Gold Rush Towns of the Central Foothills
Gold, silver, and other minerals have been mined throughout California. Best known of all the mining areas is the “Mother Lode.” Stretching from El Dorado County south to Mariposa County, the lode is a continuous 120 mile long zone of hard rock gold deposits.
Today Highway 49 winds through many of the towns that sprung up during the Gold Rush of the 1850’s.
The foothills between Merced County and Yosemite were a part of the Mother Lode known as the “Southern Mines.” The line separating them from the “Northern Mines” was drawn along the Mokelumne River, a few miles south of the town of Jackson.
Most mining camps were nothing more than temporary encampments established where a section of a river was panned or sluiced until the gold ran out.
Permanent towns developed in areas where more extensive operations spent decades tunneling deep into the hills.
Although most of these towns faded after the mines closed, tourism has brought some of them back to life. Visitors can explore buildings and artifacts from the 1800’s among shops, restaurants, and lodging facilities.
Below is a guide to some of the most interesting historic towns along the western edge ofYosemite from north to south.
Jamestown’s Rail town is also a must-see destination in the “Southern Mines.” Coulterville and La Grange small, but still very interesting.
Largely bypassed by tourism, Hornitos has a mix of interesting ruins mingled with historic homes that are still inhabited.
Any historic town can be a great place to stop and as part of a trip into the Sierra Nevada and many offer lodging, including modern motels, historic hotels, and quaint bed and breakfast accommodations.
Be sure and check each town’s webpage lengths for special events – most of these towns offer a wide variety of celebrations and history-themed festivals throughout the year, especially during Independence Day and Christmas.
No matter where you visit, please be sure to respect private property and “No Trespassing” signs.
Columbia State Historic Park
Columbia was known as the “Gem of the Southern Mines” during the Gold Rush and it still sparkles.
Recognizing how well it had survived the years, the state of California began acquiring and renovating the buildings in 1945.
Today the streets are closed to vehicles and Columbia is just about as close as you can get to stepping back in time.
The state park includes over 50 historic buildings, many of which house exhibits, restaurants, and shops that sell reproductions of products of the 1800’s.
Admission is free and the park hosts many special events throughout the year.
Many of these events have activities planned for children of all ages. The park is always open, but most businesses are only open from 10AM to 5PM. Lodging is available within historic hotels in the park.
For more information go to http://www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=552,
Stagecoach and horseback rides can be enjoyed on weekends
The historic Fallon House Theatre offers live stage entertainment throughout the year http://www.sierrarep.com/.
Not to be outdone by the “Gem of the Southern Mines,” Sonora was known as the “Queen of the Southern Mines.” Originally founded by miners from Sonora, Mexico, it is still a thriving town that maintains a lot of historic character in its extensive downtown area – the kind of place where you can spend a lot of time wandering around and enjoying the interesting architecture and shops.
The downtown area has been bypassed by Highway 108. Watch for exit signs if you enter the town by that route.
Residential areas around downtown contain picturesque Victorian homes.
The Tuolumne County Museum and History Center is housed in the old jail and presents excellent exhibits of the life in the pioneer days of Tuolumne County http://tchistory.org/index.html.
The Sonora Chamber of Commerce operates a daily trolley that connects Sonora with Columbia and Jamestown (May-Labor Day), allowing visitors to stay in one town and enjoy all three without having to drive.
More information is available at http://www.tuolumnecountytransit.com/HistoricTrolley.html
For information about lodging, restaurants, and activities, go to http://www.sonorachamber.com/
Rail town 1897 State Historic Park is Jamestown’s greatest attraction – this park preserves the roundhouse and engines of a short line railroad of the 1800’s. 40-minute rides on historic railcars are offered on weekends and Monday holidays throughout the summer.
The historic business district has many interesting buildings, although many date from a more recent time than the 1800’s. For information about lodging, food, and events,
go to http://www.tcvb.com/
Far less touristy than all of the other historic towns listed on this page (except Hornitos and Bear Valley), Chinese Camp has largely been bypassed by the modern world.
Founded by Chinese miners who were banished from other mining camps, a few structures still remain from the 1800’s, including St. Xavier’s Catholic Church.
Big Oak Flat
Smaller than neighboring Groveland, Big Oak Flat has a couple of historic buildings and a monument commemorating the now-vanished oak that gave the town its name. If you are on your way to Groveland or Yosemite, you might make a quick stop here.
The main highway is also Groveland’s main street, lined with historic buildings.
The historic business district is smaller than that of Sonora, Mariposa, or Columbia, but still quite picturesque and worth a visit. The town’s original name was Garrotte because of its reputation for swift justice in the form of hanging.
