Thursday, October 30, 2008

Monumental Luck

I was on a pilgrimage of sorts. I was on a quest. I had the time, to be certain. I had a car. I had my camera.

I was returning to my childhood.

It was my intent to put an actual place, and pictures of the place, to the stories and descriptions I had heard so many times before. Lessons in the history of California must lead, without exception, through the small discovery made in the Sierra foothills one cold wet January morning in 1848.

The story actually started many years earlier, when one white man immigrated to Mexico...

Back in the day, back before Los Angeles was even a Pueblo. Back when the official language of California was Spanish, back when it was nothing more than a primitive northern province of Mexico, a Swiss man named Johann (John) Sutter landed in the small impoverished mission town of San Francisco.

Sutter's plan was to built a new Switzerland in Central California, a land flowing with milk chocolate and raisens, apparently. He quickly convinced the Mexican Governor of California to fork over 49,000 acres of land, upon which he would build his Utopia.

But first, he had to build a fort, mostly becasue the local native population disagreed with his plan...

But soon the community took root there at the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers, and Fort Sutter grew. (For those of you who are now quickly google-mapping the confluence, let me save you time. Fort Sutter is now known as Sacramento.)

Sutter thrived, but quickly discovered that he needed wood. And lots of it. Fortunately, in 1847, the US decided to steal New Mexico, Arizona and California from Mexico, and the brief and heavily lop-sided Mexican-American War left legions on unemployed soldiers to wander the west coast.

One such vet, whose own riches had been squandered in the war, was James W. Marshall. Although Marshall had experience as a soldier and a cattle rancher, he was inexplicably recruited by Sutter to run a saw mill.

So, Marshall marched, with the help of his famed Mormon Battalion, and they built a mill, Sutter's Mill, along the bank of the rugged American River...

I arrived, by guesswork and rudementary maps, at the little tourist town of Coloma. It was an hour East of Sacramento, though the road thankfully led me passed an In-N-Out on the way...

The entire city of Coloma resides within a state park. The entire city (and there isn't much to it) is dedicated to the memory of the gold rush. I parked, looked at a posted map, and began to wander around.

The mill, pictured two-above, is merely a replica. The stone wall, immediately-above, marks the actual site of the original mill, before it was washed away in a flood...

Marshall and the Mormons chose a generally ideal site, notwithstanding the floods, and built their saw mill there.

As you know, a mill requires water to power the saw. The water comes in off the river, and goes out through a drainage ditch, called a "mill race." Problem was, the day after the mill opened for business, they discovered that the Mormons had dug a race, which was too narrow.

Marshall, being a bit lazy, chose not to widen the race by hand. Rather, he opened the flood gates and let the river water do the work for him.

The following day, Marshall walked down to the race to inspect the river's progress. As he walked along the race, he happened to peer down, and in so doing, changed the history of the world forever.

I followed the dusty ill-marked trail down to the water. I stood on stones among the shrubs, swatting at bugs. I looked down and peered into the murky mud below. This is all that is left of the mill race. This is where Marshall stood when he looked down and found gold. Shiny flakes of gold, uncovered and stirred up by the river wash. Gold in the water. Gold in the mountains. Gold in California.

What was once a quiet little Mexican province was suddenly the newest, and soon-to-be, most-populated territory in the United States.

Gold discoveries do not remain secret for long.

In the early spring of 1849, thousands upon thousand of would-be miners poured into California from all over the world. These were the fabled 49ers. They streamed across the land, bypassing rich farm soil, and clambering up rocky hillsides in search of the pure vein, the mother lode.

They overran Sutter and his fort. They overran Coloma. They even overran Marshall himself. They swarmed up the American river like Levi-wearing Salmon. (Google Levi Strauss yourself...)

I studied the water of the American River. I stooped to touch it, running my fingers through the same current than ran two centuries ago. Through the crystal water I could see rocks, but didn't know enough about what I was looking at. Each rock was unique. Each had its own story to tell. Some of it had to have been gold. The gold is still there...

And then I saw the man on the other side of the river. A sole survivor of the last age; by himself on the bank, panning for gold.

A hobbyist, I assumed. Perhaps there for just one day. A pilgrim, like me. Though, while my quest was for historical tangibility, he was somehow more significant. There are people today who still mine for gold. Hobbyists who dig, sift and pan. And for any miner, whose life is limited to less-gold-friendly localles, Sutter's Mill must be Mecca. If gold-panning was the passion of my life, I could not immagine a more important and meaninful location to sift the silt.

So, I envied the man on the other side of the river. And I hoped that he found something of value in the water.

I saw what I had come to see. I touched the place that I had read about and visusalized in my mind, three decades earlier. I saw the mountains that Marshall had seen the morning of his fateful walk. I wandered through the birthplace of California, and made a tangible connection to history.

Then, on the way out of town, I turned on to Highway 153, California's shortest highway, and drove up to the top of the hill to see the Marshall Memorial. It is a statue of Marshall on a tall pedaestal, pictured at the top of this post. Marshall, you can see, is dramatically posed, pointing down. Because, really, that's all he did. He screwed up the mill design, came up with a lazy fix and took a walk. Then, he looked down!

In the end, Both Marshall and Sutter were run off by the teeming hordes of immigrant miners. Which, really, according to Republicans, is similar to the story of California today...

([wink] that bit was just for you Dr. B!)


  1. Thanks for the little history lesson. I'm surprised you didn't bring up the 30 min. infomercial. Is Obama attempting to spend some of his 600 million hoard or does he just want 100% of the electoral votes? Ah, fuck it!! I'm so sick of politics. Where are all the pictures of underage girls in trunks of cars.

    Anyone have any good ideas for a haloween costume?

  2. joe Montana7:24 AM

    And there used to be a halfway decent football team named after those crazy gold rushers...

  3. I saw the worst Cash Cab ever the other day. Three 20-something girls who managed to go 43 blocks or something and only answer two $25 questions right by themselves. Then, they went for the video bonus, lost, and bitched about it.

    One of the questions that they failed to answer was "Levi Strauss revolutionized the clothing industry by applying what kind of hardware to his denim trousers".

  4. Was Sacramento of 1860 as much of a shithole as it is today?

    ux, I love cash cab. I've only seen one group take the video bonus. And I am still trying to figure out the segway from Goldrush fever in Sacramento to cash cab, throw me a bone here.

  5. other9:05 PM

    inog and i had fresh figs in a San Francisco plaza outside the Levi Strauss HQ.


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