James W. Marshall discovered gold in what is now Coloma, Calif., as he worked on a mill on the American River north of Sacramento. Because it took a few months for word to get out (the mill owner, John Sutter, didn’t want people overrunning his land) and because California was then a long trip for most, things didn’t really heat up until 1849 — hence the term “forty-niner” for those who rushed in seeking their fortunes. Although a few grew wealthy, many did not, and many of those who did grew rich by selling supplies to the miners.
The California Gold Rush changed American history — and American travel — forever. About 300,000 people flocked to California during the next few years. Some came by sea from Pacific islands, South America and even China. Others crossed land from elsewhere in the West and, eventually, the East Coast of the U.S. as word spread. Some of them stayed in California permanently, helping create settlements that still thrive.
Cities grew and built infrastructure and governments; San Francisco went from a few hundred people to 25,000 in about two years. By 1850, California was admitted to the U.S. as a state. Perhaps the biggest impact came in the transportation networks built to haul people and goods back and forth. Soon, well-established shipping routes left port cities along the West Coast, and railroads connected them to the East Coast. Primitive roads, forbears of today’s highways, took people along the “California Trail.”
Coloma is now a ghost town, but not in a bad way: Tourists travel there to visit Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park — with museums, old buildings and a reconstructed mill — and imagine what it would have been like to find the golden ore themselves.