Mining the Past


At John Sutter's sawmill 150 years ago, the discovery of that infamous gold nugget triggered the California Gold Rush, and the rest is, well, history.

To mark the momentous find, there's a bonanza of Gold Rush events this weekend designed to take you back to those rough-and-tumble days--even give you a shot at panning for gold.

At Ventura's Olivas Adobe on Sunday, a re-created mining town will put a realistic spin on those heady times. Also on Sunday, the Stagecoach Inn Museum in Newbury Park will celebrate the anniversary with a slice of real life from the Gold Rush period--everything from churning butter to sipping sarsaparilla. Through the summer, California State Parks have a number of Gold Rush related events.

There's a touch of irony in these local celebrations. Gold actually was discovered near the Ventura-Los Angeles county line half a dozen years before the 1848 discovery at Sutter's sawmill near Sacramento. Whether it was 1841 or 1842 is fuzzy, as well as exactly where--in San Feliciano Canyon off Piru Creek or farther east in Placerita Canyon.

In one historical account, ranch foreman Francisco Lopez was searching for stray sheep when he stopped under a tree to dig up some wild onions and spotted what looked like gold.

According to local historian Richard Senate, Lopez's find was not an idle discovery. "He knew what he was looking for. He had degrees from the University of Mexico in mining and mineralogy."

Nonetheless, the discovery near Piru spurred a minor gold rush that drained workers from other ranches in the county. The Piru Creek find was nowhere near as spectacular as the one in 1848, but the area was mined for decades.

Even during the Depression, Senate said, people turned to the creek in hopes of finding gold and emerging from poverty.

"Most people don't know there is still gold there," he said.

Gold seekers still trek into the back country, especially after a rain when the tiny flecks are more visible.

Although the real California Gold Rush was hundreds of miles to the north, Ventura County played a role.

"We had gold of another sort--cattle," Senate said.

Local ranchers drove herds of cattle north to help feed the thousands of miners who rushed in from all over the world. Because of the scarcity of food and supplies, the cattle drew top dollar.

"It was like winning the lottery," he said.

Among those who made a fortune on the cattle drives was Don Raymundo Olivas, one of the richest men in Ventura County.

It is at his stately adobe mansion-turned-museum on the edge of Ventura that the re-created Gold Rush town will be flourishing Sunday. (See the For the Kids column on page 40 for details.)

At the Stagecoach Inn Museum, 51 S. Ventu Park Road, the Pioneer Jamboree will run from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $4 for adults, $2 for seniors and $1 for children.

A water trough with sand will be set up for people to learn how miners panned for gold. Of course, they won't find the real stuff, though, only fool's gold.

Other mining paraphernalia will be on display, such as scales for weighing the gold. Quilt-making, lace-making, spinning and weaving will be going on, as well as old-fashioned biscuit-making. Kids can also try their hand at roping.

The inn and grounds will be open for touring, including a new display of wedding gowns from the 1840s to the 1940s.

California State Parks are also marking the Gold Rush anniversary with events. On Saturday night at Malibu Creek State Park's campfire center, interpretive guide Jim Holt will show slides and talk about the resolute men who spent months on a ship dreaming of when they would strike it rich in California. The free program starts at 8:15 p.m., and the next one is scheduled July 3 at 8:30 p.m. The park is at Las Virgenes Road and Mulholland Highway near Agoura.

Holt also has something special for kids in the third grade and above. He leads a game with a Gold Rush theme, sort of a '49ers version of Monopoly. The next one is July 12, 2:30 p.m., at Tapia Park, one mile south of the entrance to Malibu Creek State Park.

During the game, a designated area in the park is littered with simulated gold. The kids become miners having to deal with claim jumpers and make decisions about what to do with their gold--buy land, gamble or start a business.


For information about these California Gold Rush events, call:

California State Parks, (310) 457-8142, or (818) 880-0350.

Stagecoach Inn Museum, (805) 498-9441.

Olivas Adobe, (805) 658-4726.

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