River rafting in the gold country

falling out of raft into river
A great action shot of my daughter, Denise, and I falling out of the raft. Those are my legs on the left sticking out of the water. The bottoms of her shoes are on the right.

When I started doing these articles, I promised to myself that unlike some other writers, I would not bore my readers with family birthday parties, great dinners we had at the local restaurant or any number of trivial personal pursuits of no interest to anyone but my immediate family. I strive to stick to interesting historical or archaeological topics as much as possible. I thought a weekend white-water river rafting trip would not become a topic of any article of mine.

I took just such a trip last weekend and found that it indeed was exciting — even from a historical point of view. I discovered that the area we had selected for our rafting trip was along the section of the south fork of the American River where California gold was first discovered in 1848. Mariah Wilderness Expeditions operates a white-water rafting service from its campground just north of Coloma, the site of the discovery.

The first day of the trip, we rafted from the campground through such colorfully named rapids as Satan’s Cesspool, Deadman’s Drop, Hospital Bar, Recovery Room and Bouncing Rock. It was at Bouncing Rock that my daughter, Denise, and I were thrown out of the raft by an unexpected wave. I learned why it was called bouncing rock when my butt bounced mercilessly on the rocks until I was pulled from the white water. I’m still nursing big purple bruises and reluctantly honoring requests to display my injuries. The first day of rafting took us all the way to Folsom Reservoir.

On the second day, we were bussed upriver to Chili Bar for our next round of torture. Along this section of river, we navigated through The Meatgrinder, Racehorse Bend, Triple Threat and Troublemaker. Other, more youthful members of my party were thrown overboard by the foaming water, but suffered less severe bruising to their body parts and pride than I did. It was along this section of the river where I noticed that we passed through the historic gold discovery site that was the birthplace of the California Gold Rush.

In January 1848, James Marshall, an employee of John Sutter, was working on constructing a sawmill at Coloma when he discovered the first traces of gold in the tailrace of the new mill. The area is now a park with a full-sized replica of Sutter’s mill operating for park visitors. As we rafted past Coloma, we passed the stone monument at the river’s edge that marked the actual site of the original mill where the gold discovery was made. I noticed remnants of stone retaining walls along the slopes of the canyon that marked where the old wagon roads had been.

Downstream from Coloma, we passed two dredging operations still operating in the river. There were many gravelbars and sandbars left behind by the dredges. Someone must still make a profit by extracting gold from the river.

By the end of 1849, there were 40,000 people working the mines in the area. Small-time prospectors and panners were replaced by giant dredging operations and hydraulic mining methods. Some of the prospectors became disillusioned and headed out on another expedition across the Sierras where a promising gold discovery recently had been made in a canyon flowing into the Carson River. This canyon was called Gold Canyon by these early prospectors. Along this canyon sprang the towns of Dayton, Johntown, Silver City and Gold Hill.

History tells us that many of the participants in the California Gold Rush later found their way to the Comstock when silver became the metal of choice for the miners. Similarly, many of the same people became prominent figures in the rush to the Black Hills of South Dakota and the notorious town of Deadwood in the 1880s. Seekers of fortune always have been attracted to new discoveries. My only chance for wealth enhancement may be to charge people to see my bruises. But, on second thought, maybe I’ll just stay poor.

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About Dennis Cassinelli

Dennis Cassinelli is a Nevada author, historian and outdoorsman. He’s written extensively about American Indian culture and Comstock history. His book, Preserving Traces of the Great Basin Indians, contains up-close photographs and detailed pen-and-ink drawings of American Indian stone artifacts. It also contains a fold-out chronology chart showing projectile points across a 12,000-year time scale. The book is a must-have for every enthusiast of Great Basin archaeology. Dennis’s website is DennisCassinelli.com.