5 Gold Rush nuggets that may surprise you

Gold discovery at Coloma to be celebrated at park Jan. 20
By: Gus Thomson, Reporter/Columnist
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California’s Gold Rush started out Jan. 24, 1848, in the gravel of the American River’s south fork.
James Marshall spied something glowing as he inspected the sawmill he was building and picked up a nugget of gold that would change the world and be a driving a force in creating a foundation of optimism and adventure in California that survives to this day. 
The days after the discovery in what is present-day Coloma are rich in history and Media Life has pulled out its own Top 5 list of nuggets that may surprise you — ranging from a celebrity visitor to a triumphant return.
Let’s start with the triumphant return:
VIP gold
This year’s gold discovery anniversary will be marked at the site in Coloma with Gold Discovery Day on Jan. 20.
The last big celebration took place in 1998 to mark the sesquicentennial of the Marshall find and state parks made the event an extra special one by flying back from Washington, D.C. the gold nugget that touched off the Gold Rush.
The Smithsonian Institution agreed to a temporary display of the nugget in Coloma for the Jan. 24, 1998, celebration and organizers ramped up security, flanking the display with no less than three armed guards.
It was much deserved ado over a nugget weighing about half a gram. Marshall described the smooshed gold nugget as about half the size of a pea. Marshall hand-squished the nugget to see if was malleable. It ended up sitting in a tea caddy filled with 230 ounces of gold sent that year to the nation’s capital to prove to authorities, including President James Polk that the rumors of a unbelievably rich strike were true. 
Hollywood’s golden couple
The late morning parade along Highway 49 through Coloma was like nothing the sleepy town had seen before — and probably seen since.
The date was Jan. 24, 1948, and organizers of the Gold Rush centennial celebration found a way to draw a crowd.
And it had nothing to do with James Marshall and that legendary nugget — and everything to do with the cult of celebrity.
The centennial committee managed to finagle an appearance in the parade by singing cowboy Roy Rogers. Along for the ride were his famous horse Trigger and Rogers’ co-star and wife, the former big-band singer Dale Evans. 
The result? Perhaps Coloma’s first and only traffic jam, with the road from Placerville and Auburn to the parade choked with vehicles filled with fans of Rogers hoping to get a glimpse during the parade. Organizers estimated that 70,000 people squeezed in for the celebration. Which would be, what, 1,000 times the population of Coloma in 1948?
Bearish on Golden State
One of nature’s oddities — and a California treasure — stands a tad more than 2 inches tall and weighs in at just a grain or two more than an ounce.
It’s the California Golden Bear Nugget, found in the Sierra above Foresthill and now displayed in a museum in Los Angeles.
The story goes that in 1871, a 14-year-old girl living in the mining settlement of Yankee Jim’s, 2½ miles northwest of Foresthill, spotted the form of the bear cub in a crystallized gold sample and hung onto it until her death in the late 1930s.
The girl’s tiny Golden Bear — linked to perhaps one of California’s endearing and enduring symbols — left Placer County in 1939 after it was pledged against a loan to finance a failed gold mine. It went on the market as an oddity and fetched a bargain price of $300. Buyer was the California Federation of Mineralogical Societies and it’s been in the group’s possession since then. It’s now on display at the Los Angeles County Museum.
The bear’s last visit to Placer County was 12 years ago, when a nonprofit group’s gold and mineral show in Roseville was able to put it on temporary display during its event. 
Auburn’s golden images
When you look at some of the earliest images out there of California’s golden past, you’re looking at Auburn as it was in 1852.
Perhaps the most alluring image shows what a global village Auburn and the surrounding Gold Country became as the world rushed in. Fortune seekers rolled into California from at least 25 nations.
The photo features seven unsmiling gold seekers — four Chinese and three Caucasian — looking up from their diggings. New York native Joseph Blaney Starkweather is credited with taking the photo and the scene is described as the “head of the Auburn Ravine.”
The fragile daguerreotype is one of three Starkweather images from 1852 showing Auburn. The others show Spanish Flat gold workers near Auburn and another group of miners in Auburn Ravine.
The photos were initially owned by the state Division of Mines, survived the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and were acquired by the California State Library in 1947 — a year before the 100th anniversary of the Marshall gold discovery.
Gilt-edged past
Prominent at the Placer County Museum in Old Town Auburn is a piece of Gold Rush history with a disputed past.
The dispute involves whether it was the one entrepreneur Sam Brannan — the one who made his money selling supplies to 49ers — used to first trumpet in type the news that gold had been discovered. 
Known for sure is that the distinctively shaped “acorn” press chronicled Placer County happenings starting Sept. 11, 1852, when erstwhile gold seeker Tabb Mitchell started printing The Placer Herald with a press he brought over from Marysville. The press continued to chronicle Auburn’s news through the 1890s, when it was retired in favor of a modern cylinder press.
By 1898, the Placer Herald publisher Joseph Filcher was exhibiting it at a mining fair celebrating the 50th anniversary of the gold discovery — and making the tenuous Brannan claim. Stops since then have included Golden Gate Park, the State Library and Sutter’s Fort.
Filcher descendents still own the press and were convinced in the late 1990s to loan it to the Placer County museums division. The Filcher family has owned the press since 1872 and contends that it’s the same one Brannan shipped around Cape Horn in 1846. Naysayers argue the Brannan press was likely destroyed during an 1851 fire in Sacramento.
Whatever version you decide on, the museum inside the Placer County Courthouse has one more of those unexpected nuggets the Gold Rush has happily left us with.
For more on Gold Discovery Day, call 530-622-3470 or visit
Wrong road
The geography got jumbled in last week’s Media Life 2017 news quiz and the PG&E Wise Powerhouse was placed on Taylor Road. It’s actually at Ophir and Wise roads.
Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at or 530-852-0232. Thomson is a state and national award-winning reporter who writes for the Auburn Journal.