A line of bonneted schoolchildren shuffled past the Coloma Post Office on Friday, kicking up dust with their laced boots as the blacksmith’s hammer clinked next door.
It was a page of history come to life at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, where docents and rangers commemorated the 150th anniversary of California State Parks and broke ground on a new mill replica honoring James Marshall’s consequential find.
The five children attended the festivities as part of their home-school curriculum, immersing themselves in Sacramento’s Gold Rush history with period traditions like candle making and basket weaving.
“I’m really grateful they do this,” said Adele Painter, the children’s grandmother and home-school teacher in Placerville. “The history is presented in a way they can latch onto.”
It was on Jan. 24, 1848, while inspecting the tailrace of the sawmill he built with John Sutter, that frontiersman Marshall struck gold for the very first time on the south fork of the American River. Though the original mill fell apart, a replica was recreated in the 1960s for educational purposes.
When the first replica started to wear down, the state parks system made plans and sought funding to build a newer replica closer to the actual site of Marshall’s gold discovery. The California Parks and Recreation Commission in 2009 approved $1.9 million in parks bond money to build a new mill.
Construction of the new replica will begin next week and is expected to take about a year, said California State Parks Superintendent Jeremy McReynolds. The existing replica will remain standing until the new one is finished, and some of the old parts will be reused. Park officials held a groundbreaking ceremony and review of the project plans for the public Friday morning.
“The mill creates a sense of place for the park where people can imagine what it was like during the rush,” said McReynolds.
The day also marked a century and a half for the California State Parks system, which was born in 1864 with the founding of Yosemite, then a state park. When Yosemite became a national park in 1890, Marshall Park became the oldest state park in California.
The few glimmering flakes found by Marshall ignited what park Interpretive Lead Ed Allen called the greatest mass migration in the Western hemisphere until that time, changing California from a string of shantytowns into what ultimately became the nation’s most populous state at a rapid and often dangerous pace.
Many of the thousands who traveled west to pan for gold died of hunger and illness, he said, but not before polluting the water, reducing the salmon population and cutting down trees without restraint.
“We learn about the future from our past,” said Allen, who adopted Marshall’s garb and persona for the day’s festivities. “A lot of mistakes were made here, and we need to learn what those mistakes were.”
Visitors on Friday panned for gold in a section of troughs filled with sediment, which docent Scott Kamen said is transported from the river and seeded with flakes. People used park-issued pans to sift through sand and rocks, learning to distinguish the genuine flakes, which are round and dull, from the sharper, shinier fool’s gold.
“It’s hard work,” said Kamen. “I think people’d be better off looking for aluminum cans.”
With indigenous music and traditional jewelry, the event also paid tribute to the Native Americans who were displaced during the Gold Rush.
“We try to tell their side of the story,” said McReynolds. “We’re trying to put our best foot forward and show the people that we care about our parks.”