Columbia State Historic Park (Columbia, California) is unique among Western parks in that it is both a park and an active town. Described as “a living gold rush town featuring the largest single collection of existing gold rush-era structures in the state”, Columbia is a must-visit destination for anyone interested in Gold Rush history or historic buildings.
Rich placer deposits of gold were discovered here in 1850, and within months thousands of fortune seekers arrived and a town was hastily built. By 1852, there were 8 hotels, 4 banks, 17 general stores, and over 40 saloons.
The first big fire swept through Columbia in 1854, destroying most of the wooden buildings in town. Fire again devastated the town in 1857. Columbia was rebuilt using primarily brick and iron to protect against fire, and many of the buildings you see today date back to this time.
The Wells Fargo Express Building was originally built of wood, but the structure burned several times until a brick building was built in 1858. This brick building still stands today, and is preserved as an original Express office for visitors to experience. Wells Fargo was in the business of banking and secure transportation of goods, often gold from mines all over California.
The D.O. Mills Building dates back to 1852 with a wood structure that burnt with the rest of the town in 1854. A brick building replaced it, which still stands today. The building originally housed a bank, a post office, and an assay and smelting office. The assay office was said to be accessible only by secret passage, presumably to safeguard the gold that would have been stored there. The first Telegraph in Columbia was installed in the D.O. Mills Building in 1855.
The City Hotel started as a brick structure built after the 1854 fire. Originally a saloon, in 1860 a hardware store moved in. George Morgan bought the building in 1865 and for decades added on to what was known as “Morgan’s City Hotel”. Today the building has been renovated and is in business as the City Hotel.
The Columbia Mercantile was originally known as the Magendie/Brunet Building. Like most buildings in Columbia, the building burned in the fire of 1854, and was rebuilt of brick in 1855. The building has contained a grocery and clothing store, a candy store, and since 1960 the building has housed the current mercantile business.
The Main Street Fire House in Columbia dates back to 1911. Before the current structure was built, the engine company leased a one story building on the lot, which was torn down and replaced with the current structure in 1911.
The Main Street Fire House still contains a decorative “Papeete” hand-pumped fire engine. The engine was originally built in Boston in 1852 for the capital city of Tahiti. The engine was being transported by ship, and after rounding Cape Horn it was abandoned in San Francisco after the crew abandoned the ship, presumable to join the California Gold Rush. The engine eventually made it’s way to Columbia in the late 1850’s and has been there ever since.
The engine has leather hoses and buckets and requires twelve men to operate.
The Columbia School House is an impressive brick structure built in 1860. The school had 368 students in attendance in its first year and was staffed by two teachers and a principal. The school was in continuous use until 1937 when it was closed for not meeting earthquake safety requirements. The school was renovated in 1960 and is a rare standing example of an early gold rush school building.
The first floor of the building was for elementary students and the top floor was for older students. Park visitors can access the top floor and see the original classroom, which was heated by two wood stoves, one in the back and one in the front of the room.
Columbia contains many more buildings and attractions than are covered in this article, so I would highly recommend anyone with an interest in mining history visit the park and plan on spending the good part of a day there.
The park’s website lists Columbia’s hours as “Columbia is a real town, it never actually closes. Most businesses are open from 10:00am to 5:00pm.”