San Francisco and Beyond: California Following the Gold Rush

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Old Sacramento

By the time the gold rush was over in California many new towns had formed. Some would die as the gold was taken away, while others would grow and prosper.

The small settlement of San Francisco became a bustling pioneering town of 25,000 people within a year of the news that gold had been discovered in quantity on the American River at Sutter’s Mill. Like elsewhere, conditions were appauling for many of the residents. Some were merely transients seeking a quick fortune before returning home, while others were by then permanent residents struggling to find their niche in the volatile econimic conditions.

San Francisco Grows on Gold

Most of the people and virtually all of the stores and supplies that arrived in the booming port of San Francisco to feed the gold rush came by sea. For the ship owners this was a hazardous enterprise, as on arrival in port the crews were likely to immediately desert for the goldfields. For a while San Francisco’s docks were cluttered with abandoned vessels. Compltely seaworthy ships, unable to sail for want of a crew, were converted to other uses to satisfy the ever-growing demand for business accommodation.

San Francisco suffered serious growing pains as it expanded rapidly with an influx of people from all over the world. It is estimated that in 1852 alone, by which time most of the easily accessible gold around the American and Sacramento Rivers had been discovered, some 20,000 Chinese arrived in California. The competition they created for a diminishing supply of alluvial gold sparked considerable racial unrest.

Sacramento, State Capital

Sacramento was the nearest settlement to Sutter’s Mill. The Sacramento Embarcadero that John Sutter had built for a business venture soon to be curtailed when gold was discovered, was the place where miners travelling upriver from San Francisco would set out overland in search of riches.

Sacramento was a rough frontier community during and after the gold rush, but perfectly placed to profit from it. Civic leaders negotiated for the town to become capital of the new state with the offer of premises. That was formalised in 1854, and California’s first railway terminus opened in Sacramento the following year.

Northern California Goldfields

In the meantime gold had been discovered further afield in northern California. In 1851 there were finds along the Trinity, Klamath and Salmon Rivers, which brought gold prospectors up the old native American and fur trappers’ Siskyou Trail in their thousands. But for the movement of goods to supply the increasing populations, a port was needed. Humboldt Bay was the only option, and the town of Eureka soon sprang up there.

For a while Union Town just to the north (today’s Arcata), was the main service centre for the northern Californian goldfields. But as the gold ran out Eureka asserted its superiority as a deep water port.

Gold Mining Ghost Towns

On the Western side of the Sierra Nevada Mountians, most of the old setlements that served their purposes in the gold rush and were then deserted, have been obliterated from the map by subsequent development. One prominent Caliornian settlement of the era now classified a ghost town is Bodie, on the eastern side. Considered one of the best preserved ghost towns in California if not the USA, Bodie started life with the discovery of gold a decade after the ‘49ers rushed to California. From a town of 10,000 in its heyday, Bodie is now preserved in a state of ‘arrested decay’ and protected as Bodie State Historic Park.

One of the larger settlements of 1850’s northern California was Shasta. Once a thriving transport centre servicing the goldfields, today Shasta is a popular attraction for its well-preserved buildings and the history that surrounds them. Like Bodie, Shasta is designated a state historic park.

Southern California Gold

While finds further south were modest, there was gold in the southern California hills as well. In the San Bernadino Mountains a hunter named William Holcomb found gold, and the town of Belleville sprang up nearby to service the ensuing clamour for riches. That find was not significant by comparison with those further north, but gold fever created a town of 1500 people in 1861 nevertheless.

Today the golden legacy of those early settlers in California and the thousands who followed the news to seek their fortunes is apparent in numerous preserved sites and museums. They tell a fascinating story.

The US Geological Survey estimates that some 12 million ounces (340 tonne) of gold were extracted in California from 1848 to 1853.