Monday, November 9, 2015

Columbia, California - Gem of the Southern Mines

Along the western edge of the Sierra Nevada, from Mariposa northward to Georgetown, a mile wide network of gold bearing quartz extended 120 miles in what is known as the Mother Lode of California. In its heart grew the gold mining town of Columbia, also known as the Gem of the Southern Mines. It is estimated the area yielded $87 million in gold at 1860's prices. It is in this town I have set my 1854  novella, Too Old for Christmas, the story of Sean Flood, Ona McNair and the two McNair boys, Jesse and Benjy.
1855 Columbia as viewed from Kennebec Hill to the south
The California gold rush started in 1849. A year later on March 27, 1850, Dr. Thaddeus Hildreth, a physician from Maine, who, with his brother George and a handful of other prospectors, made camp near here. They had come to California by ship traveling around the Horn. Discouraged by unsuccessful efforts to find sufficient gold in the Calaveras region, they crossed the Stanislaus River and camped under a large oak tree. Caught in a rain storm that night, they stayed in camp the next day to dry out their clothes and bedding. One of the party, John Walker, tried his hand at prospecting and discovered gold. That discovery prompted them to stay and set up their camp which yielded them $4,680 in gold during the next two days. .
Word quickly spread and soon miners rushed to the area. Before the month was out Hildreth's Diggings, had grown into a tent and shanty town with several thousand miners. Its original name was soon changed to Columbia.

Besides Hildreth’s Diggings, one of Columbia’s first names was Dry Diggins, then it was called American Camp before the more permanent sounding name of Columbia was decided upon April 29, 1850 by Majors Alva Farnsworth and Richard Sullivan.

 The town almost died before it really got started due to a shortage of an essential element needed for placer gold mining—water. By July of 1850, the creeks were dry. Dirt needed to be carried a long distance to find water in order to wash out the gold. Many miners chose to leave the area for claims near a more reliable water source.

 Although Dr. Hildreth is credited with discovering Columbia in 1850, many claim gold in the area was actually first discovered by Mexicans from nearby Santiago Hill. However, soon after California became a state a “Foreign Miners Tax” law was passed in April of 1850 (repealed in 1851) requiring all foreign miners to pay a monthly fee of $20, considered a large sum of money at the time, in order to mine within the state. Prejudice against Mexicans was high, and the bill was designed to drive them out. Between the loss of the Mexican families in the area which made up about two-thirds the population of Columbia. This was another reason Columbia almost died before it got going.
Bassett's Alley, location of his first business, just north of Maine Gulch
Saloons and gambling houses were always one of the first businesses to open in new mining camps, and Columbia was no exception. One of the first tents to go up was to provide those very services. Another of the earliest residents who was a businessman was Charles Bassett, formerly of Sonora just south of Columbia. He built several corrals for cows and sheep and opened a combination merchandise store/restaurant/butcher shop/dairy to cater to the dietary needs of the miners. One of his more popular items for sale was milk which he sold in whiskey bottles.

In 1851 Thaddeus was on a committee that helped lay out the town streets and lots. He is credited for naming Kennebec Hill south of the town after the Kennebec River in his home state. Also, the stream to the south of town he named Maine Gulch.

The first woman in Columbia was Mrs. Sarah DeNoielle who joined her husband, Arnold, in late May, 1851. The miners gave her a grand reception. When the word spread that she was coming into town, the miners quit work and walked four miles down the road to greet her. Others came from the surrounding hills to get a glimpse of a woman and participate in the celebration. She and her husband opened the first boarding house in town. She also bore the first child in Columbia on January 31, 1852.

The drier than normal winter of 1851-52 prompted the citizens to band together to
D.O. Mills &Co. Bankers and Tuolumne Co. Water Co.
form the Tuolumne County Water Company with financing help from D.O. Mills & Co. Bankers in order to build a canal system to channel water from Five Mile Creek into the mines. Men who worked on it were paid in shares rather than wages. It did not provide enough water to fill all the needs, so a second venture was started to bring water from the south fork of the Stanislaus River. When it was finished the entire system spanned sixty miles.

 A little over two years after its founding, Columbia's tents and shanties were being
Amerian Hotel destroyed by fire in 1854
replaced with more permanent structures. Streets were laid out, and by the end of 1852 there were more than 150 stores and other enterprises. There was also a church, a Sunday School, a Masonic Lodge, and even a branch of the Sons of Temperance. 

The town included thirty saloons, grocery and restaurants, twenty-one produce and grocery stores, seventeen dry goods and produce stores, eight carpenter shops, seven boarding houses, seven bakeries, four hotels, four banking and exchange houses, three express offices, three tobacconists, three drug stores, three laundries, three meat markets, two book and stationary stores, one reading room, one brewery, one ground coffee depot, one daguerreotype room, one Mexican fandango house, a small school was started and
Columbia Gazette - 1855 and now
numerous doctors, dentists and lawyers to serve a population that had grown to about five thousand. There were three newspapers, the most successful being the four page weekly Columbia Gazette. The post office was established in November of that year.

