Exploring mining towns in Mariposa County
Feb 12, 2016 03:22PM
Why take just a trip when you can take a trip into history? California’s mining towns are a fascinating glimpse into the beginnings of the modern Golden State.
The California Gold Rush began on Jan. 24, 1848, with the discovery of gold in Sutter’s Mill in Coloma by James Marshall. It was one of the most influential events in the history of not only California but the U.S. during the first half of the 19th century. The non-native population of the state increased 100-fold, from fewer than 1,000 before 1848 to more than 100,000 by the end of 1849.
The rush extracted more than $2 billion in the precious metal during its run, peaking in 1852.
The Gold Rush regions, generally considered to be the goldfields in the Sierra Nevada mountains and in Northern California, were the destinations of an estimated 300,000 gold seekers during its boom.
While the mining towns of Sonora, Columbia and Angel’s Camp in the northern Sierra are well known, the river of gold unleashed by gold fever spilled into the Central Valley and extended as far south as Mariposa County, in the Valley’s eastern foothills.
Stockton was founded as a direct result of the Gold Rush in 1849 and the first permanent residence in the San Joaquin Valley was built there. The port of Stockton became a critical trade hub and the city flourished, today ranking as the state’s 13th largest. A century ago, Stockton’s Chinatown spanned numerous blocks. Today, one square block north of the Crosstown Freeway remains. There are a few Chinese-operated establishments still in operation south of the Freeway.
Mariposa County is at the southern end of the Mother Llode region. In 1850, the year that the county was formed and also the year that California was admitted into the union, the population was about 4,000, compared to a population today of about 20,000. Mariposa County also has the distinction of containing no incorporated cities, reflecting the configuration of most communities as census-designated places at the time of the Gold Rush.
Stockton was founded as a direct result of the Gold Rush in 1849 and the first permanent residence in the San Joaquin Valley was built there.
But the place names of the county are colorful and allude to its lively past, whether or not gold was mined in their vicinities: Bear Valley, Bootjack, Buck Meadows, Catheys Valley, Coulterville, El Portal, Fish Camp, Greeley Hill, Hornitos, Mt. Bullion, Mariposa and Midpines.
Gold in the Hills
Bear Valley, formerly known as Haydenville, Biddle’s Camp, Biddleville, Simpsonville and Johnsonville, was settled in 1848 in the beginning of the rush. At its peak, Bear Valley had 3,000 residents, which subsequently dwindled to about 100 today. The primary gold mines that operated in the 1850s were the Pine Tree and Josephine mines.
Mt. Bullion, formerly named Princeton, is six miles southeast of Bear Valley. The primary mines in that area were the Princeton and Mockingbird mines.
Coulterville was established in 1850 by George Coulter, who operated a dry goods store that served nearby miners. While there was a significant level of gold mining in the area and current production continues, it has dramatically declined to 1 thousand ounces per year or less, some of which is mined by hobbyists. The population of Coulterville has also declined from a peak of 4,000 during the rush to the current 200 residents. Hornitos, Spanish for “little ovens,”was founded before the Gold Rush by Mexicans who were ostracized from nearby Quartzburg because of racial prejudice. But the town’s population burgeoned during the rush and its mines, some of the most prolific of the southern gold-mining region, yielded a tremendous amount of gold.
In the town, there were hotels, a post office and several stores,including the first store of D. Ghirardelli, who went on to form a chocolate empire. There was so much gold production that Wells Fargo opened an office in the 1850s to manage it. Several thousand people lived in the town. In fact, at one time, it was incorporated but it is now a small, quiet townAnd one of the best-preserved ghost towns of the Mother Lode.
Mariposa, is the largest community in the county with a population of 2,200. Several deep mines worked underground veins during and after the gold rush years.
Midpines is a census designated place which is in the vicinity of the Colorado Quartz Mine. The current population is 1,200 people.
Some of the county’s communities served the mining industry although no mining was actually done there. For example, Buck Meadows, population 30, began as a stage stop in the 1870s.
Written by Keith Warwick.
Images from the Mariposa Mine community from the Gold Rush era,