Some ask why it turned out that Coloma, which gets its name from a nearby Southern Maidu village with the name of Culloma, was the site of the California gold discovery. After all, there were many, many places in the Mother Lode where such a occurrence could have easily taken place. Gold was in streams and rivers everywhere along the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. But there were several reasons, including luck, that Coloma would have the destiny to become the site of this discovery that would immediately change the the world.
Coloma lies on the South Fork of the American River, a place with sufficient water power for a sawmill, a place with great stands of timber and a place only a day or two ride upriver from John Sutter’s fort, which lay to the west at a place he called New Helvetia (now Sacramento), in honor of his Swiss heritage. It was for these reasons that John Sutter and James Marshall selected this site for Sutter’s sawmill and in doing so, established the first real permanent camp in the foothills of the Sierra. That is what set the stage for the discovery of gold in the Mother Lode to take place at this location.
For the first few years after James Wilson Marshall’s famed discovery of gold, Coloma was where everyone headed. They might end up somewhere else but Coloma, “Sutter’s Mill” or just “The Mill,” was their original destination.
People arrived from all over the world. Most came up the river from San Francisco to Sutter’s Fort and then headed to Coloma through what is now Folsom, Rescue and Lotus. Later, as the word of the “Gold Rush” reached the east coast, they came by boat to San Francisco or over the Sierra Nevada by wagon.
Even though the river and creeks of the Coloma valley were rich in gold, soon the population just became too big and men set out to search for similar riches in the surrounding lands. But many miners stayed there as this large a population needed supplies to continue their quest. As the number of miners grew, businesses like Capt. Shannon and Cady’s store and place of entertainment, the New York Store, S.S. Brook’s store, Warner, Sherman and Bestor, and, across the river, John Little’s Emporium, sprung up, peddling their often high-priced wares. Capt. Shannon would be the first Alcalde (a kind of justice of the peace) of the township, and John Little its first postmaster (with a business on the other side of the river, Mr. Little would also start the first ferry operation). Under the care of Little, and later a Mr. Brooks, Coloma would become the busiest post office in California with men on horseback carrying the mail to the miners and collecting one dollar for each delivery.
The first hotel, Winter’s Hotel, was built by Winters and Cromwell, who hired A.J. (Alcander John) Bayley, later of Pilot Hill, as a bartender and then manager.
In 1850, Bayley would resign his position at the Winter’s Hotel and set about building his own hotel in Pilot Hill, the Oak Valley House. A huge structure, it was the site of many well attended, annual balls which continued through October of 1860. On May 16, 1861, not unlike many other Gold Rush structures, the Oak Valley House, and all of its contents, was completely destroyed by fire. Under the false belief that the Transcontinental Railroad would be routed through Pilot Hill, Bayley immediately started construction on an even larger hotel, manufacturing 300,000 bricks for the job. This palatial, three-story building would serve as the home for he, his wife and their four children and still exists as the Bayley House. Soon Bayley would become the proprietor of the Grand Central Hotel at Lake Bigler (Tahoe). In 1871, he would serve a term in the California Assembly and his son, Alonzo A. Bayley, born April 24, 1851, would be the first native born El Doradoan to serve as a county supervisor (1881-1882).
In December of 1848, for $6,000 in cash and promises, Sutter sold his share in the mill to Winters, the hotel owner, and another Bayley, Alden G. Bayley. It would be they, in partnership with Marshall, who would complete the sawmill in 1849 and use it to saw lumber until around 1853. At that point in time the mill was abandoned and began to deteriorate.
Much of the original mill’s timbers ended up as souvenirs, such as the gold-topped cane made from the mill’s headblock, that was presented to David E. Buel, the second Sheriff of El Dorado County, in 1854.
As the miners moved away from the river and found gold in the dry soil that was once an old riverbed, there became a need for pressurized water in order to efficiently was away the unwanted material. This need was taken care of when a group of men got together to build the six-mile El Dorado Canal to serve Coloma. This canal proved to be a good investment, so soon other ditches were dug, including the Holingsworth and Co’s, the Coloma Canal, the Shanghai Ditch, the Williams Ditch and the Greenhorn Ditch.
In the spring of 1850, Edward T. Raun built the first bridge across the South Fork of the American river in Coloma. Five years later it was damaged by floods and rebuilt, but the high water of 1862 completely swept it away and Raun decided he’d had enough.