A Columbia Legend Recalled

Gold rush letters and diaries foster fascinating legends, such as this legend of a 49er Argonaut known as Willie. 49ers were often referred to as Argonauts in reference to legendary Greek mythology of dangerous journeys.

Willie’s Recollections

“I recall leaving my home in Kentucky in the spring of ’50 to join the rush to the California gold fields. Being 19, I craved adventure and excitement. I promised my darling Patti to return in two or three years with enough gold to marry and start a family with her. Reckoning an easy prairie schooner, or covered Wagon journey, I arrived in California after barely surviving crossing rivers, plains, and mountains. This proved to be far more of an adventure than I had anticipated.

The rivers were wider than I believed possible. Some treacherously swallowed schooners and lives. The plains monotonously went on seemingly forever. When distant mountains came into view and slowly grew, I remember imagining they reached into heaven. In the distance, they appeared beautifully peaceful, providing a welcome change from the tedious plains. In crossing them, hell became a better description. These mountains were a series of formidable rocky demons that demanded and took human sacrifice.

After surviving these mountains we had to cross a vast and formidable desert. Some of my new friends simply gave up and died while trying to get through this endless waste of overwhelming heat and lack of water. I remember on my 20th birthday, only a vision of my Patti gave me strength and determination to keep going on.

Then came another range of mountains called the Sierra Nevada. I believe this is Spanish for Snowy Mountain Range. There was talk about a Donner group, who mostly died in a snowstorm in ’47. We chose a different pass. One that Kit Carson guided General Fremont through in ’44 and the Mormons improved in ’49.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention the Indians we met along the way. Some were friendly and helpful with trading for necessary supplies or guiding us through difficult areas. Others were threatening and would steal our horses if we relaxed our guard. Anyway, when we finally crested the Sierra Nevada, we could see California. It was truly a vision of the Promised Land.  Oh how we celebrated in anticipation of completing our long journey. Upon reaching the western foothills, we excitedly split up in differing directions. I headed south to a new gold camp that promised easy wealth.

Columbia –  In ’51, after arriving in Columbia or American Camp as it had been called, I joined a group of miners constructing a ditch to a creek 5 miles out of town. They anticipated this ditch would provide necessary water to mine Columbia’s windfall of gold. Our project went well but water fees became exorbitant. Some miners fought the fees and were killed for their effort. Others left the area or grudgingly hired themselves out to large mining companies. Some became bitter outlaws. Later, a larger system was built to the Stanislaus River.

A Dairy Ranch – In ’52, I met a family from my hometown in Kentucky. They recognized an advantage of trading their dairy knowledge for gold rather than competing with a horde of gold seekers. I was hired to build two barns for their dairy a half mile out of town near an Indian village. They referred to their business as ‘mining the miners’. It was called the Columbia Springs Ranch after springs serving the nearby Indian village. After building a cabin for myself, I acquired a vender wagon to start my own business of selling dairy products along with produce I grew.

Filling a Need – A continuing crush of new arrivals created difficulty in finding suitable housing. I persuaded the ranch owner to allow camping at their ranch. This benefited both the Argonauts and the Ranch with cows they were willing to trade for camping space and food. Cows worn out from their journey were butchered for meat and hides. You may be unfamiliar with the term Argonaut. It was popular at that time as referring to Greek mythology of those attempting a dangerous journey.

Fire – In ’54, a fire burned most of the town. Reconstruction provided more work than I could handle. My brother Rob arrived and we become partners.

However, working in town had many temptations that prevented my saving enough to return to Kentucky to marry my Patti. Whenever I had money in my pocket, one or another of my friends needed help. Since they were always ready to help me when I was in need, it was right to share whatever I had with them.

After four years, my Patti, became impatient for my return and wrote she wished to come to Columbia. She felt we would have a good future at the ranch I loved and wrote so much about. I always wrote how much I missed her. I did not share how guilty I felt after spending my savings drinking and gambling with friends. I only shared that with my diary.

Where’s the Gold – I was happiest when I had time to prospect the steep canyons north of town. An old Indian trail past our Ranch became known as Italian Bar Road after a group of Italians found rich placer deposits at a gravel bar on the river beyond 5 Mile Creek. Their success gave me renewed hope to find my own mother lode.

Placer gold are nuggets that have been carried down stream by water eroding exposed veins further upstream. I learned that visible quartz veins could have pockets of lode gold hidden in them. I kept a sharp eye out for exposed veins, which might be ‘loaded’ with gold.

Brother Rob and I found quartz veins that looked promising, but not the mother lode we dreamed about. When we met friends while prospecting, we enjoyed sharing a campfire, swapping stories of our prospecting and memories of our loved ones back home. A new song was popular that I enjoyed singing. It was called ‘My Old Kentucky Home’.

Dream Realized – In ’55, my brother and I found a promising quartz vein providing pockets of small gold nuggets. I wrote Patti that I hoped to have enough saved within the year to purchase her a first class ticket to California.  She had waited 5 years to start the family I had promised her. She continually wrote about the joys we would share with our own family. Patti eagerly anticipated a trip to California and I longed for her to be with me. I knew that I drank and gambled too much trying to forget my longings for her. It would be better if she were here with me.

Danger – Rob and I needed to be wary of an ever-growing number of desperadoes willing to kill for gold. This is why we kept the existence of our mine secrete. Of course I shared my excitement with Patti in letters to her. At last, in ’56, I wrote that I had saved enough gold to purchase her a first class ticket to Columbia. I told her the date I planned to ship my gold on a stage to Stockton and excitedly urged her to start preparing for a trip to California.”

* * * Epilogue * * *

Willie’s last letter went out on a stage that was robbed. Unfortunately for Willie, the robber likely went through the mail to see if there were bank notes or information of value. The robber may have learned when Willie intended transporting his gold to Stockton. There was a stagecoach robbery in which Willie was murdered while defending his gold. Willie’s brother felt guilty that he was not with Willie to protect him. He sent Patti money to come to Columbia. Within a year of her arrival, she joined Willie in her own death from a fever or perhaps of a lonely and broken heart.

A Promise Kept – While Willie’s murder prevented him from having the family he had promised Patti, it did not prevent their spirits from uniting to become Ranch guardian angels and adopting other’s children into an extended family. Willie’s spirit is felt when ranch visitors share experiences, stories, songs, and food at Ranch gatherings and campfires.

Many feel his presence when a breeze swirls smoke around a campfire. One camper tells how he is sure Willie guided him when he became injured and lost in the area Willie prospected out Italian Bar Road. Some believe that small nuggets found in Willie’s rebuilt cabin are scattered by his ghost for the delight of children.

More About Willie’s Ranch – In 1962, this former dairy ranch and campground began operating exclusively as an RV campground. Bill and Pat Meissner bought this ranch in 1980 and began preserving its history. They changed its ‘Columbia Springs’ name to ’49er RV Ranch’ in recognition that prairie schooners (covered wagons) were travel trailers or a ’49er RV’.