Fascinating History Of A Gold Rush Road
An ancient Indian migration and trading powwow trail reveals fascinating history and surprising links to Italian Gold, German Beer, Kentucky Milk, and a major Indian Rebellion. This trail is located in California’s Mother Lode foothills between Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe and Sacramento.
Today, part of this trail is a road beginning in the gold rush town of Columbia; a town that was twice declared an honorary State Capitol after its history was preserved as a living State Historic Park. The road then winds through the scenic Stanislaus National Forest.
Begin an amazing adventure by envisioning California Mission soldiers referring to an Indian trail as the Zorro Trail, or in English, that would be the Fox Trail.
A Zorro Trail ? – Go back to 1828 when a significant Indian rebellion began against Mission servitude. Rebelling Indians relied on the fox-like cunning of their leader to evade pursuing Mission Soldiers on ancient trails in this area. Their leader was a charismatic Indian with the Mission Christian name of Estanislao, or today known as Stanislaus.
Prior to his 1828 rebellion, Stanislaus was the Alcalde or Chief of the San Jose Mission Indians. He held this position because of exceptional leadership skills. However, as the Alcalde, Mission soldiers presented him a challenge between fulfilling his Mission responsibilities and protecting his people from the soldier’s harsh and frequently unjust treatment. It has been said that as the Alcalde, he hid his identity with a mask and cape when avenging their injustices.
In 1828, Stanislaus left the Mission with 400 followers. He outwitted pursuing soldiers with fox like cunning learned as a child and military strategy learned as the Alcalde. It is easy to envision him taunting the soldiers by leaving Z marks to show that he could outwit them, as a fox outwits its enemies. This rebellion grew to include thousands of California Indians from numerous Missions.
Considering that these Indians defended themselves with spears and arrows against the solder’s armor and guns, their success can only be attributed to Stanislaus’ fox like cunning.
A History of Names – Because of his legendary exploits, the river this trail crossed became known as the Stanislaus River. The area surrounding this river was referred to as the Tuolumne, which literally means the area of stony house dwellers. This was in reference to the many stony caves and caverns rebelling Indians used to evade their pursuers. The fascinating achievements of this Indian influenced the naming of Tuolumne County, Stanislaus County, as well as the remarkable Stanislaus National Forest. Each was named in recognition of his impressive achievements.
This is extraordinary, knowing that historians frequently gave little or biased recognition of Indian achievements. Today, after several hundred years of tragic domination, California Indians are slowly recovering their rightful and significant heritage.
An interesting side note – Historians recognize significant similarities between the feats of Stanislaus and the adventures of a fictional hero, known as Zorro.
Johnston McCulley, a pulp writer and amateur history buff created the fictional Zorro in 1919. His story provided greater literary appeal with a colorful hero of Spanish decent in the southern region of California rather than a potentially less inspiring Indian in central California. His character may also have been influenced by legends of the Hispanic bandit Joaquin Murrieta who lived in this area during the gold rush. It is not surprising that Stanislaus’ achievements most likely influenced McCully’s creation of his fictional Zorro.
Pine Log Trail – Now, let your mind travel this trail in the spring of 1850 to meet a group of prospectors known as the Hildreth party. These men left their camp in Jamestown to prospect for new gold deposits. They traveled this timeworn trail to explore areas north of the Stanislaus River, or what is today Calaveras County. Since a portion of this trail used a pine log bridge to cross the river, this portion became known as the Pine Log Trail.
After an unsuccessful search, the Hildreth party was returning to their home camp tired, discouraged and damp on an overcast spring afternoon. They had traveled past an Indian village and springs, then a Mexican encampment on this trail. Finding a suitable area, they chose to make camp before continuing the last miles to their home base in Jamestown.
