Marshall Gold State Historic Park – A Discovery That Changed the Nation

AMBIENT SOUND: River rushing, sound of hammering, construction, footsteps in wet sand or mud...maybe some kind of pencil/pen writing on paper.
MALE VO:This day some kind of metal was found in the tailrace that looks like gold.
LUNDSTEN: That’s carpenter Henry Bigler’s journal entry from January 24, 1848. He’s describing James Marshall’s gold discovery in the Sierra foothill region of Coloma, California – a discovery that changed the course of American history. Marshall and Bigler were in Coloma, California building a sawmill along the American River.
CLAGETT: According to Marshall’s own words, it was his custom every morning to take a walk along the race. So he gave orders to shut off the gate to eliminate as much water as possible to flow through the raceway and there was about a foot of water running then and he, uh, his eye was caught with the glimpse of something shiny in the bottom of the ditch.
LUNDSTEN: That’s John Clagett, Volunteer Coordinator at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. He says that “something shiny” turned out to indeed be gold. And, just in case you’re wondering what a “tailrace” is, Clagett says it’s basically a ditch that diverted water from the river to power the sawmill. By March, 1848, San Francisco newspapers were announcing Marshall’s discovery on their front pages. Soon after, thousands of people rushed to California to seek their fortunes. Some historians estimate over 60,000 treasure-seekers – mostly men – made the trek to California in search of “el dorado.” Mark Gibson is Marshall Gold Discovery Park Superintendent. He says the Gold Rush was multi-cultural.
MARK GIBSON: That gold strike brought people from all over the world – China, different parts of South America, people from just everywhere came here.
LUNDSTEN: Kicking off one of the biggest migrations in history. But it wasn’t always gold-seekers who struck it rich. John Clagett:
CLAGETT: The people that really benefited from the Gold Rush were the people who mined the miners. Not the people that were lookin’ for the gold, but the people who provided *services for the miners.
LUNDSTEN: Hotels, stores, and other retailers sprang up along Coloma’s Main Street, seemingly overnight.
CLAGETT: The classic example is Sam Brannan. Once he found out about the discovery of gold, he got up all the supplies he’d think miners would need: picks, shovels, food, clothing...and then he ran up and down the streets of San Francisco saying, “Gold! Gold! Gold in the American River! I’ll be happy to sell ya anything ya need!”
LUNDSTEN: For a high price. At that time eggs cost 1-3 dollars a piece, coffee was $5 a pound and a pair of boots ran $100!! Which, if you discovered gold on your own would be a drop in the bucket, but most miners worked for mining *companies, averaging salaries of about $8 a day. A mere ten years after that historical moment in 1848, the Gold Rush in Coloma was over. The sawmill was shut down and folks left to seek their fortunes elsewhere. In 1890 the State of California created its first official *historical landmark – a statue of Marshall overlooking his 1848 discovery site. Mark Gibson:
MARK GIBSON: It didn’t become a State Park, however, until 1948. A good portion of the park is actually a National Historic Landmark, which is the highest designation for preservation for cultural sites.
LUNDSTEN: Today, visitors to the Park experience a trip back in time.
AMBI: Sawmill tour start.
LUNDSTEN: Guests can take a guided tour of a replica of Sutter’s sawmill.
AMBI: Tour fade out.
LUNDSTEN: See the cabin where that carpenter Henry Bigler lived, and hear about the men he bunked with.
AMBI: Sound from cabin, couple secs of the audio tale.
LUNDSTEN: Or take a walk down Main Street. The Park features over twenty historic sites. Mark Gibson:
GIBSON: All the old buildings that are still here and have survived that go back to the 1850s. We have three main house museums, the School House, but in addition to that we have two churches up here, we have two Chinese buildings out here – the WaHop, which is a store that was typical of a Chinese store at the time.
LUNDSTEN: Plus, the Park has a museum, which tells the story of the Native Americans who were living in Coloma at the time. And throughout the year, the park offers events to give visitors an opportunity to immerse themselves in the old days. Gold Discovery Day takes place each year in January and features re-enactments of Marshall’s discovery as well as offers lessons in gold panning. In October the Park hosts Coloma Gold Rush Live.
GIBSON: We bring back the tent town encampment to see what it was like for those early 49ers. The focus there is kind of more on early mining, which would be placer mining, panning, rockers, things like that.
LUNDSTEN: Gibson says besides preserving what already exists at the Park, there are plans for future sites.
GIBSON: There’s several different kind of really key cultural landscapes that we’d like to bring back into the park.
LUNDSTEN: Like recreating the orchard that used to exist on what’s now a meadow, originally created by a former slave family.
GIBSON: If you look at California today, it’s very rich culturally and part of that all started with this Gold Discovery time. It helped shape California to what it is today and that’s why this is such a significant site.
LUNDSTEN: You can find out more about Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, its exhibits, and events at the California State Parks website at parks dot ca dot gov.
OUTRO: If you want to find out more about the California State Parks Foundation and how you can help California State Parks, join our 90,000 members by visiting the Foundation on the web at This podcast was brought to you thanks to a generous donation from Sandy Hartman.