Golden State celebrates 150th birthday |

Golden State celebrates 150th birthday

Greg Risling

Rumors have a funny way of spreading.

It has been 150 years since the clamor about the discovery of gold in the Sierra foothills. The tall tales were whispered in every saloon and store across the nation, spurring the largest migration of settlers westward and starting a tidal wave of millions of people who would eventually call the Golden State home.

Event planners aren’t expecting those huge throngs but are preparing for “Gold Discovery Days,” beginning next weekend. There will be lectures, displays and an evening gala at the El Dorado County Fairgrounds on Friday, Jan. 23.

The series of events is part of a two-year party celebrating the state’s 150th anniversary. Throughout 1998, there will be coordinated activities in Placerville, Sacramento and the Bay Area that revolve around the sesquicentennial. Lake Tahoe will get in the mix later this year when a vintage Spring Ball will be held at Valhalla in May and the annual re-creation of the pilgrimage of wagon trains from Carson City, Nev. to Folsom, Calif. in June.

The public will be treated to a group of traveling exhibits and workshops, starting in Oakland, about rare Gold Rush stories and a recently hand-crafted quilt that will be viewed for the first time in Coloma.

Organizers have had a tough time mustering enough interest and donor support for the sesquicentennial. Up until last month, only 40 people had signed up to attend the gala dinner. That number was bolstered in recent weeks and planners expect more than 200 people to show.

There have been some funding concerns, namely the lack of corporate donors, but there are those who believe more people will become aware of the celebration through the publicity.

“Things may pick up after next weekend’s events,” said Betty Mitchell, a volunteer at the Lake Tahoe Museum. “We hope to have a program about the sesquicentennial in the fall or next winter.”

Gold was found in Coloma in 1848 by James Marshall and the shiny flakes in the American River brought the nation to its knees. Big dollar signs lit up many eyes from the East and the idea of fortune and a new life out West was enough for them to pack up their belongings and head out.

Dennis Witcher, director of the county’s museum, said people were anxious to strike it rich. The county’s populations soared to 50,000 and Placerville, once a tent city, was a boomtown. After the rivers and hills were harvested, many settlers moved or died.

“We are probably talking about the greatest migration in the history of the world,” Witcher said. “Very few people lived here before the discovery of gold, just the Mormon emigrants. There weren’t many afterwards who stayed permanently.”

Witcher said the Sierra gold discovery is famous in history books but it may have actually been a Spaniard who found the precious metal in Southern California in 1841. Historians, to this day, argue about that claim.

El Dorado County Supervisor Ray Nutting remembers as a young child the stories about the region’s pioneers and how they blazed trails for those who followed.

“The same roads we use today were identified by those pioneers,” he said. “The anniversary gives us the opportunity to showcase the history of what was the foundation for El Dorado County.”

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