Columbia was incorporated in May, 1854. Unlike many other mining communities built of wood, canvas and other flammable materials, it had been fortunate to escape being hit with widespread fires. Only three structures in town were built of brick.
Unfortunately, in July of 1854, a large fire
wiped out almost the entire downtown area, leaving only one brick building still standing. The rebuilding began immediately. By the end of the next day at least thirty structures had been rebuilt. However, more businesses were replacing their wood buildings with brick. They also started using the iron shutters which could be closed over the windows and doors each night to help stop the spread of fire.

It was into this city at this point in time I set my Christmas romance, Too Old for Christmas. By November, 1854, there is still plenty of carpentry work and freight hauling jobs for my hero, Sean Flood. Although the Columbia Mercantile, in what is still known as the Magendie Building named after the merchant who started the business in 1852, was rebuilt out of wood after the 1854 fire, Mr. Magendie had it reconstructed of brick in
Columbia Mercantile - Magendie Building
1855. It survived the fire of 1857 and still stands today. 

Some of the earlier businesses were not rebuilt, but the lots sold. Our record of them comes from a Towle & Leavitt lithograph published in 1855, a copy of which is in the Columbia Museum.

I hope you enjoyed reading this brief history of the town in which Sean Flood and Ona McNair and the two McNair boys lived. Several of the names, including the dentist, Dr. J.J. Massey, are names of people who actually lived in Columbia at the time the story takes place.

The following is the book description: 

Irishman Sean Flood survived the potato famine, crossing the Atlantic, the Mexican-American War, and wandering the Western wilderness with his mules and freight wagon. But, due to poor diet and deprivation, his teeth did not fare well. It’s November of 1854 in Columbia, California, Gem of the Southern Mines, a city Sean is helping to rebuild after the disastrous fire the previous summer. Intense stabbing tooth pain drives him to see Doc Massey, the local dentist. He first stops by the mercantile to pick up a bottle of whiskey—for medicinal purposes—and food­­­­ he’ll be able to eat when it’s all over. If only the beautiful but aggravating woman ahead of him who keeps her face half hidden and insists she won’t accept charity would finish up with her purchase so he can get his supplies, his tooth pulled and return home to his mules and half-built cabin….

That night, Sean meets the woman’s two sons, Jesse and Benjy McNair, and learns her secret. He decides with only three teeth left in his head, he needs widow Ona McNair’s charity—and he’s willing to pay for it. Sean won’t accept nine year-old Jesse’s declaration his family’s poverty means the boy is too old for Christmas that year. Sean is a full-grown man and he’s not too old for Christmas. He not only plans to come bearing gifts to Christmas Eve dinner with the McNairs, but he knows exactly what gift he wants for himself.   
*Sweet Romance

Too Old for Christmas is now available on pre-order at Amazon. You may purchase it by clicking HERE. It will be available on Nook soon.

 About the Author:

Zina Abbott is the pen name used by Robyn Echols for her historical novels. 

The author currently lives with her husband in California near the “Gateway to Yosemite.” She is a member of Women Writing the West, American Night Writers Association, and Modesto Writers Meet Up. She currently lives with her husband in California near the “Gateway to Yosemite.” She enjoys any kind of history including family history. When she is not piecing together novel plots, she pieces together quilt blocks.

Zina Abbott Links:

Website  |  Blog  |  Facebook  |  Pinterest  |  Goodreads  |  Twitter

Zina Abbott Amazon Author Page 

Too Old in Columbia Series on Facebook

Too Old in Columbia Series on Pinterest

Columbia History Sources: 

Koeppel, Elliot H; Columbia California On the Gold Dust Trail; Mallakof & Co. Publishing: La Habra, CA.


  1. I love mining history and the towns that shot up as a result. John Putman has done a lot of research on California's gold mining history and you added even more to those stories. Thank you so much.

    This sounds like a wonderful story and I wish you all the best. Doris McCraw/Angela Rains-author

  2. All I can think about in these early gold towns is that they must have been horribly dirty and dusty and definitely not the place for women or children. Too Old For Christmas sounds like a sweet read this time of year.

  3. Thank you, Zina/Robyn for this history-in-a-nutshell. I found myself captivated, studying every image and thinking about the elements of Columbia's history you describe. I see by your images (and the fact many are your own) that you've visited Columbia, walked the streets, researched first-hand. Columbia must be a wonderful place to visit.
    Congratulations on your soon-to-be-released book, TOO OLD FOR CHRISTMAS.
    Best wishes,

  4. Thank you Angela, Kathryn and Kristin for your comments. Yes, I live not that far from Columbia and have been there several times, both with family and of research trips. I love the area and the history.