Sketching Columbia

I have sketched the Gold Rush Town of Columbia many times with various degrees of success. I was returning here in winter when the historic streets are not as crowded with summer visitors. I sketched either in the early morning or at the end of the day when I would have more options for selecting my perspectives.

I had a few buildings on my sketch list, some of which I would be sketching for the first time, while others, I was making a second or third attempt.

One building that I returned to is probably one of the most famous buildings in the Gold Rush town of Columbia. This is the 1858 Wells Fargo office building. This building, which is photographed many times by visitors, has also appeared in the Clint Eastwood movie Pale Rider (1985), filling in for Yuba City. The exterior and the interior was used when the Preacher trades his collar in for his guns.

I’m had attempted to sketch this building on two other occasions but I made some mistakes with perspective and aborted the drawings. This time I sat on a bench, across the street (Main Street) from the building and carefully measured out the side ratios by holding out my pencil at eye level. Once the perspective is correct, everything else just falls in place.

In the end, I was very satisfied with the final sketch (featured sketch) which goes to show that patience and perseverance wins the day.

Another building I was interested in sketching was the firehouse, just down Main Street from the Wells Fargo Building. I took a seat across the street at a picnic table and started to sketch. The pole topped by a weather vane reached across the gutter onto the other page.

The firehouse sitting in front of me was built in 1911. Inside of it’s swinging doors is one of the town’s water hand pumper fire engines “Papeet”, built in Boston in 1852. This pumper and the firehouse are featured briefly in the very beginning of the masterpiece High Noon (1952).

At one time, Papeet was bound for Tahiti but the government there was overthrown and the pumper was stuck at the docks of San Francisco. The citizens of Columbia raised money to buy “Papeet” and was eventually returned to Columbia.


BoomTown to Ghost Town

The Gold Rush was a time of boom and bust. Many towns first started as miner’s camps composed of canvas tents centered around a mining area. Perhaps tents were replaced by more permeant structures made of wood. In most miner towns there inevitably was a fire which destroyed all or part of these mining towns. When the towns were rebuilt, the structures were built of brick and it is these structures that are around today, either as a still functioning structures or as a Gold Rush ruin.

Many of the towns that I drove through on Highway 49, tell of this boom and bust. Some towns would have populations of 3,000 or 5,000 people at their height and then the diggings would be mined out and the town’s population would disappear to the next new gold discovery site. No two towns exemplify this today more than the prosperous town of Columbia and the virtual ghost town of Hornitos.

Gold was discovered in the area around Columbia on March 27, 1850. Columbia became a boomtown with its population swelling to 5,000 with 150 saloons to quench the thirst of parched miners. Over that time $150 million worth of gold was mined from the hills surrounding the town becoming one of the most prosperous areas in California’s Gold Country. At one time, Columbia was the second largest city in California and was once considered for the site of the state capital.

The centerpiece of Columbia State Historic Park, the 1858 Wells Fargo & Company building. More than 1.4 million ounces of gold was weighted out in this building.

By the 1860’s, most of the gold had been mined out and the population decreased. But Columbia never became a ghost town. The two story brick schoolhouse (built in 1860), which was used up until 1937, speaks to the vibrancy of the town that never gave up the ghost.

In 1945 the state bought the land and preserved the site of the historic downtown as Columbia State Historic Park. It now represents the largest collection of Gold Rush era buildings in existence. Walking down Main Street is to take a step back in time.

During the Gold Rush, Hornitos was known as one of the roughest and toughest towns among the southern mines. The outlaw Juaquin Murrietta is reputed to have used Hornitos as a hideout. The town predates California’s Gold Rush and was founded by Mexicans who were kicked out of nearby Quartzburg. During its height it is said that Hornitos had a population of 15,000 and was the only incorporated town in Mariposa County.

Now Hornitos is a backwater, 13 miles from Highway 49 in what seems like the middle of nowhere. The town, well really settlement might be a better name for it, now has a population of about 60 souls. But as I walked the street of “downtown” Hornitos, the only sign of life were the cows in the far fields and 80’s pop music blaring from a house that looked it had been abandoned back it the late 80’s. At least they have electricity in Hornitos.

I was standing in front of the building that had drawn me away from Highway 49 to this small town. The red brick building is now just a hollow shell of its former self, a ruins of a former business started by an Italian immigrant. His name was Domenico Ghirardelli and it was in this brick building that his chocolate empire began. Here in Hornitos, Ghirardelli ran a general goods store from 1855-1858 and he sold the store and headed to San Francisco to start his chocolate business.

This ruins is a reminder that the people who made money during the Gold Rush were not always mining for gold, they were mining the miners.