Columbia State Historical Park looked like an interesting place to explore on a Tuesday morning, April 13, 2021. On our way, a few miles south of Angels Camp, the New Melones Lake Visitor Center came into view. So we stopped to see if we could pick up maps and pamphlets. The center and museum were closed, being that it was a Tuesday. Fortunately, a ranger came out with a pamphlet that listed all the New Melones Lake hikes, and then he directed us to the Norwegian Gulch Trail behind the building.
Norwegian Gulch Trail
Switchbacks led the way toward the lake on the ½-mile trail through shady trees and fields of blooming wildflowers. We felt lucky to have timed our visit when the wildflowers were at their peak.
The poppy (eschscholzia californica) is California’s official state flower. It grows in grassy and open areas from sea level to 6,500 feet throughout California and is also present in Oregon, southern Washington, Arizona, New Mexico, and Sonora, Mexico, and Baja California. It’s illegal to pick the poppies, and no, these poppies do not contain opium making properties.
The silver lupine is another wildflower prevalent around New Melones Lake and has a similar growing area as the California poppy.
Sunflowers were another common sight.
New Melones Lake
Native Americans inhabited much of California before Spanish missionaries, miners and early settlers arrived. It’s estimated that about 9,000 Me-Wuk (or Mi-wok) Indians once lived in the central valley and Sierra Nevada Mountains. The indigenous population declined significantly and by 1910 the census recorded only 670 Me-Wuk. Archeological evidence shows the Me-Wuk were careful stewards of the environment, employing harvesting, management, and cultivation techniques that protected and stimulated the natural resources. The missionaries, miners and settlers could have learned a thing or two from the Me-Wuk had gold fever not taken over.
Although congress authorized construction of the New Melones Dam in 1944, it took 22 years for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin construction. The new dam replaced the old one built in 1926. The lake’s surface area is 12,500 acres, has a capacity of 2.4 million acre feet of water, and 100 miles of shoreline, and is the state’s third largest reservoir. It stands at less than 58% capacity as of May 16, 2021. Recreational activities at New Melones include boating, fishing, skiing, swimming, hiking and camping among others.
After our little hike, we drove to Columbia State Historical Park.
Columbia State Historical Park
Columbia preserves an old miner’s town founded in 1850 by Dr. Thaddeus Hildreth, his brother George, John Walker, and others who found gold there on March 27, 1850. Originally named Hildreth’s Diggings, they renamed the town Columbia on April 29, 1850.
Within two years stores, shops, saloons, and other businesses had sprung up, followed by churches, a meeting hall, and a masonic lodge. Gold fever attracted not only U.S. citizens, but immigrants from China, France, Ireland, Italy, and Germany. By 1853, the town had grown to 25,000 to 30,000 people.
Gold taken from the Columbia area helped finance the US Government and Union Army during the Civil War. Between 1850 and the early 1900s, the mines dug out approximately $150 million in gold.
On July 6, 1933, California listed Columbia as State Landmark No. 123. It wasn’t until July 15, 1945, that Governor Earl Warren created the old business district as a state park and the state began purchasing the properties.
In 1854, George Morgan bought a brick building and a one-story wooden structure for his Morgan’s City Hotel. He purchased adjacent lots and incorporated them into his property. The structure housed Morgan and his family. An auction house, a theatre, music hall, bar, and restaurant occupied other parts of the building over the years. The state renovated the structure in 1975 and today guests can reserve one of the ten rooms decorated in a 19th century style.
Built in 1899, the Brady Building was operated as the Pioneer Emporium for decades under various concessionaires. Today its named Columbia Clothiers & Emporium. It doesn’t look like much from outside, but inside we saw 1800s western-style clothing and antiques.
The Tibbits House arrived when Lyman C. Tibbitts moved his family’s home onto the corner lot in 1887. The Columbia docents use the home for living-history demonstrations. (Tibbits with only one T at the end is not a typo. Not sure why the spelling is different.)
Charles Alberding built the next brick structure in 1856 and owned it until 1871. Since then the property changed hands several times with various businesses, mostly bars, occupying it over the years. Today the St. Charles Saloon is a popular place for beer and build-your-own pizza. Pizza lovers will like the long list of ingredients to choose from.
William Daegener completed this brick building in 1858 after two previously wooden-built structures burned. Daegener used the first floor for a Wells Fargo office, where he served as an agent. His family lived upstairs. A store occupied the single-story structure. The Stage Coach Office occupies that space today. After several ownership and agent changes, Wells Fargo closed the Columbia office in 1914.
The photo below depicts the Jack Douglass Saloon. We highly recommend the saloon for one of the best hamburgers we have ever eaten. Jack Douglass rented the corner building built in 1857-58 and ran a saloon until he moved to Stockton in 1869. The property changed hands and names many times until the state purchased the property in 1952. In 1968, the state restored and reopened the building as the Jack Douglass Saloon.
Other activities of interest while in Columbia include:
- Take a class at Yankee Hill Winery and Cooking School
- Purchase handmade candies at Nelson’s Columbia Candy Kitchen
- Browse through Columbia Booksellers & Variety Store
- Ride the Stagecoach
- Pan for gold at the Matelot Gulch Mining Company
Next up: Angels Creek Trail at New Melones Lake