Sonora is the county seat of Tuolumne County and its downtown area is a mix of the town’s Gold Rush history and modern destination location of unique shops and eateries that both locals and visitors alike can enjoy.
Sonora is one of the oldest cities in California, incorporated on May 1, 1851. It was historically referred to as the ‘Queen of the Southern Mines.’ Sonora’s prosperity during the late 1800s and early 1900s can still be seen today in the many historic homes and buildings that line the city’s main street, Washington Street.
In 1986, Sonora was chosen as one of the first “Main Street” cities in the State of California. Working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the California Main Street program the City Council committed over a quarter of a million dollars in an effort to revitalize the city’s historic downtown.
That history now sits alongside trendy restaurants and pubs, boutiques and galleries, making it a unique place to visit.
“What’s really awesome about downtown Sonora is we’ve had a resurgence in new businesses,” said Visit Tuolumne Marketing Director Katie Kirkland, whose office is also located along Sonora’s Washington Street. “There’s new life in downtown, where old meets new. Old time architecture is filled with new restaurants and boutiques.”
Kirkland mentioned The Armory, a combination gathering spot, bourbon bar and beer garden.
“It’s like a speakeasy with a ‘Great Gatsby’ vibe,” she said.
One of the area’s newest ventures is into health and wellness, with businesses like Stix & Stones that is a one-stop shop for skincare and make-up lines, along with massage and salon services.
Sonora continues to make history as it recently became one of just a few areas in the country designated as a Blue Zone. Adventist Health Sonora is funding and promoting an initiative called the Blue Zones Project in Tuolumne County, with a downtown Sonora headquarters. “Blue zones” are areas around the world where people live longer with lower rates of chronic disease. Researchers found that people in these regions live to be 100 years old at a rate 10 times higher than in the United States, according to www.bluezones.com.
In Tuolumne County, you can see the Blue Zone initiative in healthier options at local restaurants and grocery stores and the promotion of hiking and biking trails.
Downtown is also the site of the city’s annual Christmas Town events and year-long Second Saturday happenings. Christmas events begin the Wednesday before Thanksgiving with the lighting up of the historic Red Church at the top of Washington Street and the annual downtown business decorating contest. Holiday events such as the annual parade, carriage rides, gingerbread house decorating contests and more take place every year.
Downtown Sonora doesn’t wait for Christmas to have a party. All year long, downtown Sonora heats up at night the Second Saturday of every month with live music, art shows, poetry readings and late-night shopping.
“It’s just a big party every second Saturday,” said Margott Weltin, Sonora Chamber of Commerce vice president and marketing director.
Sonora celebrated its 100th Second Saturday event a few years ago, and there’s no plans to stop. Starting in June, monthly free concerts will also happen on Second Saturdays.
“We get locals, it’s a big night to see your neighbors, we also get people from the Valley, the Bay Area and Sacramento. It’s become a thing…the word is getting out,” she said.
For more information about Downtown Sonora, visit www.sonoraca.com or visittuolumne.com.
The City of Sonora has put together a Historic Downtown Walking Tour, which lists many of the historic sites along Washington Street. Some of those include:
The Sonora Opera Hall, 250 S. Washington St.: The Sonora Opera Hall is one of the few buildings in Sonora that still serves its original purpose, though it has ironically only been an opera hall for a few years of its life. In 1879, Vermont resident and civil engineer James George Divoll built the Star Flouring Mill on $250 worth of land, where the Opera Hall now stands, to compliment the profits of his mining ventures. Divoll partnered in the flouring mill with Joseph Bray, and together the two bought the local Bonanza Mine at the top of Washington Street.
In the early hours of August 6, Joseph Bray awoke to find his mill ablaze with his brother Jacob trapped inside, who eventually perished with the mill. It is believed that the two suspicious men from the night before had broken into the mill to steal the gold, and had by some means set the Star Flouring Mill on fire, though the true cause may never be known.
Unfazed and seeing a door for opportunity, Divoll and Bray began almost immediately to construct the Opera Hall from the remaining brick and stone walls of the Star Flouring Mill, converting the mill’s five bay openings into the building’s five still-standing front entrances. Only four months after the fire, on Christmas Eve of 1885, the Sonora Opera Hall opened for business, its first event being the Skating Carnival and Ball. As a hall, it became a center for cultural and social life in Tuolumne County, hosting traveling entertainers, theatrical displays, fairs, and patriotic events atop its inner stage.
Unfortunately, the Opera Hall never turned a profit, and was forced to close in 1896, a little over 10 years after its debut. It was converted into a carpentry shop and planing mill after Bray became the sole owner and was later sold and became the Opera Hall Garage from 1911 to 1979.
In 1986, the building was purchased by the City of Sonora, which through state grants, redevelopment funds, and volunteer work, was able to restore it to its former state as an Opera Hall. