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by Jerrie BeardJohn Sutter, a Swiss immigrant, arrived in the Sacramento Valley in 1839 hoping to build an agricultural empire. He acquired a land grant of 48,827 acres and built Sutter’s Fort near the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers. He called his establishment New Helvetia and was soon growing wheat, cotton and vegetables, and raising beef, sheep and horses.
As New Helvetia grew, so did the demand for lumber. In 1847, Sutter sent James Marshall, a carpenter and millwright, into the Sierra to select a sawmill site. Along the South Fork of the American River, in a valley called “Culloomah,” Marshall found an ideal location—in a place where the river made a sharp bend and formed a peninsula. Marshall’s plan was to build the sawmill here and cut a millrace or canal across the peninsula to power the mill’s waterwheel. The valley was accessible by wagon from New Helvetia and contained an abundance of ponderosa pine.
On August 27, 1847, Sutter and Marshall signed a contract and became partners in the sawmill. Construction commenced the next day. In addition to American immigrants, Sutter hired Mokelumne Indians to dig the millrace (under the direction of peter Wimmer). While inspecting it on January 24, 1848, Marshall found several flakes of a shiny metal and declared: “By God boys, I think I’ve found a gold mine.”
News of the discovery traveled slowly. The Mokelumnes agreed to continue working on the mill, completing it in March of 1848, as gold seekers began trickling into the area. The sawmill was operational on and off for two and a half years, cutting up to 1,000 board feet a day. Sadly, competition from steam-operated sawmills eventually put Sutter’s Mill out of business. After its abandonment, the structure was used as a residence and lumber was salvaged for use in other buildings; in 1861, high water washed away what remained.
The Society of California Pioneers located timbers from the original mill and marked the site in 1924. Dr. Robert F. Heizer, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, conducted an archeological examination of the site in 1947; his detailed notes shed light on the mill’s size and construction.
In 1967, the El Dorado County Historical Society, the State Department of Parks and Recreation, and citizens raised funds and volunteered to reconstruct the replica sawmill that’s currently found at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park (MGSHP). Although not constructed at the original mill site, the replica is based on Marshall’s drawings and an old photograph. The 19,000 board feet of lumber used were hand cut and adzed, and the structure was assembled using wooden pegs. On January 24, 1968, exactly 120 years after the discovery of gold, the structure was dedicated.
On January 24, 2014, Jeremy McReynolds, superintendant at MGSHP, led a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a new sawmill located closer to the original mill site. Funds for the project were acquired through a bond measure passed in 2006. Paul Oatman of Sherwood Forest Timber Frames in Pioneer, California, is a sub-contractor for this historically correct structure that’s scheduled for completion in winter 2014.