California State Highway 49, also known as the Gold Rush Highway, winds its way through a nine-county area that in the mid 1800’s was home to more than 2,500 gold mining camps. Most of those camps disappeared after the gold ran out, but a few communities survived and even thrived. Auburn is one such city, and worth a stop to stroll through its Old Town.
Auburn was put on the map in 1849 by Claude Chana, who is credited with making the first gold discovery in this area. The Frenchman originally worked as a cooper for John Sutter when James Marshall discovered gold in nearby Coloma, the birthplace of the California Gold Rush. Like many other men bitten by the gold bug, the Frenchman quit his job at Sutter Mill to search for the shiny stuff. But unlike many men, his gamble paid off and he quickly recovered $25,000 worth of gold in Auburn Ravine. Chana is memoralized by a monument you’ll see upon entering Old Town from Interstate 80. The sculptor, Dr. Kenneth Fox, was a local dentist in Auburn and is famous for his large concrete statues.
By 1860, Auburn was a substantial city with a population of about 1,300. Many gold miners using sluices and rockers made $1,200 to $1,500 a day here. Today, the population is about 13,000 and most residents are not prospectors, they are store owners or attorneys, or work at the county courthouse. Although fires swept through Auburn’s wooden buildings in 1855 and 1857, many businessmen rebuilt using brick and those are the buildings you see today. Nearly all of these historic structures are still used, many functioning in new ways and housing contemporary businesses.
There are over 60 restaurants, taverns, antique shops, art galleries, and unique specialty stores in Old Town Auburn. Check out the irregular shaped post office on Lincoln Way. It dates back to1857 and was built directly over a branch of the Auburn Ravine (a stream still flows directly below). This post office is the oldest one in California housed in its original building, and is also the oldest continually operated post office west of the Mississippi.
If Old Town seems vaguely familiar to you, it’s because it was featured in the 1996 film Phenomenon starring John Travolta, Kyra Sedgwick, Forest Whitaker and Robert Duvall. The crew filmed for a month in the fall of 1995 on Sacramento Street, as well as at places such as a bar, apple orchard, county courthouse, a park, and a lawyer’s office.
Roughly 125 million ounces of gold were taken from the hills in California’s famed “Gold Country” during the Gold Rush. Auburn was lucky in that it survived the boom and bust cycles typical of early towns. Conveniently located at the junction of Interstate 80 and Highway 49, it’s easy to stop in and experience a bit of its golden history.
Before becoming one of Auburn’s most famous attractions (corner of Lincoln Way and Commercial Street), this 1891 firehouse was home to the Auburn Volunteer Fire Dept., one of the oldest volunteer groups west of the Mississippi. Organized in 1852, this group is still fighting Auburn fires.
The Placer County Courthouse at 101 Maple Street was completed in 1898 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It also houses a FREE museum (open everyday from 10:00 am – 4:00 pm; closed holidays) that presents an overview of Placer County history and a nice collection of Native American artifacts. One of the best exhibits is 194 ounces of raw gold mined from Placer County soil.
Known as the Joss House, this structure at 200 Sacramento Street was built after the fire of 1855. It served as a temple and house of worship for the area’s Chinese population. In the 1880s, this block of Sacramento Street was known as “Chinatown Hill.” The Chinese concentrated here and operated laundry shops, opium dens and card rooms. Brewery Lane, just north of the Joss House, was the entrance to Auburn’s “red light district.” During the district’s illustrious history, a pious man seeking to burn out the ladies also unfortunately burned out some of the Chinese settlement.