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Gold Fever! The Lure and Legacy of the California Gold Rush

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Silver & Gold: Cased Images of the Gold Rush

Natives & Immingrants


Instant City
by Steven Lavoie

Rome wasn't built in a day, nor were Paris, Calcutta, Tokyo, New York or any other of the world's great cities. San Francisco might have been, except that it took several months to get there.

Some came by ship—around the cape of South America, a route which at the time was the longest ever traveled by a civilian vessel. Others dared the uncharted wilderness of the great American West in wagon trains and stages departing St. Joseph, Missouri.

Many more came up the coast from Chile, Peru and Mexico, or caught the trade winds out of Honolulu.

Within a few months after word of the gold discovery on the American River reached the eastern press, San Francisco had grown from a small village, population 400, to a bustling seaside port of several thousand people, almost entirely men. By the end of 1849, the city was described as "a great place, such a one as the world never produced before," Rinaldo Taylor of Boston wrote. "Crowded with people from all parts of the world, the Yankees & the Chinaman (sic) jostling each other in the streets, while French, Germans, Sandwich Islands, Chillians (sic), Malays, Mexicans, &c &c in all their varieties of costume and language go to form a 'congrommoration' of humanity, such as the world never saw before."

This 'congrommoration' headed quickly to the mines, creating instant cities there that spread from the Feather River canyon to the edge of the Yosemite Valley. Some of these towns survived. Others were abandoned. But the formula that produced these "instant" cities somehow managed to work.

The concept became a unique aspect of California development.

In the late 1850s, a group of German idealists arrived in Orange County with a plan for a utopian town. Overnight, they created Anaheim, on a grand plan of common ownership of land, with vast tracts dedicated to agriculture.

A century later, just north of Anaheim, the descendants of James Irvine finally conceded to the forces of urbanization. They sold off their 100,000-acre family ranch to a developer with another grand plan, the City of Irvine, built around an educational and cultural infrastructure that included a university campus and cul-de-sacs for schools and libraries. Seed farmer Waldo Rohnert of Sonoma County borrowed the concept when he ceded his ranch to the founders of Rohnert Park.

Other "instant" cities continue to appear. Most recently, developers launched the city of Mountain House, on the western edge of San Joaquin County. When construction is complete, the town will support more than 50,000 people.

Today, the lure is jobs and California's incomparable climate, golden in its own right.

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