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California's Shortest State Highway: CA 153

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California's shortest signed highway is the diminutive CA 153 at barely one-half mile, boasting only one shield (proclaiming its record), one lane, no trailblazers, no postmiles and hardly any appearances on any regional map. (It also cheats -- the shortest highway in California is actually unsigned CA 283 in Humboldt county at 0.36 miles; the shortest numbered highway in the United States is disputed, but according to the misc.transport.road FAQ could be any of VT 26, KY 2250 or KY 2920 with official lengths of 52.8', 47.52' and 36.96' respectively, although the exact physical lengths may be variable based on the precision of the states' respective route log lengths.)

Because of its small length and obscurity, relatively little is known of its history. It was given an Legislative Route Number (LRN 92) in 1933, but it wasn't signed then, and no one is sure when it first started to be (probably post-1964). This is a shame, because CA 153 goes through a part of California with a rich history, and I do mean rich, for it runs up to the monument to James Marshall, the man who discovered gold in nearby Coloma in 1848 -- the beginning of the California gold rush.

Since we don't have a great deal of road to talk about, let's talk about the man, since his biography is unusual and striking. James Wilson Marshall was born in Lambertville, New Jersey in 1810 (his childhood home is now a local landmark). Leaving New Jersey as a young man after the death of his father, he settled in Missouri but contracted what appeared to be malaria and left for parts further west on the suggestion of his physician. Falling in with an emigrant band, he eventually reached John Sutter's fort in the summer of 1845.

Sutter, for his part, had a similarly interesting past and we will dovetail our stories of the two men. John Sutter was born Johann Augustus Sutter in Baden, Germany in 1803. Abandoning his native land after an accumulation of debt, he emigrated to the United States in 1834 and through a circuitous route of travels ended up in the poor Mexican outpost of Yerba Buena (today's San Francisco) in 1839. Still part of Mexico in those days, Sutter petitioned Californian governor Juan Bautista Alvarado for a land grant, and following his conversion to Mexican citizenship, Alvarado allowed him to settle on a 48,000+ acre holding near what is now Sacramento. Sutter's settlement (which he christened "Nuevo Helvetia" [New Switzerland]), became a major regional focus, serving as the destination for many frontier-bound settlers and explorations (including the ill-fated Donner Party, and John C. Fremont's expeditions in the West; see US 395 Part 2).

When Marshall arrived in 1845, Sutter hired him on as a carpenter and workman and in return also provided him with livestock for his own holdings that Sutter helped him purchase. This idyll didn't last long, as the Mexican-American War raged in earnest by 1846; Marshall volunteered for service, and served under (now) Captain Fremont, but came back home in 1847 to find his livestock gone and livelihood apparently ruined. Sutter hired him back on and gave him an assignment to scout for an appropriate location for a sawmill. Marshall settled on a site about 40 miles away along the south fork of the American River, in a valley referred to by the local Nisenan Indians as cullumah ("beautiful"). Sutter gave him the job of building it as well, but because the mill's tailrace was too shallow for the volume of water needed to drive the saw, Marshall put the river itself to work and every night used the river's water current to do further excavation. In the mornings, Marshall would examine the results, block further flow, and call for further work by his labourers (a motley collection of various Indians, Mormons, Mexicans and others) during the day; at night, with the workers out of harm's way, the river would again be released. In this way, Marshall continued to supervise the work on the mill until January of 1848.

On or around the 24th, Marshall found some strange glittering flecks in the channel bed. Not merely specks of metal, they were large enough to be flattened between rocks, and only one substance had that malleable property and such a shiny orange-yellow hue: gold. Despite preliminary elation, Marshall found the initial yield to be underwhelming, although he did allow his men to prospect in their free time. When the discovery was reported to Sutter, the gold was assayed and found to be of superior quality; naturally, however, Sutter had no intention of releasing this information, for two reasons: first, the gold itself, and second, doing so might jeopardize their investment in the mill as small gold finds had occurred in the past and there seemed no reason to cause a stampede believing this was the "big one." However, more kept cropping up and a Mormon elder named Samuel Brannan was able to get some of it as a tithe from the Mormons working on the project. For whatever his reasons, Brannan chose to literally walk down the streets of San Francisco waving his gold around in a quinine bottle while shouting "Gold! Gold from the American River!" to anyone in earshot. The result was predictable and yet unprecedented. Within a terrifyingly short interval, tens of thousands of people descended en masse on the territory, trampling Sutter's hard-won local utopia in a avalanche of squatters, prospectors and ne'er-do-wells. As for the mill, it eventually sat idle as those who would have operated it dropped everything to try their luck. In all, the 1848 gold rush yielded 125 million ounces of gold by 1900.

