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Columbia: 209’s liveliest Gold Rush town

COLUMBIA — If you’re looking for a low-key place for a short late winter getaway that won’t break the bank and has unique outings just a relatively short drive away by car then consider the 209’s liveliest Gold Rush town — Columbia State Historic Park.

There are no park hours given that Columbia State Historic Park is a real town. Most businesses, though, are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Restaurants, saloons, hotels and the theatre stay open later.

Columbia — located just north of Sonora via Highway 49 (it’s just a short jaunt off the state highway) — in 1853 was one of California’s largest cities with upwards of 30,000 residents drawn to the foothill community in search of gold. Dubbed “Gem of the Southern Mines”, more than $150 million worth of gold was taken out of the ground between 1850 and the early 1900s.

Columbia never became a ghost town. However, by 1940 many of the town’s buildings you see today deteriorated to the point most were not safe. The decision to make the town a state park in 1945 set in motion the restoration of structures, many that are now pushing 170 years of age.

As a result of that effort Columbia State Historic Park is home to California’s largest collection of Gold Rush buildings.

While there are other lodging options, the best way to enjoy Columbia is with an overnight stay either at the Columbia City Hotel at 27668 Main Street or the Fallon Hotel at 11175 Washington Street. Both have been restored to Victorian elegance with a nod to modern-day conveniences. The rooms include custom crafted wall carvings, stunning lithographs, and Victorian antiques. Although the décor is 19th century there are modern touches such as indoor plumbing. Each room has a half bath while a shower basket is provided for the short trip down the hall to the shared shower that has locked doors and is not communal as you’d find in campgrounds.

The hotels have sitting parlors where you can partake in a board game, read books or magazines, or engage in conversation.

There are dozens of stores to browse. You can even hitch a ride on stagecoach either inside or riding shotgun and get your photo taken in a Daguerreotype photography studio after buying homemade candy in a store staffed by clerks in Victorian era dress.

Among the restored buildings are the Masonic Hall, Columbia Mercantile, Saint Charles Saloon, the Brady Building, the Columbia Gazette Office, Tibbets House, Martinez House, Main Street Fire Station and what many view as the stunner of them all — the Old School House.

Columbia School was California’s first two-story brick school house. It was built on a hill in 1860 using sun-dried bricks produced at Columbia. It was in use until 1937 when it no longer met state earthquake requirements. It was restored in 1960. Some $57,000 of the restoration was paid for by funds raised by school children from across California.

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 Museum is located in the Knapp Building. Park staff and volunteers offer a special two-hour museum and schoolhouse program. Children are invited to step into the past to fill the seats of 19th-century students. For information, call (209) 588-9128.

A must see is the 260-seat, 19th-century Fallon House Theatre where the professional Sierra Repertory Company stages productions. Less than 45 minutes away near Arnold is the Calaveras Big Trees State Park. There is also Railtown 1897 State Park that features working locomotives, train rides, and a roundhouse 15 minutes away in Jamestown. Unlike Columbia State Park, there are admission fees for Calaveras Big Trees and Railtown 1897 state parks.