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California and the West

Gold Rush Festival Isn't Panning Out

History: On 150th anniversary, Sutter's Mill is feeling forgotten.

January 23, 1998|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COLOMA — One hundred fifty years after the first argonauts began panning and scraping and blasting the local riverbeds dry of much of their hidden treasure, Joe Bilotta and a small band of other modern-day gold miners are still combing the region for the precious metal that changed the face of California.

Bilotta hasn't done too badly so far. He and his two sons spend weeks at a time prowling streams with a vacuum-like dredge, extracting dirt and minerals and--occasionally--gold. Their prized find came a year or so ago: a 3-ounce nugget that the retired engineer carries in a pouch to show the curious and the envious. "The 'holy cow' nugget," he calls it.

"You always think the next crevice you go into is going to have that big nugget," said Bilotta, 62. "You feel the energy of how much work it must have taken for these guys to do this back then--all the freedom, all the gold just there for the taking."

The foothills and streams east of Sacramento are still very much Gold Country, in history and in spirit. But for all that people such as Bilotta have done to affirm the region's storied beginnings, the glitter has faded a bit of late, dulled by disappointment and frustration over what many locals say should have been a grand commemoration of the defining event.

This Saturday marks the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in Coloma--a pea-sized find that caused little stir at first but would soon set off the hysteria of the Gold Rush and spark one of the largest, most rapid migrations in modern history.

At the Gold Rush's birthplace, local organizers once envisioned as many as 70,000 people visiting this tiny town to mark the occasion this weekend, matching the throngs of visitors and celebrities who flocked here for the 100th anniversary in 1948. Such talk now seems like fool's gold: To date, about 500 tickets have been sold.

People in Coloma still hope to attract several thousand people, including the governor, who is promising to attend. Alan and Cindi Ehrgott's country inn will be filled, but even so, they believe the once-ballyhooed weekend marks an opportunity lost. They wonder whether the state is forgetting a critical part of its history.

"Deep down in my heart, I feel Jan. 24 belongs to Coloma. That was the watershed event," Alan Ehrgott said. "And there could be so much more."

A state Sesquicentennial Commission is responsible for planning events over the next 33 months to commemorate the Gold Rush and statehood. Many here blame that panel for what they see as inattention, broken promises and a failure to support the local event. And a legislative task force in Sacramento has begun to review whether the hundreds of thousands of dollars the commission has spent have produced much more than slick logos, color brochures and pricey consulting contracts.

The gold legacy will be remembered in several events around the state this weekend hosted by the commission and other groups. There will be a pregame salute at the Super Bowl in San Diego on Sunday, as well as a touring exhibit highlighting the Gold Rush's contributions and its often-overlooked tragedies, including the environmental destruction wrought by early miners, and the killing of Native Americans and other ethnic groups.

Mindful of the controversy over how Christopher Columbus was remembered on the 500th anniversary of his voyage, "we made the decision right from the start that we would not try to smooth over the tragic consequences of the Gold Rush, pretending that it was all happy miners singing in a Donizetti opera," said state librarian Kevin Starr.

Commission officials acknowledge that the panel's fund-raising arm has been sluggish in recruiting corporate sponsors and is falling far short of its goals. Sutter's Mill has paid the price, receiving virtually no direct aid despite what the superintendent of the state park in town says was a promise of $150,000.

The commission hopes to raise more than $20 million from private sources over the next several years to help Californians rediscover their roots. But to date officials have collected about $200,000.

"I can understand there being an anxiety, because we share the same anxiety about raising the funds," said the commission's deputy director, Oscar Wright.

The commission has spent $200,000 of its $2.3 million in state funding on consulting contracts that had to be canceled after the lagging fund-raising prompted cutbacks. One consultant, ironically, was assigned to do fund-raising.

Matt Sugarman, the superintendent of Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, said he has seen little in the way of results besides a fancy "California 150" logo that was developed and trademarked.

"Seems like a lot of money for a logo," he said.

The consulting contracts have attracted the interest of the state's Legislative Staff Task Force on Government Oversight, which is reviewing records and interviewing people involved in the anniversary planning.

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