Weekend Escape: Sierra Foothills : Mining Gold Country : Following the Ghosts of Miners and Card Sharks Through Columbia, Jackson, Sutter Creek and Murphys

It was one of those cool, damp weekends--the kind even we Southern Californians must occasionally endure at this time of year.

Not the kind of weekend for a trip to the beach, or even to the mountains, where constant snow flurries can ruin a few days of skiing.

But in the Gold Rush country--where hours can be spent poking around an intriguing assortment of cluttered antique shops, musty used book stores, funky museums, tempting candy boutiques, vineyard wine-tasting rooms and even an old iron foundry--the weather is almost irrelevant.

Looking for a chance to get away--eat a few good meals, hunt for some bargains, see a couple of unusual sights and learn a little about one of the most colorful periods in California's brief history--my wife, Martha, and I built a recent weekend around a two-night stay at the City Hotel in the restored mining town of Columbia.

During the 1850s, Columbia--situated in the Sierra foothills about 130 miles east of San Francisco--was the sort of place where boozy gold miners brawled, gimlet-eyed card sharks fleeced naive newcomers and legal disputes were resolved with blasts of gunfire. The saloons and gambling dens outnumbered the churches 159 to 3.

When the gold played out, the town followed suit, and by World War II, Columbia was a classic ghost town. But thanks to the lack of 20th-Century development--and the fact that many of the original buildings were built of enduring brick--the core of the town looked much as it had in the 1800s. In 1945, the state purchased downtown Columbia and turned it into a park--dusting it off, cleaning it up and turning it into a sanitized version of its past. It looks like a movie set, and it has been used in such film classics as "High Noon" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

In the shops and cafes that line the main street, the clerks and waitresses wear period dress. The firehouse is still home to two authentic, hand-drawn fire engines. The museums are crammed with period tools, documents and household implements. And one of the old bars is still operating--the What Cheer Saloon at the original City Hotel.

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Martha and I were drawn to the hotel--built to its present configuration in 1857--because it was billed as authentic. And to an amazing degree, it is.

The 10 rooms are the same slab-sided, high-ceiling cubicles they were 100 years ago. The period furnishings are spare--our room held a chest of drawers, a straight-backed chair and two beds, both with solid foot and headboards that provide a tight fit for anyone over six feet. There are a few concessions to modernity--the closet now contains a washbowl and toilet, and the kerosene lamps have been wired for electricity.

Don't expect down comforters, video movies, fluffy towels and room service at the City Hotel. The bedding and towels are simple but adequate, and if you want entertainment, read a book or strike up a conversation.

While it reminded me of the Army, schlepping down the hall to one of the communal shower rooms was better than it sounds. This time there was more hot water, a touch of privacy and plenty of soap.

Martha enjoyed reading in the upstairs sitting room, where card games sprang up around turn-of-the-century tables and a decanter of free sherry was provided before dinner. And the hotel dining room's dinners--elegant prix fixe , four-course meals that included entrees of seafood, duck, lamb and beef--were outstanding.

After a cozy night and a good continental breakfast that came with the room, we set out on the one full day of sightseeing that our three-day weekend provided.

The misty drizzle had deterred the busloads of schoolchildren and tourists that often clog Columbia, especially in the summertime, and we had the main drag pretty much to ourselves.

We spent about an hour checking out the firehouse, museums and the old Wells Fargo office, and I stopped off for goodies at the Columbia Candy Kitchen, where Jennifer McMahon--part of the fourth generation of her family to live in the town--was all decked out in a frilly, 19th-Century gown. "Actually, we can wear almost anything that's old-fashioned," she confided as her ancient cash register rang up the tab with a satisfying clang. "But that means no tennis shoes."

Ten minutes later we were heading north on California 49--the 300-mile route reconfigured years ago to wind through most of the state's historic Gold Rush towns.

