During the early days of the California Gold Rush, as miners streamed through the undeveloped hills of the Mother Lode, tent and shanty towns sprung up overnight. Saloons, boarding houses, restaurants, laundries, express offices, and tent stores offered the homesick miner many goods, services and diversions, and the laws of supply and demand ruled the land. It didn’t take long for enterprising argonauts to realize that mining the pockets of the miners was an easier way to get their gold.
At Columbia State Historic Park in Tuolumne County, docents and staff recreate an early tent town to demonstrate the daily life of the young state.
“It was really an active merchant economy,” according to park staff who help organize the event. “There were a lot of opportunities for people who knew how to provide a service, or were willing to bring in goods that were in high demand, such as liquor, dry goods, and provisions. And miners were willing to hand over their newly acquired riches for a few luxuries.”
Park staff and a crew of dedicated volunteers spend hours painstakingly researching the details of daily life of the early tent towns. “We’ll never know exactly how life was like for those early visitors, but we spend a lot of time reading their journals, newspapers, and studying archeological remains” to cobble together a story of enterprising adventurers, looking to get rich, as well as to have a good time.
“Many people don’t realize all the opportunities for people who were willing to work hard during the Gold Rush.” For example, women had opportunities in the gold fields and towns that they didn’t have in the East. Men made up the majority of the population of the time and were willing to pay richly for the luxury of a home-cooked meal or laundered clothes. It was not unusual for a woman providing those services to make more than the miners.At Columbia Diggins Tent Town 1852, visitors get a chance to wander through the early tent town, enjoy entertainment at the Theatre, step into the Saloon and order a sarsasparilla, or browse in the authentically recreated Brown’s Mercantile. Bakers produce bread out of a stone and brick oven, and you can observe costumed docents demonstrating a variety of early mining techniques, and even get muddy yourself, if you choose.
“There is really nothing like it anywhere else” says Amber Cantisano, park staff. “It is the closest thing to time travel you’ll find anywhere. It’s pretty amazing.”
Educational programs for grade school students are offered on Thursday and Friday of the event. Students get a chance to tour the camp and interact with characters from 1852. This program adheres to the state’s curriculum standards, and provides an unbeatable opportunity for students to experience first-hand what they have learned in the classroom. This program is very popular, and reservations are required. Currently, there is a waitlist for the 2016 program. The online reservation system at www.friendsofcolumbiashp.com will begin taking reservations for the 2017 program in early fall.
Columbia Diggins Tent Town 1852 is presented from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, at Columbia State Historic Park, 4 miles north of Sonora in Tuolumne County, just off highway 49. Admission is $7 for adults and $2 for children under 12. Parking is free. Call 209-588-9128 for further details.