by Diana Bulls
This is the second part of a three part series. The trip can actually be done all in one day, or you can break it up into two shorter trips. Trip One: Oakhurst; Trip Two: Oakhurst to Mariposa to Hornitos; Trip Three: Oakhurst to Hornitos to Coulterville.
Summer is traditionally a time to get out on the road and see something. The July Fourth weekend is coming up and this would be a perfect time to take a historical road trip. Just because the kids are out of school doesn’t mean that they should stop learning!
In Part I, I talked about Oakhurst and visiting the Fresno Flats Historical Museum. I gave you the option of a one day trip ending at Oakhurst. If, however, you have decided to make it a longer trip, get back in the car because we are headed to a real California ghost town, but one that has a paved road. Take Road 426 back to Hwy. 41 and turn left, then turn right on Hwy 49—on your way to Ahwahnee and our first stop.The Wassama Round House State Historic Park is home to one of the few ceremonial Indian round houses left in California. It is the center for village religious activities traditionally held at harvests, births or for mourning ceremonies. Miwok roundhouses were earth covered at first, but after contact with non-Indians, most were built with split wood shakes and above ground. The main entrance is on the southeast, facing the morning sun. Four big posts support the round house—the fourth one on this site. Round houses are usually burned after the death of the tribal leader and a new one rebuilt when the new leader is selected and the tribe stops mourning. This one was built in 1973 and refurbished in 1992.
Go about five miles on Hwy 49 then turn right on Road 628 (also known as Round House Rd).Your destination is just past Leonard Lane on the right. Unfortunately the State Park was closed by Governor Schwarzenegger, but if you park in the driveway and are agile enough to scramble up the little hill, you can see the round house from the fence.
So, back in the car and head north again on Hwy 49, on the way to Mariposa. When you get there, stop at the Visitor’s Center (right hand side of the road) and pick up a driving map of historic buildings to see in Mariposa and the informational brochures for Hornitos. Mariposa is also a good place to stop for lunch. Then it is back on the road, Hwy 49, to Hwy 140 – about 12 miles – and then turn right onto Hornitos Road (J16).
In 1848 Hornitos was founded by Mexican miners who were kicked out of the nearby town of Quartzburg. It started out as a traditional Mexican village, built around a plaza, and went on to become one of the most prosperous towns of the Southern Motherload. The name came from the above the ground burial tombs made of rock and adobe. These small, dome-shaped mounds looked much like the outdoor ovens used for baking bread in Mexico, so the graves were called “hornitos” or “little ovens” in Spanish.
The mining camp grew quickly and, it is said that in its heyday, Hornitos had a population between 8,000 and 15,000 people. The town had four hotels, six fraternal lodges, a post office, six general merchandise stores, a Wells Fargo Express station, and several saloons and fandango halls. It is said that the fandango halls were built underground. The subterranean dance halls and saloons were all connected, so patrons could roam from one to another without having to go out.
The streams around Hornitos were rich in gold, with reports of nuggets weighing up to 34 pounds being found in the area. It is also reported that Wells Fargo shipped $45,000 worth of gold to San Francisco every day. When the placers began to give out, the miners started digging shafts and tunnels to reach the quartz gold lying below the rocky surface. As you drive through the countryside to and from Hornitos, you can still see piles of tracings from old mines. Every creek bed in the area has been dredged out by miners looking for gold. Once the gold was played out, the miners moved on to richer claims.
Domenico Ghirardelli was an early resident of Hornitos, arriving here in 1849. A confectioner from Italy who came to California via Peru, he failed at mining before opening a general store in Hornitos. Later he went to San Francisco, there founding an empire based on chocolate.
Joaquin Murrieta, the infamous bandit of the southern mines was said to frequent the saloons and fandango halls of Hornitos. He was almost captured there in the early 1850s, but escaped the jail by digging a tunnel.
After exploring Hornitos, continue north, via Bear Valley Road. You will see piles of trailings from old mines and interesting rock fences referred to as “coolie walls.” The road will end at Hwy 49, and that brings us to the end of Road Trip Part II. If you are doing everything in one day, turn left and head for Coulterville. If it is
time to head home, you want to turn right and head back to Mariposa and home. Stay tuned for Road Trip Part III.
Check out part I of this Road Trip here at KRL!