulating about town asking the state legislature to consider Columbia for the capital of the State of California. Some ten thousand signatures were supposedly collected but the petition mysteriously disappeared, later appearing on the governor’s desk with the original wording obliterated, replaced by a plea for clemency on Nicholas’ behalf. The governor, a true politician eager to please ten thousand possible voters, commuted the sentence.
The Claverie Building is somewhat of an optical illusion. Viewed from the right angle, the ruins appear to be a well-built, undamaged brick store. A few steps in the right direction; however, reveals a minor problem: the roof and two walls are missing. Several wooden general merchandise stores stood on this spot prior to 1857, each consumed by flames. After the fire of 1857, three Frenchmen, Louis “Lovely” Claverie, Charles Meyssan, and Victor Pinchard erected this one-story brick store, selling supplies and home-made wine. The partnership dissolved in 1861, at which time Meyssan owned the building. He sold it to a Chinese merchant in 1869 named Sun Lun Sing who then stocked it with an assortment of things Chinese; candies, fireworks, opium. It soon after became known as the Chinese Store.
The Columbia Jail has held its share of Gold Country desperadoes over the years. Built during the 1860s, this tiny, solid building remained in used until the late 1930s. Inside are two cells and a small space where the jailer could keep an eye on the bad guys. The brick and stone construction, and the sturdy iron door, provided what appears to be a quite effective lockup
The Columbia School, California’s first two-story brick schoolhouse, stands alone on a gentle hill near the top of School Street. Built in 1860 of locally made, sun-dried bricks, at a cost of $5,000, the school opened in November of that year with 368 students, two teachers and a principal. The first floor held the elementary classroom, upstairs the older students concentrated on their studies. Sitting on the hill as it does, the kids must have been able to hear the school bell from all over town, leaving no excuse for being tardy. The size of this school shows how prosperous the area was from the number of children it was built to hold; all those families had to have a reason for living here and the reason was gold. Also located on the school grounds are two outhouse buildings, offering seats of differing sizes to accommodate all the students. The school was in continuous use until 1937 when it was closed for not meeting California earthquake requirements. The building was totally restored in 1960 at a cost of $60,000, and the neat thing about this was that $57,000 of the funds were raised by schoolchildren all across California who pitched in to help save the old school. On display inside each classroom are the old wooden desks with their inkwells, the slate blackboards, and other teaching tools such as flash cards, old books, maps, and the dunce cap. Two wood-burning stoves—which the boys kept supplied with wood—provided heating for the kids, who either roasted or froze during the winter, depending on where they sat.
The Columbia Public Cemetery was founded in 1853, and many of the headstones date from the 1850s. Walking through the cemetery and reading the epitaphs on these old stones can be a somewhat melancholy experience, as many of the pioneer died hard and untimely. It is located behind the schoolhouse on Burial Hill, along with the Masonic and I.O.O.F. cemeteries.
St. Annes’ Catholic Church stands atop Kennebec Hill at the end of Church Street, overlooking some of the world’s richest placer grounds. Completed in 1856, the church was funded by miners’ donations, even the land upon which it stands was donated s three miners gave up their unworked claims. One of the first brick churches in California, St. Anne’s was built from bricks fired in the kilns located on Springfield Road. The timbers used in its construction came from nearby Saw Mill Flat, hewn from local trees. Father Daniel Slattery was the man responsible for getting the church built. He circulated the petitions and collected the donations. He also served as the first priest. The belfry was added in 1857, with the silver alloy bell being installed that spring. It was cast at Troy, New York, and was shipped around the Horn, costing the miners another $1,500 in donations. Its mellow tone could be heard throughout the mines, calling the faithful to meeting. The beautiful murals located behind the altar were painted by James G. Fallon, proprietor of the Fallon Hotel. The hallowed ground upon which the church rests was believed to be the only unmined ground in the area. When miners later filled a cut on the north side of the church; however, they found evidence of some clandestine mining. Someone had tunneled under the church, and working at night, had carried away the paydirt to another location for washing. During the day the night miners would cover the tunnel opening with rocks and brush to avoid detection. They were never discovered.
One of two Columbia Marble Quarries can be found a short distance out of town along Yankee Hill Road, the other is located off Parrots Ferry Road. Marble from these two quarries was used throughout the state, wherever a touch of elegance was needed. The step into the D. O. Mills Bank building is made from Columbia marble, as are many other sidewalks, tables, and foundations across the Gold Country. It’s just a short hike to the quarry near Yankee Hill Road, where immense pieces of stone are lying all about. The face of many of these huge blocks of marble are grooved in a particular manner, apparently the method used to chisel the pieces apart. It’s well worth a visit.
The Columbia Brewery Ruins are located about one half mile out of town along the Italian Bar Road. The large, brick structure is somewhat easy to miss as it sits a ways off the road and blends in with the trees. The building is a large, two-story brick affair; some of its windows are boarded up, while others stare vacantly at the surroundings. A large hole next to the building may have been a cellar and a small outlying brick structure is also part of the complex. Watch out for poison oak should you decide to poke around.