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Monday, March 19, 2018


Columbia is one of my go to places for research about the mid- to late 1800’s western research in general and California gold rush history in particular. It never became a ghost town like so many gold mining communities, but struggled for years until the state government of California established it as a state park. They preserved the buildings that still existed from the hey-day of the town’s existence, brought in vendors, many of which provided food and goods reminiscent of the period, and opened it to the public.

Photocopy of 1852 lithograph by G. H. Goddard, General View, Columbia, Tuolumne County, CA
One building that still exists from that time period, although I suspect it has had its wood roof replaced, is the town jail. I have visited several times. It is far from roomy, and was not designed for comfort. Since Columbia was not the county seat, it also was not designed for long-term prisoner stays. There was a district court in Columbia, and one instance of a murder case, the suspects were housed in the Tuolumne County jail in Sonora five miles to the south until they were brought back to Columbia for trial. However, most snippets from the newspaper of the time, the Columbia Gazette, refer to prisoners being transported to Sonora.

Columbia State Park Humor
However, it is not the original jail. Here is the timeline for the building that is now known as the jail:

1850s Originally this lot was part of a larger lot. It was acquired by Mullan and Williams for the Boston Livery.
1866 The lot is split, the south half is purchased by Mike Rehm.

1870s North half of the lot has the jail (not the current building), the south half has a stone building which is used to store black powder.

1871 August - Rehm owns Block 9, Lot 165. - Deputy County Surveyor map by John P. Dart

1890s Stone building is the jail through the 1930s.

1949 Donated to the state from Tuolumne County, no money changed hands, valued at $100. (as part of the town of Columbia becoming a state park.)

Iron Doors to Jail - only source of light and air.
The lawlessness of Columbia, typical of gold-mining towns, did require a jail. At first it was a matter of chaining the arrestee to a sturdy tree until he could be transported to Sonora. The first jail was built of wood. However, Columbia, like many foothill towns, regularly went up in flames. Even after merchants and individual after the destructive blaze of 1854 began constructing their buildings of brick made at nearby Shaw Flats and placing iron doors over their doorways and windows to discourage the spread of flames, large fires broke out in 1857 and 1861.

Inside of Jail Cell
The author of one source wrote with a dramatic flair about some of the Mother Lode jails that embedded heavy steel rings in the floor in the event the jailors felt they needed to chain prisoners “low down.” However, there does not appear to have been such rings in the Columbia jail.

Opening to Cells-Courtesy of Retired Prisons on Waymarketing
Here is what else the author had to say about this jail: 

“Built during the 1860s, this tiny, solid building remained in use until the late 1930s. Inside are two cells and a small space where the jailer could keep an eye on the bad guys.  Wooden doors front the two cells, with small openings next to each, through which food may have been passed to the prisoners inside. The sturdy brick and stone construction, along with a heavy iron door, provided what appears to be a quite effective lock up.”
Keep in mind, originally this building was next to the old jail, and it was used to store black powder before it was converted into the jail. The two cells in this structure are cramped. There are no windows or openings to allow in light or air. The space for the jailer which allows access to the cells is not any bigger. Except for keeping a jailer out of the weather, that space would almost seem like a cell except the double iron doors which served as the only entrance and source of light and air supply for the building filled almost one end. Based on its current appearance, there was no source of heating. However, in the days before the roof was restored, there might have been a single burner wood stove for the comfort of the jailer.
Either way, I would not want to spend any more time there than the two minutes it took me to look it over and take a few pictures.


Koeppel, Elliott H.; Columbia, California On the Gold Dust Trail ; Malakoff & Co. Printing, La Habra, California; pg. 45

Anyone who has not yet read my Eastern Sierra Brides 1884 series yet which takes place just on the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountains from Columbia and Sonora, you may enjoy my first two books in the Eastern Sierra Brides 1884 series. You may find the first book in the series, Big Meadow Valentine, by CLICKING HERE.

The second book, A Resurrected Heart, is about the April resurrection day in the gold mining town of Lundy, but it has nothing to do with Easter. You may find this book by CLICKING HERE.


  1. Lawlessness, jails, criminals are all fascinating to me, probably because of my first career. Thank you for sharing the photos and history. More for the imagination to build on. Doris

  2. I loved the pictures, The jail looks so tiny. If I was a criminal I sure wouldn't want to have to stay there very long. Even worse, I would hate having to be chained to the floor and connected to one of those metal rings. Maybe I could have gotten locked up in the Columbia jail where there weren't any rings.
    Some interesting research here, Robyn.
    All the best to you.

  3. I love your articles about these old jails. I'm glad there are places that have preserved this fascinating history. I particularly like the sign pointing the way to Jail and School.

  4. This was very interesting research and photographs. It's wonderful that this history is preserved. I love visiting historic sites that have been preserved and become a working settlement for the benefit of tourists. Thanks for sharing this. When I saw Columbia, I immediately thought of South America where supposedly Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid fled to Bolivia.I visited a preserved jail in Butte, Montana a few years ago, and man was that depressing. I would think a night in the jail would straighten out some of the younger wannabe outlaws. I took lots of pictures for a future book(s). I'm glad that I took the time to come back and click on the blog.