Both Sutter and Marshall would end their lives cursed by the glittering metal. In danger of losing everything to the invading settlers, Sutter handed control to his son John Augustus, Jr., who founded the new city of Sacramento on the river of the same name (named for the Spanish word for the holy sacrament [specifically the Eucharist] by explorer Gabriel Moraga). Unfortunately, the elder Sutter was insulted that the town was not placed closer to New Helvetia, even more so that it was not named for him, and most of all that the town was a rapid success (chartered in 1849 and named capital of California in 1854). Injury was added to insult when Sutter's original grant was challenged by the Squatter's Association and eventually ruled invalid by the United States Supreme Court in 1858. Sutter never got his land back, and from his new home in Pennsylvania continued to petition the government for redress for his losses. He was finally granted reimbursement in 1880, but he never lived to receive much of it, for he died that same year.

Marshall did no better and his behaviour during the boom was incongruous, even to the point of publicly claiming that he had special powers to locate the gold himself (possibly as a result of stress leading to mental breakdown, or, more reasonably, to curry favour with the invading miners and prevent their encroachment); as one might expect, this wild claim instead caused him to be endlessly followed and then threatened when his avowed power predictably failed. Eventually forced from his lands by the prospectors, Marshall did not return to Coloma until 1857. He bought some holdings and tried his hand at running a vineyard; eventually, he too went into the minerals biz and partnered in a quartz mine around present-day Kelsey (off modern CA 193 to the east) which later failed. The California legislature offered him a pension for several years due to the historical significance of his discovery, which Marshall used to open a blacksmith shop and pay off his debts, but this too lapsed after rumours circulated about his personal habits and voluminous alcohol intake and Marshall lived out the rest of his life virtually penniless in a small cabin near Kelsey. On his death in 1885, he was laid to rest near his vineyard and in 1890 a monument was erected on his grave with Marshall pointing to the location of his discovery. The modern state park was commissioned in 1942.

The mill does not survive today, but a replica still stands; because of the rich history of the region, we will not only look at CA 153, but also parts of CA 49 (which runs through the park), the modern mill replica, some of the local buildings, Marshall's monument, and what is left of his last living years. (Huell Howser? What are you doing here?)

Photographs taken March 2006.


Entering (modern) Coloma town limits and the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park on CA 49, established in 1942. This is facing NB on CA 49.

CA 49 is California's Gold Country Highway (and not numbered as mere coincidence, either) and runs through many areas in central and northern California with direct relevance to the gold rush and early state history. Signed as part of the initial signage of state routes in 1934, it runs today from Oakhurst and junction CA 41 to Vinton and CA 70 (old ALT US 40).

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Modern Coloma pretty much exists only as a park function and curiosity (about seventy percent of it is in fact part of the park), but there are still some local inhabitants in the scattered surrounding environs. Today it is merely a shadow of its former self; most of the original buildings were torn down or otherwise destabilized by the influx of prospectors, and of those later built during the boomtown days, fire consumed the majority. The oldest remaining structures date back only to the middle 1850s, and many of the major historical sites are actually replicas (we'll see some at the end).

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Facing SB on CA 49 at the unsigned northern terminus of CA 153. Note how CA 49 jogs off to the left to bypass the monument (which has [old!] advance signage shown here; this sign has the old Public Works logo on it). There are plans on the books for redoing a parallel routing for CA 49 between here and Placerville/junction US 50, likely parallel or along Cold Springs Road which is dead ahead, which will shift CA 153 slightly further south. We continue straight ahead.

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The first time I went looking for CA 153, I whizzed right by this turnoff. It's not well marked, and the Marshall Monument turn-off is hidden by the trees. CA 153, which we are actually on, jogs to the right.

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The sign up ahead has a few interesting things on it and nearby (not very pooch-friendly). First is the little "county" postmile showing PM 7.01 just in front of it.

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Second, in the ditch, there is also a County Road "shield" (of sorts). This reminds me of some of the other secondary or non-MUTCD-signed county routes I've seen, particularly in Modoc and Kern counties.

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Turning back around is this Coloma historical note sign. This fixes the discovery at 24 January 1848, although there is actually some controversy about the exact date.

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Heading onto Monument Road and the continuation of CA 153. We turn left.

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State park signage.

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Local theatre and playhouse.

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Don't forget to pay off the Park Service.

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And suddenly, as angels sing and a bright light descends from heaven, we see it -- the fabled, difficult to find and glorious CA 153 shield and brag sign!

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A closer look. There's no "State of California" decal on the front of the brag sign (although IIRC it's on the back, and there is one on the shield itself). This is the one and only CA 153 shield.

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Turning up towards the monument parking area.

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At least it's vandalism with a sense of humour (at the turn-in for the parking area).

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Turning towards the official end of the route.

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End CA 153

Based on my odometer count, CA 153 ends here at the official terminus of Monument Road. Nevertheless, we'll press on a bit. Why the continuation is not state highway is not clear to me.

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A small connector road leads from the parking area to the monument. Note the road leading off to the right; that's not the monument loop. We'll come back to this in a second. We proceed all the way to the stone wall in the background (built as an upgrade by the WPA in 1940).

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Up towards the monument, the route becomes one-way and takes a circle loop route around its base.

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Our man Marshall.

