A while back I visited the Marshal Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma, CA. The park marks the initial discovery of gold in California in 1848. The actual spot where it happened is nondescript: a quiet riverbank along a fork of the American River. It happens to be just down the road from where I live. It kind of blows my mind to consider the weight of the historical moment that happened here.
Gold was a gateway event shaping the modern American West. The story goes that James Marshal, a carpenter, was employed by John Sutter to build a sawmill. At some point during the mill's construction, Marshal noticed a few odd bits of metal in a diversion channel coming off the river. It was gold. He couldn't keep it under wraps; within months, waves of dreamers had embarked to the Sierra foothills in search of riches.
The infamous Gold Rush was in high gear by 1849. California became a state in 1850 (it was part of Mexico prior). Gold played a pivotal role in the Civil War (it’s no coincidence that my local paper is called the Union). Gold had fueled US Western expansion and the rest, as they say, is history. A tiny historical marker downplays the enormity of what happened almost 200 years ago in this quiet park just off of Highway 49.
The Marshal Gold Discovery State Historic Park is a good place to spend a few hours. There are several miles of hiking trails to take it all in. There are historical structures to recreate the Sutter Mill operation. There is a local history display and a souvenir shop. But no razzle-dazzle; it’s not an amusement park. As I was leaving I caught sight of a park ranger, just off shift apparently, drinking a beer in a golf cart and listening to a tune I couldn’t quite place on a radio. Hats off that guy too.