Media Life: Journey back in time to 1936’s Gold Rush Revival

By: Gus Thomson, Reporter/Columnist
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Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at

. Thomson is a state and national award-winning reporter who writes for the Auburn Journal.    


The photo has a storybook quality — peopled with images that Thomas Kinkade could have incorporated into his fanciful 1988 painting of Old Town Auburn now displayed at the Placer County Courthouse.

And in a way, many of the people in the photo — either on the sidewalk watching or in the street marching — could have arrived in Auburn direct from central casting.

Check out the two “cowboys” leaning against the telephone pole on the left-hand side, for instance.

Or the Nevada City High School Band marching down High Street in front of what is now the East Placer parking lot, the traffic cop and the vintage motorcycle in the lower right-hand corner, the Depression-era garbed onlookers and the neat-as-a-pin White’s Super Service station.

And on a weekend in early June 1936, punctuated by a rare rainstorm or two, Auburn welcomed the region for a third year in a row to its Gold Rush Revival Celebration.

One of the highlights was a Saturday morning parade that featured bands like Nevada City’s but focussed on transportation that would have been used in the Gold Rush era. That meant plenty of horse-driven rigs, including a stagecoach that carried Gov. Frank Merriam. The governor’s presence may have not been the most popular entry in the parade. He served as honorary grand marshall. A year earlier, Merriam had championed introduction of a state income tax.

Gilded goat gone

The parade committee chairman was Wendell Robie, a local Republican kingmaker and lumber company czar, who would go on to pioneer the Tevis Cup ride. Robie’s parade efforts had been complicated by the disappearance of the E Clampus Vitus goat. Its horns gilded for a mass initiation of Clampers members in advance of the Gold Rush Revival, the goat had bolted and disappeared twice in the previous two weeks.

The first two revivals had drawn crowds organizers estimated each year at about 30,000 and Auburn was up for the 1936 event, with locals dressing in Gold Rush costumes. Many of the men sported whiskers to add to aura of mid-19th century authenticity.

With gold the center of attention, Placer County Bank was a Mecca that weekend with a $125,000 display that an Auburn Journal writer gushed “will surpass in splendor and value any similar gold display ever placed together in one exhibit for the public to view.”

In keeping with the gold theme, drilling contests were held — both for hand-drillers and jackhammer specialists. An example of a well-drilled boulder believed to have been used in the competition is located today outside Auburn’s Gold Museum.

There was even a machine-gun demonstration in Central Square, breaking through the peace of that weekend’s Sunday and presaging the global conflict to come.The California National Guard used blanks and the demonstration followed a military parade on Sunday morning.

Endurance on display

The parade was a marathon by today’s standards. Modern-day Auburn parades usually travel from a staging area outside the Gold Museum along Lincoln Way and High Street to the Gold Country Fairgrounds.

In 1936, the Gold Rush Revival parade was double the length — and then some. The parade started at was then described as The Plaza in Old Town, traveled up Lincoln Way to Elm Avenue and then turned around to move along High Street to Central Square — and then the courthouse finish.

One major mystery remains.

The Journal reported soon after the Gold Rush Revival that Dr. Conrad Briner showed “moving pictures” of the event to the Auburn Men’s Club. Whatever happened to that footage? If it’s still out there, it should be preserved and shared. And then, perhaps we’ll see the Nevada High School Band once again marching proudly along High Street past White’s, giving life to a still image forever frozen in time.

Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at Thomson is a state and national award-winning reporter who writes for the Auburn Journal.