There are dozens to choose from--communities like Mariposa, with its picturesque courthouse, built in 1854, that is the oldest in the state; Sonora, probably the largest and most successful of the Mother Lode mining towns; Angels Camp, which provided the inspiration for Mark Twain's story about the jumping frog, and San Andreas, source of much of the copper used by the Union Army during the Civil War.

But for us, time was short, so we made a bee line for Jackson, the sort of place that warms Martha's heart.

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Jackson is home to more than a dozen shops crammed with dusty books and assorted antiques. Some of the stores offer handsome heirlooms with prices to match. Most of them offer the kind of battered, rusty, mismatched stuff you find at garage sales.

Despite the weather, Jackson's streets were crowded that day with eager shoppers. Martha and I adopted our usual pose in such circumstances, each curling up in a quiet corner beside a bookshelf, browsing happily as the rain pounded down.

After a quick lunch at a roadside hamburger stand in nearby Drytown, we doubled back to Sutter Creek, the sort of place that warms my heart.

Sutter Creek is where you find the Knight Foundry, a magnificent collection of massive, aging machinery that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Still in business after more than 120 years, the foundry is where they cast, hammered and machined the Gargantuan equipment used to extract ore from the Sierra during the dwindling days of the Gold Rush.

There's a self-guided tour, but if things are quiet you can get furnace tender Russell Johnson--a bearded, overalled mountain of a man--to lead you through the throbbing clutter of cranes, drill presses, lathes and hydraulic presses. A Rube Goldberg collection of belts, drive shafts, pulleys and gears connects them all to the Knight water wheel that provides the power. The really spectacular shows are put on every two weeks or so, when Johnson pours flaming streams of incandescent molten iron from the coke furnace into molds scattered about the floor.

Martha, who read in the car while I hung out with Johnson, dozed contentedly as I made the 45-minute drive through the lush highland wine country to the town of Murphys. Like a lot of the Gold Rush towns, Murphys has a pleasant main street lined with handsome trees and an attractive assortment of tourist shops, 19th-Century buildings and restaurants.

For reasons never made clear, it's also the headquarters for an irreverent, offbeat group called E. Clampus Vitus. The organization, founded during the Gold Rush as a spoof of the solemn fraternal orders of the day, has erected a commemorative slab of bas relief portraits known collectively as the Wall of Comparative Innovations. The criteria for inclusion are not mentioned.

Some of those honored are people you've probably heard of--actress Lola Montez, author Bret Harte, pathfinder Jedediah Smith and wagon-maker John Studebaker. And there are some you probably haven't--a woman named Julia C. Bulette and a man named Oliver Sandad.

Of Bulette, the citation says simply: "Born in London. Gentle companion to the miner. Brutally strangled in bed, 1867." Of Sandad it says: "Struck it rich, lost it all in a crap game. . . . Later became a dirt farmer in the wilds near Milpitas. He was happy no end and not the least bit lonely."

After another fine dinner at the hotel, a good night's rest and an early rise, we headed home. It would be nice to say that getting there was half the fun, but it wasn't. The drive from Los Angeles to Columbia and back is about 350 miles each way, almost all of it a mindless trek along featureless stretches of Interstate 5 and U.S. 99.

But there was a bright side. We rented a car, which saved wear and tear on the family sedan and provided us with a clean, spacious vehicle that was someone else's problem. Weekend rates are good--Enterprise rentals offers a Ford Taurus for about $75 with unlimited mileage.

We cheated and upgraded to an Infiniti. It cost more than twice as much, but the leather seats smelled good and Ravel on the CD player made the Grapevine glide by like the Gran Corniche.

Budget for Two

City Hotel, two nights: $ 172.80

Hotel dinner, two nights: 114.00

Car rental: 169.99

Lunch, two days: 30.00

Knight Foundry entrance fee: 5.00

Tips: 21.75

FINAL TAB: $513.54

City Hotel, P.O. Box 1870, Columbia, Calif. 95310; tel. (209) 532-1479.

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