There is nothing particularly exciting about ditches. People don’t usually go out of their way to stand and ponder ditches, unless they’re the mothers of a soon-to-be-fourth-grader, looking for ways to make California history come alive.
I thought about this as we stood in front of one of the most important historic sites in California: the spot where the carpenter James Marshall found a few pieces of gold in 1848 in the water of a mill trailrace. It turns out that a trailrace (or at least what’s left of it) is really just a ditch full of muddy water. This historic spot is commemorated with a worn-out plaque which reads: “Here on a chilly morning in January 1848 a carpenter named James Marshall picked up the small pieces of gold that touched off one of the largest most frenzied mass migrations in history.”
There were no frenzied crowds of tourists or curious Californians visiting Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park on that summer afternoon, maybe they just hadn’t heard about the historic ditch. Or maybe they were all working and knew better than to visit Coloma in 100-degree heat. Go figure.
We braved the heat because I was determined to squeeze in a side trip to this important site, mostly for the benefit of my son who would be learning all about the California Gold Rush in his classroom in the fall. So we toured the historic park, and I reckon he learned a few things.
The town of Coloma grew around the area of the gold discovery site-the ditch-and nearly 70 percent of it lies within the historic park. Clearly, it’s not a bustling metropolis. Nowadays you will find some original buildings, a replica of Sutter’s Mill, the Gold Discovery Museum, and plenty of people cooling off in the American River on hot days.
The blissfully air-conditioned Gold Discovery Museum and Visitor Center is a good place to start your tour of the park. There are plenty of exhibits to give your kids an overview of Coloma’s history, although there is not a lot in the museum that is interactive. But don’t worry there is a gift shop and penny press, in case the kids need the to whine for some souvenirs.
In the area near the museum, you can take a self-guided tour of the historic buildings. You can peek in and see displays of artifacts showing what life was like for the miners, storekeepers, and other townspeople of the Gold Rush era.
To get to the replica of Sutter’s Mill and the gold discovery site you can walk across Highway 49 to the south fork of the American River, or you can drive to the parking area (hey, it may be too hot to walk). There was a park ranger giving a talk near the sawmill when we went, and he was eager to answer questions and share information.
You can get back in the car and drive past the south end of town to see the statue of James Marshall pointing down to the spot (the ditch) on the American River where he discovered gold. Just take Cold Springs Road past the pioneer cemetery, then take the Church Road/Monument loop past the statue and then past James Marshall’s cabin.
Although there are some stores selling snacks, there are not many food options nearby. You are better off bringing a picnic and parking at some of the picnic areas along the American River. It does get more crowded on weekends, since this is a popular rafting and swimming site.
You can get to Coloma on by heading south on highway 49 from the town of Placerville. Check website for current park and museum hours, and also for special events. Gold panning is still allowed on some portions of the American River and there are lessons available at Beakart’s Gun Shop across from the museum.