by Diana Bulls
This is the third 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.
If you haven’t taken a short road trip this summer, there is still time to do so, and this one is also a great lesson in California history. In Part I, I talked about Oakhurst and visiting the Fresno Flats Historical Museum, and gave you the option of making it a one day trip. Part II, took us on to Hornitos, again with the option of ending the trip there. In Part III we’re going to finish up the third leg of our historical road trip. You have left Hornitos via Bear Valley Road which ends at Hwy 49; turn left and head north for Coulterville.
North of Mariposa, at the junction of Highways 49 and 132, lays the little town of Coulterville. The settlement was originally made up of Chinese and Mexican miners who arrived around 1850. George Coulter was one of the first whites to come to the area. He set up some tent stores and the Mexican miners began calling the town Banderita (little flag) after a small American flag outside Coulter’s tent. When the post office was established on Nov. 20, 1852, the town was given the name Maxwell’s Creek, but in 1872, the name was changed to Coulterville.
The Chinese created a small settlement at the north end of the town. Eventually, there were three thousand white miners plus the Chinese and Mexicans who made up the citizens of Coulterville. For the most part, the American miners left the placer operations to the foreigners and centered their efforts on the hillsides to establish the rich hard rock mines. By the 1860s, the placer mines were almost played out, but, unlike other gold rush towns this didn’t affect Coulterville because it was well established as a supply center. Eventually the town was discovered to be sitting on one of the richest veins of gold-bearing quartz in the Mother Lode.
Hard rock mining became an important part of the town’s activity and mining continued well into the 20th century. The most famous of these mines was the Mary Harrison which was discovered about 1867 and operated until 1903.
Like many gold towns, Coulterville was plagued by fire, burning to the ground in 1859, 1879, and 1899. However, many historic buildings have been preserved, including some who can trace their beginnings back to the 1850s like the Jeffery Hotel. Coulterville’s Main Street appears in the National Register of Historic Places and the town itself is a State Historic Landmark.
When visiting Coulterville, you want to be sure to see the town’s “Hang Tree” from which a series of lynchings and “lawful executions” took place and “Whistling Billy,” the tiny steam engine that hauled ore from the Mary Harrison Mine (both located on the south end of town). The Sun Sun Wo Company Merchandise store still stands in the remains of the Chinese settlement.
As we leave Coulterville, going west on Hwy 132, look around at the rocks and see if you can spot some with a vibrant bluish green color. This entire area is a haven for rock and mineral collectors, especially those looking for Mariposite. Named for Mariposa, California, mariposite is a mineral made up of a chromium-rich variety of mica. The chromium makes the nice bluish green color. Mariposite is found in white quartz in the Coulterville area. It is often used as a decorative construction material and for jewelry. The jewelry is sometimes sold under the trade name “Emerald Quartz.” Mariposite also makes nice display pieces. The
Bureau of Land Management allows collecting near the junction of Highways 132 and 49. If you are interested, you should check with the BLM to get the exact location.
Continue on Hwy 132 west toward La Grange, about 21.5 miles. Look for the Don Pedro Reservoir to the north. La Grange was first known as “French Bar”, named by the French miners who came into the area in early 1852 and struck gold on a sand bar in the Tuolumne River. By 1855, it was a thriving trade center, with over 100 buildings and was known as La Grange (French for “the barn” or “the farm”). La Grange became the county seat of Stanislaus County in 1856 and remained so until 1862. At that time the voters decided to move the county seat to Knights Ferry—only 29 votes made the difference.
Aside from its French population, the community included a significant Chinatown in its early years. At its height, La Grange had 4000-5000 residents and was served by three stage lines, but it was known as a largely lawless town. By 1880, mining had ceased, but the area included many gold dredgers that operated until the early 1950s.
At La Grange, you will be turning south on to J59 (or La Grange Road) headed toward Merced, about 30 miles. You will be traveling near Dawson Lake soon after you leave La Grange and then the small town of Snelling first.The Snelling Ranch post office opened in 1853, and changed its name to Snelling in 1870 after the family that operated a way station beginning in 1851. Snelling was the county seat of Merced County from 1857 to 1872. The courthouse constructed in 1857 continued to serve as a justice court until the 1990s. The two-story building remains standing today and is a rare surviving example of a simple early California courthouse. It was the first courthouse in Merced County and is located on Hwy 59 between Second and Third Streets.
Continue toward Merced, then on to Freeway 99 and home. It’s been a long, full day (if you did this in one trip), but hopefully full of things to see and learn. Best of all, it is all part of the fascinating history that makes up our home state of California.
Check out part II of this Road Trip here at KRL!