Saving the crowning jewel in the ‘Gem of the Southern Mines’
Learn how a Wells Fargo express office that operated for more than 50 years in California overcame fires and a possible demolition to become a top attraction today.
Every year, Columbia State Historic Park in Columbia, California, welcomes half a million visitors. Vacationers, weekenders, and history enthusiasts alike explore the former gold rush town, now preserved as a historic site. One of the main attractions in Columbia is the Wells, Fargo & Co. express office, which opened in 1858.
Known as the “Gem of the Southern Mines,” Columbia quickly became one of California’s largest cities in the 1850s. In a short period of time, up to 30,000 people from all over the world descended on the area to search for gold. They had good reason: more gold was found in the 640 acres around Columbia than in any comparable area in the Western Hemisphere.
Wells Fargo was heavily involved in the movement of much of the gold that left Columbia for minting. Stagecoaches from the river city of Stockton, California, stopped at the express office, delivering travelers and packages. The Wells Fargo office, as in many gold rush towns, was as much a social hub as it was a business, where people gathered to exchange news.
Mining towns in those years were hastily built and filled with closely packed wooden buildings. Fire posed a constant threat, and the Wells Fargo office burned down in 1854 and again in 1857. Wells Fargo agent William Daegener managed to save customer records both times, but the risk of loss was high. Daegener eventually built a fire-resistant structure, and a two-story brick building with fireproof iron shutters was completed and opened in 1858.
Daegener’s building operated as the company’s office for the next 56 years. By that time, Columbia had changed dramatically. Mining had become less productive, and the town had shrunk from tens of thousands to a few hundred residents. Wells Fargo ended service to Columbia in 1914.
The Wells Fargo agent at the time, Thomas Conlin, continued to live in the building with his sisters, Julia and Maggie. They turned the office into a museum to educate and entertain tourists interested in California’s gold rush history. The original gold scales and paperwork became historical artifacts instead of tools of daily business.
Conlin passed away in 1930 and developers threatened to demolish the historic building. California had just unified all historic sites under a new state park system and, in 1928, the California State Park Commission began a statewide survey of potential sites with unique natural and cultural resources to preserve. Led by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., noted architect and conservationist, the survey concluded that Columbia “…is the most interesting, picturesque, and historically valuable monument of the early mining days of California which has been found in the course of the survey.” He added that it should “be preserved in perpetuity.”
The state decided not to follow Olmsted’s recommendation and it appeared that the office and the Conlin’s home would be destroyed. Wells Fargo acted quickly, however, in 1933 to preserve its historic express office, which had become a highlight for visitors. The company bought and repaired the building and invited Julia and Maggie Conlin to remain living there — which they did for the rest of their lives.
In 1945, the California State Legislature introduced a bill to incorporate Columbia into the State Park system. Wells Fargo offered to give its historic office to the state once the bill was finalized and passed.
Later that year, Gov. Earl Warren signed the bill into law from behind the agent’s desk inside the historic Wells Fargo office, ensuring that this important piece of history from California’s early days of gold mining would remain accessible to future generations.
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