The Mark Twain Trail

A Business Goof of Monumental Proportions
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
April 30 2003 6:07 PM

The Mark Twain Trail

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Today's slide show: Images from Placerville. Today's audio: Tabitha Soren on Hangtown's hidden menace. Today's video: Sue Russell of Placerville shows us around the municipality formerly known as Hangtown.

In Roughing It, Twain claims he left Virginia City because he was bored. ("I began to get tired of staying in one place so long.") His biographers say that he fled Virginia City after "an exchange of abuse" with the editor of a rival newspaper. Twain had either challenged the man to a duel or been challenged by him, and he was afraid of either ridicule or death. In any case, in Roughing It he failed to mention the affair,which shows you how crafty self-deprecating humor can be. The less genuinely embarrassing incidents of one's life are always better material.

We follow Twain's hasty path over the Sierra Nevadas and back into California. The journey is, once again, harrowing. For two full hours I am certain that at any moment I will be required to dismount and install snow chains onto our tires, and will, once again, be shown up by the nanny, whose competence in these matters has been proved. Twain seldom explains how he made these extraordinary trips back and forth over mountain ranges so easily and quickly. Roughing It is in this way a bit like the journals of 15th-century Italian artists. Donatello, for instance, ripped up and down Italy without noticing that he didn't have the help of planes, trains, or automobiles. We modern folk underestimate the mobility of earlier ages since if we didn't have our gadgets for getting around, we sure the hell wouldn't be walking anywhere.

A sign of Placerville’s heightened awareness
A sign of Placerville's heightened awareness

By noon we have arrived in Placerville, the capital of El Dorado County. Formerly called "Dry Diggins," Placerville is still informally known as "Hangtown." No one I meet can explain why a town called Dry Diggins felt the need for a nickname. Legend has it that hundreds of men were strung up from a tree across from our hotel, even though the real number is more like 15. Perhaps because Placerville is the county seat and has had some other activity than gold mining (government) to sustain it, it has preserved its old charm. Even the people whose job it is to sell you their history have other, better things to do. The local newspaper, the Mountain Democrat, is California's oldest, and it's still very good. The headline this morning: "Man Drives Lawnmower Over Cliff, Dies." What more could a reader ask for? I soon find myself brimming with compliments I want to pay to Placerville and look with greater than usual energy for signs of the moral superiority of the locals. For example, in the window of a shop beside our hotel, the Stars and Stripes is displayed with the Union Jack. Everywhere we've been, American flags have been tacked up in all the stores, but we've yet to see a British one. Only in Placerville do people know to give the British credit for their courage.

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This afternoon, Dixie and I—just the two of us—drive the eight miles north to Coloma, to see Sutter's Mill, where, in January 1848, gold was first discovered. Sutter's Mill is the Netscape of the California gold rush: the triggering event. It seems to have taken until 1924 before it occurred to anyone in authority to commemorate the event, but since then it has been commemorated so many different times, in so many different ways, that it's hard to know which bronze plaque to read or believe. In one place Sutter is described as German, in another he's Swiss. In one early memorial the Asian population is described as a "swarm of Chinamen," in another they are "Chinese-Americans." This stretch of the American River once swarmed with horny and greedy men; now it swarms mainly with schoolchildren who pay $3.75 an hour to a man dressed up like a forty-niner to pan for gold in the river. In 1850 a gold miner was paid $15 a day to pan for gold and had a good chance of finding some; today children pay twice as much to drag up piles of worthless rocks from the river bed: That's progress for you.

A town sustained by its gold deposits is as tenuous as a country sustained by its oil deposits. Coloma is the site of the first gold discovery, by people who originally saw it as a lovely place to farm. No one can say what would have become of the place had gold not been discovered there; but it was, and is now, nearly a ghost town, sustained only by the historical interest of tourists. The presence of the ore seems to have acted as a disincentive to think about what to do after the ore ran out.

Dixie doesn't want to pan for nonexistent gold, and neither do I. I insert her soft and chubby little legs into the backpack and walk a bit down the road, where a trail leads up a steep hill over the town. One hundred yards into what I hope will be a long, restorative, uneventful hike, we come upon an alarming sign. It shows the picture of a mountain lion, poised to leap, above this warning:

Although these animals are seldom seen, they are unpredictable and have been known to attack without warning.

It goes on to say that, to minimize the number of human beings who get eaten by mountain lions, one should a) not hike alone; b) not bring small children into the woods; and c) keep any small children one does bring into the woods close at hand. Two out of three isn't bad, I think, and Dixie seems to agree. As we ascend the ridge overlooking Coloma, she coos and cackles, then falls asleep, with her angelic little mountain lion lunch face mashed into the side of the pack. To minimize the shock of the footfalls upon her, I walk like Groucho Marx, and limbo gently beneath the low-hanging maple boughs so that she remains undisturbed. This isn't the Nevada desert; this is lush hill country. Even stripped of its gold, it glitters.

An hour and a half later, with Dixie awake and refreshed, we come to a clearing in the woods. It affords us a misty view of Coloma below. But out of the trees, between the town and us, still high above the ruins of Coloma, rises a most awesome and unexpected sight: a life-sized bronze statue of a man standing atop a high concrete pedestal. He is as shocking as a Mayan temple bursting through a Mexican jungle. The man's arm is raised, pointing bravely over the horizon. One cannot help but wonder: Who is this hero? Did Lewis and Clark pass through here on their very brave journey? Custer? Grant? What character so distinguished himself in this place—where nothing more glorious than a great Easter egg hunt occurred—that he is now canonized? And what, pray tell, is he pointing at?

As we approach, we find a plaque that explains all or, at any rate, some. The statue, it says, is "the heroic figure of James Marshall, pointing to his gold discovery."

This is an unnatural wonder. The total of Marshall's contribution to history was to have spotted flecks of gold on the tailrace—whatever that is—of Sutter's Mill. He'd come over to build a mill for this would-be German agricultural baron and, just as he was finishing up, happened to look down and noticed something odd on the wood. And what do you think he did next? A long document pinned to a bulletin board behind glass provides the answer: "For just a few moments after finding gold in the mill's tailrace on January 24, 1848 [he] kept his excitement secret. But the urge to share his discovery proved too much, and he soon shouted the news to the Mormon workers building the mill." What he shouted it does not here say—you have to go down below to one of the many older tributes to learn his exact quote: "Boys, I believe I have found a gold mine."

Marshall's first and only big business decision must count of one of history's most colossal blunders. If he had kept his mouth shut, he could have bought and sold San Francisco before breakfast. Instead he told the Mormons. Each Mormon no doubt went home and told his wives, and in a flash the news was everywhere. Thousands upon thousands of feckless young men, who, if not for Marshall's inability to keep a secret, would have been untroubled by get-rich-quick schemes, abandoned their families for California. They quickly picked Sutter's Mill clean, and within a few years the California boom had moved on, dooming Coloma to oblivion. Both Sutter and Marshall died poor.

It is the exact moment of folly—when Marshall decides to gab about what he's found—that this monument exalts. Seventy years later, according to plaque near Marshall's bronze, 3,500 people came to this very spot (the plaque down below says it was 10,000, but nevermind) to dedicate a monument to James Marshall. Another plaque claims that this is California's "first historical monument." And also the only monument ever dedicated to a business mistake. Twain would have enjoyed that, I think.

Check out our earlier trips to Kashmir, Zambia, the Outlaw Trail, the Blues Highway, the Galápagos Islands, Costa Rica, Scandinavia, and Montreal.

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