In March of 1850, the Hildreth party from New England left Pine Log camp in the Stanislaus canyon. The party was caught in a rainstorm and needed to find shelter. While camped overnight along a seasonal creek, John Walker found gold; and the rush was on to Columbia. In the summer, the creek dried up and with no way to separate the gold from the dirt, most miners left. A few tried to bring barrels of water to the diggings, or barrels of dirt to Tim’s Springs, today known as Springfield, but it wasn’t worth their effort. The following winter, the miners returned and a prosperous camp followed. But the spring and summer of 1851 were very dry once again, causing the miners to abandon the diggings. By the next year, the Tuolumne Water Company was established, and soon provided a dependable supply of water from Five Mile Creek. The miners returned in droves, and Columbia grew rapidly. Because more water was needed for expanding mines, more water companies were established.
With a more dependable supply of water, and sufficient quantities of gold continuing to be found, Columbia developed as a market for the miners and surrounding communities. Businesses, a post office, churches, newspapers and as families started moving into the area, schools were established Substantial brick buildings were erected, family homes were built, and plans for a public schoolhouse were started. As with most gold rush towns, fire was always a problem and more buildings were built of brick. A volunteer fire department was established, soon to be joined by another, leading to a rivalry continuing into the 20th century. Even with these catastrophes the town gained a reputation for a place of business, a “going concern” and as “a pretty town.”
As part of the southern mines, Columbia’s population was very diverse, having citizens from France (so many for a short time there was a consulate), Italy, Ireland, China, Germany, Russia, Canada, Mexico, Peru, and Australia. Some of this diversity can be seen by visiting the town cemetery next to the old schoolhouse.
Conflict over the control of water resulted in disputes and bloodshed. This combined with the reduced amounts of gold being found and political upheaval over the Civil War resulted in the town losing many of its citizens who migrated to other areas. By 1870, the town had fallen from a high population of 6,000-8,000 to a low of about 1,000. It still maintained its reputation as a scenic town; the brick buildings were never abandoned. The stores continued to supply the hard rock mines, marble quarries, and farms and ranches surrounding the area. With a recession in the early 1890s bringing more gold miners to the area, the marble quarries doing well, the growth of the logging industry and increasing tourism bringing visitors to Yosemite and Calaveras Big Trees, townspeople were able to scratch out a living.
In the 1920s, Frederic Law Olmsted was conducting a survey for the state legislature prior to their establishing a state park system. He arrived in the area looking for areas of scenic, cultural or natural interest. He came to Columbia and was impressed with the collection of original buildings surviving with very few modifications. The town had been preserved by a remarkable combination of circumstance: just far enough off the major road never to be modernized and just close enough never to be abandoned.
In the mid-1940s local residents organized to preserve the town culminating in July 1945, with Governor Warren signing documents making Columbia a State Historic Park. Slowly through the ensuing years, the park system has acquired the historic downtown business section and surrounding residences. Even more slowly the park system is restoring the structures as money becomes available. Columbia State Historic Park enjoys a place on the National Register of Historic Places as the Columbia Historic District. While concessionaires occupy many of the buildings, there are several museums and displays reflecting this period and the experiences of the majority of gold rush participants.
Columbia shows the every day town, customs and activities of people who left home, and in many cases country, to start a new life, whether this meant leaving families behind, or bringing them on the long journey.
Schoolhouse: Although outside of town, the Schoolhouse is a must see for all visitors. Built in 1860, this two story brick structure was used until 1937. It has displays on both floors.
Columbia Cemetery: The cemetery, next to the schoolhouse dates back to the early days of Columbia. The Masons, I.O.O.F., veteran’s and public cemeteries reveal the history of those who came to get rich and the unfortunate deaths of many of them.
Wells Fargo: The Wells Fargo building is arguably the most photographed and recognized building in the Mother Lode. Built as a symbol of the reputation of Wells Fargo to do justice to all miners, it stands today as a symbol of the huge amounts of gold, which passed through its doors and were weighed on its scales.
Main Street: Circa 1880 or 1890s, comparing modern Main Street shows how little the streetscape has changed.
St Anne’s Catholic Church: On a hill at the south end of town and facing the schoolhouse, the church was built in 1856. It is surrounded by a cemetery and still belongs to the church. Services are held here on special occasions.