Media Life: 6 Super Cool Finds at Placer’s Gold Rush Museum

By: Gus Thomson, Reporter/Columnist
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Gus Thomson and Media Life can be reached at

or 530-852-0232. Thomson is a state and national award-winning reporter who writes for the Auburn Journal.

You don’t have to go far in Auburn to get in touch with Gold Rush roots.

The American River is minutes away and, with it, the opportunity to pan for the real thing.

Old Town Auburn is oozing with Gold Rush character, too.

But for sheer experiential bulk, you can measure the re-opened Gold Rush Museum in Downtown Auburn as the heavyweight in town and in the region. If Huell Howser were alive today, he’d give it a “double-wow” and add an “incredible.”

There are plenty of highlights at the 601 Lincoln Way museum, housed in a former Southern Pacific rail station and situated in the shadow of the behemoth Chinese Worker statue — a 70-ton miracle in concrete built by Auburn dentist Kenneth Fox.

You’ll find a Mother Lode-sized collection of Gold Rush history in the Placer County museum. Here’s a short term of some of some of the coolest surprises waiting for you:

1. Snow Slipper

Equine transportation was a thing back in the Gold Rush days but what to do when the trails were clogged with the white stuff? The Gold Rush Museum displays the answer — an octagonal piece of flat metal that could be attached to a horse’s hooves to canter over the snow trail and not break through the crust.

2. Toothy Tincture

Back in the day, your local sawbones might just write a prescription for leeches to cure what ailed you. The museum displays a bottle with a sample of leeches lurking in the bottom. They could bite into the flesh and inject an anticoagulant into the wound to allow bloodletting.

3. Token Promises

If you bought a round of adult beverages at an Auburn bar back in the Gold Rush times, the barkeep might just scurry around to each customer with a token to dispense to each and every one of them. Those lucky customers could then turn that token into a drink while the person buying the round would be on the hook for all those tokens that were handed out. The Gold Rush museum has examples of tokens from Michigan Bluff and Auburn on display.

4. Taking a Toll

If you traveled Placer County’s highways and byways in the Gold Rush era, you would have to pay up. Toll bridges were built privately and you were charged to cross. The museum has a sign showing prices for crossing the Lyon’s Bridge between Placer and El Dorado counties. If you were on foot, you’d pay two bits. Riding a horse? You’d pay 50 cents. Sheep and hogs were a relative bargain at five cents apiece.

5. Richards’ Last Strand

“It was whiskey that was the cause,” were the grim words of convicted killer Stephen Richards as he stood on the gallows in Auburn, smoking a final stogie before the black hood was placed over his condemned face and a noose was placed around his neck. The date was Jan. 11, 1884. The place was the yard outside the Placer County Courthouse. And the rope that hanged him is on grisly display at the Gold Rush Museum.

6. Fire Bomb

Back in the 19th century, firefighters armed with buckets were one of the most effective ways of stopping fires. In other words, they weren’t very effective. Enter a certain Mr. Harden Another ingenious innovation was the Harden’s Hand Grenade, a glass bottle containing carbon tetrachloride. It could be lofted into the fire to fight the flames.

The Gold Rush Museum is open and free to the public from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. The county Museums Division is looking for more volunteers and could extend open hours if the ranks of docents increase.

Gus Thomson and Media Life can be reached at or 530-852-0232. Thomson is a state and national award-winning reporter who writes for the Auburn Journal.