Relive Gold Rush-Era History in Amador County

Explore ghosts, gold, and holes for a throwback take on pioneer days.


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Photo courtesy of Amador County Visitors' Bureau

Some regions just feel haunted. Even when you’re sampling local figs at a farmers market, kayaking on Silver Lake, or skiing down Kirkwood’s slopes, Amador County feels inhabited by restless, reckless, risk-embracing spirits. In a good way.

That’s exactly what we’d expect in a landscape — about a two-hour drive from Oakland — where streams of Gold Rush dreamers staked claims and built boomtowns such as the ironically named Drytown, which, in its heyday, sported 26 saloons, and Volcano, home of the state’s first astronomical observatory, debating society, and theater group.

But before indulging in the county’s modern-day pleasures — which include cycling, spas, and 40-plus wineries — pay homage to its ambitious ghosts. Visitors’ centers offer maps to hundreds of historic sites whose sturdy brick walls, wooden doors, and working parts breathe pungent memories of fights and fortunes lost and won.

Admission is free (donations accepted) to Jackson’s seductively stark, steel-towered Kennedy Gold Mine, which — tunneling nearly 6,000 feet into the jade-green slope once dubbed Humbug Hill — is one of the world’s deepest and, over 80 years, yielded over $34 million of that precious yellow stuff.

Measuring only 0.3 square miles, minuscule Amador City is California’s smallest town by size. Originally settled by gold-panners within months of the famous Sutter’s Mill strike, it now comprises about two blocks of Highway 49, studded with such architectural artifacts as the wide-porched Fleehart Store and fancy-fronted Imperial Hotel, behind which sprawls quaint, tree-framed Amador City Cemetery — one of the county’s 30 or so pioneer graveyards, whose heartbreaking weathered headstones mandate a trip just on their own.

Meander even further back into history near Pine Grove at Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park, whose Miwok name — Chaw’se — denotes those slick natural limestone platforms pocked with over 1,000 mortar holes in which indigenous people ground seeds into meal. The park also contains petroglyphs, a well-stocked museum, ample campsites, and a replica Miwok village complete with a cone-shaped wooden home and hand-hewn acorn-storage bin.

Soaring above oak-clad hills near Ione soars a startling fairy-tale spectacle, complete with grand arches and peaked round towers: Erected in 1890 of rough red local-sandstone bricks crafted by prison inmates, Romanesque Revival-style Preston Castle originally housed an industrial school for juvenile delinquents. Today it’s a registered state historic landmark, open for impressively sad, spooky tours April thrrough October.

Evoking what at least one memorial plaque calls “our Pioneer Mothers and Fathers,” most Gold Rush-era structures are humble and low-slung. Ponder such functional wonders as Sutter Creek’s water-powered foundry and shuttered gold mine. Visitors can try panning at Black Chasm Cavern. Ione’s nearly 30 relics include its rambling Steam Flour Mill and Daniel Stewart Store, innovatively built in 1856 of local Muletown brick.

Not all pioneers had European heritages. Originally housing about 1,000 residents on 5 acres owned by Chinese immigrants, Ione’s Chinatown is now marked by a stone and plaque. Still housing many original furnishings, the lovingly restored last bastion of Fiddletown’s Chinatown is its steep-roofed Chew Kee Store, an herb shop built about 1850 in traditional Chinese rammed-earth style.

Wine and beer have been brewed hereabouts since enterprising artisans first realized that mining was a thirsty pursuit. The former premises of Ione Brewery rise wide and white; all that remains of once-wildly successful Froelich Winery, near the town of Martell, are strikingly crumbly stone walls.

Slake your own 21st-century thirst at Amador Brewing, whose Plymouth taproom serves stout, porter, and German-style altbier. Or sip at some of those 40-plus wineries, two dozen of which dot the Shenandoah Valley just northeast of Plymouth. Tired? Try Jackson’s stunningly renovated, and of course allegedly haunted, National Hotel.

 

If You Go

Kennedy Gold Mine: 12594 Kennedy Mine Road, Jackson, 209-223-9542, KennedyGoldMine.com.

Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park: 14881 Pine Grove Volcano Road, Pine Grove, 209-296-7488, Parks.ca.gov/?page_id=553.

Amador Vintners Association: 9310 Pacific St., Plymouth, 209-245-6992, AmadorWine.com.

National Hotel: 2 Water St., Jackson,209-223-0500, NationalHotelJackson.com.

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