Bonanza Discovery – While they were too weary to continue on, they were not too tired to explore for gold. These prospectors were unprepared for the bonanza they discovered. A bonanza? How significant was their discovery? Well, news of their discovery spread like a wild fire. Within weeks, there were several thousand miners at this rapidly growing gold camp. The name of their camp changed as the camp grew, from Hildreth’s Diggins, to American Camp, to Columbia, Gem of the Southern Mines.
Ditch Trail – Initially, Columbia lacked a dependable water source to adequately mine this seemingly boundless gold deposit. To provide water for mining, they constructed a ditch along this trail to a creek five miles out of town. This Indian trail was now referred to as the Five Mile Creek or Columbia Ditch Trial. Later, a larger ditch was extended to the Stanislaus River.
Lives were lost fighting over water rights. Water was considered ‘liquid gold.’ Years later, Mark Twain visited this area and observed that whisky was for drinking, water was for fighting over.
Growth Hazard – With water for large-scale mining, Columbia’s population soared. Arriving families established schools, churches and over 100 businesses making Columbia a solid and significant town. It was even considered for the State Capitol. The constant inflow of new arrivals continually outpaced the town’s ability to provide basic needs of food and housing.
Dairy Road – In 1852, a family of dairy farmers from Kentucky recognized an opportunity for profit. They chose to trade dairy products for gold rather than compete with the existing horde of gold prospectors. Business owners referred to this as mining the miners. This family acquired land along this historic trail for a dairy ranch. The ranch became known as the ‘Columbia Springs Ranch’ after a near by Indian Village springs.
Additionally, this ranch benefited from a continuing housing shortage by providing camping for an overflow of arriving covered wagons. The campground helped the ranch increase its dairy herd with cows that new arrivals were willing to trade for food and a hospitable place to camp. Thus, this ranch may be California’s oldest existing campground.
Tragedy – Tragedy was encountered along this trail. For generations the near by springs had been a quality source of water for an Indian village. During the gold rush, Indian populations were largely decimated by the mass of miners seeking gold on their lands. This village is gone, but their acorn grinding holes remain in large limestone rocks along this trail.
Brewery Road – In 1854, two German brothers established the Bixel Brewery at the abandoned Indian village springs. This brewery produced lagers, ales, wines and syrups for over 60 years. The Brewery gardens were popular for socializing on Sunday afternoons. Still visible is a two-story brick brewery building, hops kiln, and a stone spring house.
Also nearby, are three generations of Columbia’s ditch water treatment facilities. Ditch water became vital for fire protection after Columbia completely burned in 1854 and 1857.
Italian Bar Road – A group of Italian prospectors traveled this trail past the Ranch and Brewery. Beyond Five Mile Creek, on the South Fork of the Stanislaus River, they discovered a gravel bar rich with placer gold. Placer gold is gold accumulated over thousands of years of being washed down from higher eroded gold veins. This portion of the ancient Indian trail, beginning in Columbia became known as today’s Italian Bar Road.
A State Capitol – In 1945, Governor Earl Warren declared Columbia the honorary State Capitol when he signed a bill preserving the town as a State Historic Park. Twenty-five years later, Governor Ronald Reagan reaffirmed this declaration.
Dairy Ranch Renamed – In 1962, the 1852 dairy ranch began operating exclusively as an RV campground. Bill and Pat Meissner have maintained the history of this ranch since 1980. They changed its ‘Columbia Springs’ name to ’49er RV Ranch’ in recognition that covered wagons were the original ’49er RV’ travel trailer.
Historic Relics – This ranch now offers a tour of historic relics such as a ’49er RV’ covered wagon, a 22 million year old stone fence post, century old barns, a ranch house-store, and an interesting variety of ranch and mining equipment.
Guardian Angel – A legendary ranch resident, known as Willie, became the ranch Guardian Angel after his alleged murder in 1856. Small nuggets found in a rebuilt cabin, are rumored to be scattered by Willie’s ghost. Visitors learn of Willie’s legend at Ranch campfires. Complementary gold panning lessons are offered Ranch guests at Willie’s Waterwheel.