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Around the base of the statue are various little bas-reliefs of local scenery.

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Gratuitous butt shot. The statue is actually zinc, but bronze-plated.

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Monument plaque. I'll just let you read it. I find the use of the term "Argonauts" to refer to the local prospectors here a little grotesque; it refers to the mythical Jason and the crew of the Argo in search of the Golden Fleece, but obviously most of the prospectors got more fleece(d) than they got gold.

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"I'm gonna take a leak riiiiiiight there."

Ironically, his finger is actually not pointing at the correct place. For that matter, however, Marshall never could point out any other strikes either despite his claimed ability (his first and accidental one notwithstanding).

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There isn't much of a guard rail, and the edge is hidden in the brush, so stick to the marked road.

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Coming back around, you can't go forward back to the parking area; you can only continue down the hill. This is that first turn-off we pointed out a few pictures ago; the sign ahead is the reverse side of the one indicating the monument.

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Another tight one-lane squeeze. Only park arrows give the route.

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I'm not sure if I'd call this distance signage or not.

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Coming down to the base of the hill.

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Marshall's cabin (reconstructed). This is not the one he inhabited during his last days; rather, this is where he lived during the days of the original discovery. It is also possible he may have lived here while he tended his vineyard on his return.

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Marshall's outhouse. That's what he was pointing to. (Just kidding.)

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Plaque nearby. That's some pretty cramped text.

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Saint John's Catholic Church. St John's was originally established in 1856, but moved to this later building in 1858 after the original log building was inadequate for the growing congregation's size. Although the building degenerated substantially after the parish dwindled, restoration in 1972 found that the foundation was so well-built that remortaring it was not required and the 1860 bell was still intact.

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End of the road. We turn onto the Placerville side of the fork.

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Sign for St John's, but with the wrong date.

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Another one lane road leaving the Park back to the highway.

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Junction CA 49.

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Parenthetically, James Marshall's discovery site was almost exactly here at the old Coloma Bridge over the South Fork of the American River, a single lane bridge constructed in 1915. It doesn't look like this was ever part of any state highway (or CA 49), but it does remain in use to this day despite being obviously substandard. Renovated in 1931, it actually replaced an even earlier crossing of uncertain date and carries Mt Murphy Rd to the local communities.

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I wouldn't want to be a pedestrian on this when a car is coming across.

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The Coloma/Mt Murphy Bridge has been notoriously troublesome for years. The Federal Highway Administration scored it at a rock-bottom 0/100 for sufficiency, citing its low weight limit, 10' width (well short of the 15-18 feet typical minimum), and short 13'6" clearance. Several hundred vehicles brave it daily and at least one incautious RV got stuck, leading the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors to give up rehabilitation and vote for its replacement in 2014. Most likely a new crossing will be built in parallel and the old crossing maintained for pedestrians.

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Looking at the steel trusses and wooden rails, which have actually held up remarkably well considering its age.

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The south fork of the American River below us. The American River consists of three forks, the north, middle and south forks; the north and middle meet in Auburn, in Placer county, to become the north fork and combine with the south fork in Folsom Lake, formed by the river's impoundment by the Folsom Dam. The combined river then flows an additional 31 miles to its confluence with the Sacramento River in Sacramento itself. Approximately 119 miles long in total, it drains substantial portions of the western Sierra Nevada watershed west of Lake Tahoe.

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A reconstruction of Sutter's mill sits at the waterside after the original was demolished and scavenged for lumber. Built in 1968 using Marshall's drawings and at least one photograph, it is functional, but not in operation. One of the flakes of Marshall's original gold find, a tiny glint in a great boom, is now at the Smithsonian.

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One other group that came in large numbers were the Chinese. By 1855, the Chinese population was almost 20,000, up from just 500 in 1850; over the next half-decade Coloma's Chinatown expanded substantially because of their willingness and ability to exploit placer mines that their previous occupants believed were exhausted. Their success was heavily resented. In 1861, a riot destroyed much of the existing buildings, and although it rebounded, in 1883 a fire did the rest. Two stone structures, the Man Lee and Wah Hop stores, are the only buildings that remain. This is the Wah Hop.

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The entryway to the Wah Hop Store. Both the Man Lee and Wah Hop were named for the otherwise unknown merchant immigrants that operated them, built by and leased from one Jonas Wilder circa 1860. The Man Lee housed a trading and banking concern, and the Wah Hop was a general store. Both were important sources of supplies, information and cultural support during the Gold Rush.

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Interior of the Wah Hop.

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Another interior shot, through the chain link.

No gold or miners were hurt during the filming of this exhibit, though I did twist my ankle walking around the parking area.

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All images, photographs and multimedia, unless otherwise stated, are copyright © 2004-2016 Cameron Kaiser. All rights reserved. All writeups are copyright © 2004-2016 Cameron Kaiser. All rights reserved. Unauthorized copying or duplication without express consent of the copyright holder is strictly prohibited. Please contact the sitemaster to request permission if you wish to use items from this page.

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