The remains of a hanging tree can still be seen in the town. Groveland’s Iron Door Saloon claims to be the oldest bar in California and offers beverages, food, and live entertainment. Despite the name, families are welcome.
For more information about the town go to http://www.yosemitegold.com/yosemite/groveland.html.
A sleepy town on Highway 132, several interesting historic buildings and a small museum evoke the wilder days of the 1850’s when La Grange was the county seat of Stanislaus County.
A tiny jail stands next to the museum and visitors can peer through the bars into the single cell. An iron bridge from the early 1900’s is open to pedestrians for a quiet stroll over the Tuolumne River.
The Northern Mariposa County History Center and the historic Hotel Jeffrey stand at the junction of Highways 49 and 132. Coulterville is one of the smaller Gold Rush era towns, but is picturesque and well-worth a visit.
“Whistling Billy,” a tiny antique locomotive that once hauled ore from the Mary Harrison Mine, stands in front of the History Center.
Once the headquarters of John C. Fremont’s mining empire, a few buildings from the 1800’s still remain in this sleepy hamlet. Bear Valley is an interesting place to stop between Mariposa and Coulterville.
On a quiet day Hornitos may look like a true ghost town, though it still boasts a number of inhabitants.
The Hornitos Patrons Club hosts special events throughout the year and a famous candlelight procession to the cemetery on All Souls Day (November 2) draws hundreds of visitors.
More information is available at http://www.hornitospc.com/.
The brick shell of the Ghirardelli Building is the remnant of a store owned by the man whose San Francisco chocolate company became known the world over.
A true ghost town, this former settlement is reached by a 4.5 mile trail (9 miles round-trip). Located along the South Fork of the Merced River, John Hite operated a profitable mine along this bend in the river starting in the early 1860’s. At the height of operations, several dozen people lived there.
The mine shut down in the late 1800’s and a forest fire burned the structures in 1924, but rock walls and heavy iron machinery remain.
A few modern mining claims exist in this are and there is privately-owned land along the first ½ mile of the trial, so be sure to observe posted signs.
This is a great hike in the springtime when wildflowers cover the slopes of the canyon near the start of the trail.
The trail starts at the site of Savage’s Trading Post on Highway 140 between Midpines and El Portal.
The largest town between Merced and Yosemite on Highway 140, Mariposa’s main street has many historic buildings and interesting stores.
Once part of John C. Fremont’s empire, many of the streets are named for members of his family.
Windows on the World Books has the best selections of books about local history and recreation that can be found. The historic courthouse, built in 1854 is the oldest still in use in California.
Church in Mariposa built in 1864.
The Mariposa Museum and History Center
For information see website -(http://mariposamuseum.com/) The museum has a working stamp mill and offers some of the best displays of Gold Rush history anywhere in the Southern Mines and the California State Mining and Mineral Museum portrays the history of mining in California with extensive collections of minerals and gems
Although placer gold was mined here in the early days of the Gold Rush, Catheys Valley developed to supply ranches and farms in the lower foothills.
Although not a major town in any way, an old schoolhouse and blacksmith shop have been restored and moved to the county park on the eastern edge of town.
Visitors can peer through the windows of the school and see what a typical rural school of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s looked like.
It’s a pleasant place to stop for a picnic on a spring or fall day while on the way to Yosemite.
South of the Mother Lode and originally named Fresno Flats, Oakhurst developed to serve farms, ranches, and the logging industry that developed after the Gold Rush.
A number of interesting historic buildings from the 1800’s have been relocated to the Fresno Flats Historic Village and Park on Road 427.
The park is open from dawn to dusk and the buildings may be toured from 10AM to 2PM daily.
For more information call (559) 683-6570 or go to www.fresnoflatsmuseum.org.
The Oakhurst Chamber of Commerce offers information about accommodations and events: http://www.oakhurstchamber.com
Sonora, Mariposa Groveland, Oakhurst, and Columbia have the best selection of food, lodging, gas, and groceries. Jamestown and Coulterville offer all services with less variety. Big Oak Flat and La Grange have gas, limited supplies, and meals.
Catheys Valley and Chinese Camp offer gas and limited supplies.
A small store and a historic bar in Hornitos operate with limited hours. Bed and breakfast accommodations are offered in or around all of the towns.
For listings, try the following websites
Columbia Chamber of Commerce: http://www.columbiacalifornia.com/
Mariposa CountyTourism Bureau: http://www.homeofyosemite.com/
Oakhurst Chamber of Commerce: http://www.oakhurstchamber.com/
Sonora Chamber of Commerce: http://www.sonorachamber.com/
Tuolumne County Chamber of Commerce: http://www.tcchamber.com/
Tuolumne CountyVisitors Bureau: http://www.tcvb.com/