COLUMBIA, Calif. — A stagecoach pulled by four horses rattles up Main Street and drops its passengers near the Wells Fargo office. One young rider is wiping tears from his eyes, still upset by the holdup man who tried to rob the stage at the edge of town.
"Let's go across the street to the Douglass Saloon and have a sarsaparilla," says the boy's father, trying to calm him down.
It could have been a scene from the 1850s, when this gold-rush town was in its heyday, but it happened just recently. Columbia is the gem of California's mother-lode country, a town of living history that makes visitors think they've been caught in a time warp.
Along Main Street hammers ring from the blacksmith shop, a barber strops his razor to a fine edge, chocolate is stirred in copper kettles at the candy store, horses and harness are checked before the stagecoach begins another run.
State Historic Park
Although fires, vandals and neglect have destroyed most old mining towns, well-preserved Columbia was declared a state historic park in 1945 as a real-life reminder of California's colorful gold rush era.
Buildings have been authentically restored, including two hotels where you can spend the night (bath down the hall, of course). In structures no longer used for business, historical exhibits recall their past, such as the early dental equipment displayed in the office of Dr. G. A. Field. You'll wince at the turnkey devices for pulling teeth.
Columbia still has several hundred residents, but the heart of the village is closed to motor vehicles to preserve its historic appearance.
To absorb the full flavor of bygone times, visitors should plan to spend a day strolling around the town. A self-guide tour booklet describes 44 sites, including some that are active shops, saloons and eateries.
Food fans will be tempted by everything from an old-fashioned banana split at Fallon Ice Cream Parlor to the roast duckling flamed in cognac served in the gourmet dining room of the City Hotel.
On Fridays and weekends the Columbia Actors' Repertory presents plays in a 130-year-old theater where the miners were entertained. The curtain rises on "Amadeus" from Oct. 23 until Nov. 15, followed by "A Miner's Christmas Carol" Dec. 4-20.
Columbia sits among the trees 2,100 feet up the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and autumn is a picturesque and quiet time for a visit. You'll find the town four miles from Sonora off California 49, the scenic highway that connects the old mining camps of the mother lode.
Go north from Los Angeles on Interstate 5 and California 99 to Modesto, then northeast on California 108 to Sonora.
After parking on the perimeter of Columbia, walk to Main and State streets where a miner's supply store that dates to 1854 is the park museum and visitor center. The town's history is portrayed in a slide show as well as a gold display and other exhibits. Get the state's tour guidebook and map of the park for $1.
Craftsmen at Work
Furniture is still made in the 1860s carpentry shop, where coffins could be ordered in the old days for $10 per foot. Craftsmen in the leather shop that opened in 1858 continue to turn out hand-tooled belts. Metal items for restoration projects are forged by the blacksmith. He also creates horseshoe puzzles.
Visitors can have their pictures taken in vintage costumes at the A. DeComos Daguerrean Studio and watch fudge being made in the Nelson Candy Kitchen. You're also welcome to pet Killer, the town's one-eyed cat who patrols Main Street.
To experience the rough-riding transportation of yesteryear, buy a ticket at the stage depot for a 10-minute rural tour along the old stage road. Pay $3 for a seat in the coach or put up $1 more to ride shotgun on top with the driver. The Columbia Stage Line operates weekends and during school holidays.
On weekends through October you also can see the countryside from horseback. Saddle up at the Columbia Stable for guided rides that last from 15 minutes ($5) to an hour ($15).
Pocket 'a Little Color'
Nearby at the Matelot Gulch Mine Supply Store, visitors can learn how to pan for gold. For $5 you'll get a pan with a mix of sand and placer gold, instructions for washing the pay dirt and the guarantee of pocketing "a little color." Also ask about tours to a working gold mine that was discovered in 1879.
When you're thirsty, have a sarsaparilla or beer in the historic Douglass or St. Charles saloons. Or belly up to the cherrywood bar that was shipped around the Horn in 1856 to the forerunner of the City Hotel and its What Cheer Saloon.
Nine rooms on the hotel's second floor were reopened to guests 12 years ago, comfortably decorated in 19th-Century style. Showers are down the hall, but guests are provided a robe and hand basket with toiletries; a modern half-bath has been added to each room.
Afternoon sherry and a continental breakfast served in the upstairs parlor are included in the room rates, which are $60 to $70 for double occupancy. Reservations: (209) 532-1479.