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Looking for the Gold Rush Town of Chinese Camp

Four aging horses dragged us through the manzanita and boulders, the stagecoach swerving dangerously with each bump and wiggle. The children shrieked with excitement as we threaded our way through Columbia State Historic Park, a mining camp from the days of the Gold Rush about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Oakland, Calif.

Suddenly, a bearded white man in a red bandanna jumped out from the trees. He waved an old-timey pistol at us, and at the sight of the gun we all froze. The laughing stopped. “Gimme yer gold!” he drawled. He pointed the pistol at us and sneered. “Will he shoot us?” whispered my 5-year-old daughter.

Packed into that sweaty stagecoach, we were three couples — Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and Korean Americans — with six children, taking our first post-pandemic road trip into the mountains. We had rented a house nearby to bathe in Pinecrest Lake and dip our toes in the Tuolumne River, to barbecue fish and prepare elaborate Filipino breakfasts for each other. I had a side interest: to find traces of Asian American history in this part of the Sierra Nevada foothills.

I was inspired by the story of Tie Sing, a Chinese American backwoods chef who worked for the U.S. Geological Survey. Hired to cook for a 1915 lobbying trip for conservationists, industrialists and senators to Yosemite, his meals were apparently so impressive that he helped convert the group to the cause of nature recreation, leading to the formation of the National Park System.

While few know Mr. Sing’s story, even fewer are aware of the span of 1849 to 1882, when thousands of Chinese immigrants descended upon the area to find their fortunes on the legendary “Gold Mountain.” I wanted our children to feel the Chinese roots of this area and perhaps put the hardships of the last year into historical context. I cooked a dinner of grilled trout, fried potatoes and green beans in memory of Mr. Sing and once we’d settled in, we decided to visit Columbia and then a tiny dot on the map called Chinese Camp, an old mining town.

The day after our stagecoach encounter, with temperatures reaching 100 degrees before noon, we blasted the air-conditioner and tried to find Chinese Camp, just a few miles away. There was little signage and no rangers in sight. Sucheng Chan, a retired historian and the author of more than 15 books on Asian American history, notes that this region, called the Southern Mines, was home to almost half of the Chinese in California in 1860, before the establishment of San Francisco’s Chinatown and other urban enclaves.

Read entire article at New York Times