Gold Towns: Mormon Island

Gold was discovered at Coloma in January 1848, during the process of building a sawmill for John Sutter. One of the sawmill crew members was a former Mormon Battalion member named James Bigler. He told his comrades, who were working farther downstream on Sutter’s new gristmill. In late February 1848, Levi Fifield, Wilford Hudson and Sidney Willis ambled up to Coloma to see what all the fuss was about, telling their friends working at the gristmill that they were only going “for a visit and to hunt deer.” After prospecting for a few days around Coloma at Marshall’s invitation, they departed on March 2. On their way back they found gold lying close to the surface of a large gravel bar a few miles below the junction of the North and South Forks of the American River. They did not immediately begin prospecting—but they spread the word among their Mormon Battalion associates who were working for Sutter around his trading post.  In early April 1848 two separate groups of eleven Mormons altogether converged at the site previously found, where $250 in gold was taken out in one day. Thereafter April became the generally accepted discovery date of Mormon Island, named for its founders and because the gravel bar became an island during high water. It was one of the richest gold strikes ever found, and the first major strike in California after the discovery at Coloma. In its heyday the community boasted more than 2,500 citizens. A post office opened in 1851 and by 1852 Mormon Island was a full-fledged town with four hotels, multiple shops, saloons, restaurants and homes. Enough families were present to open a school in 1853.  Although gold mining was still a major economic activity in April 1855, agricultural prospects had greatly improved in the production of oats and barley. The town center burned in June 1856. Instead of replacing it, new and larger buildings went up in nearby Richmond Hill, Blue Ravine and Salmon Falls. However, the opening of the Sacramento Valley Railroad between Sacramento and Folsom  in February 1856 marked the rise of Folsom as a commercial center, and the start of Mormon Island’s slow decline in importance. In 1956 the lake created behind the new Folsom Dam obliterated what remained of the famous mining town. Mormon Island is registered as California Historical Landmark #569, with a marker placed at the Folsom Lake picnic area.

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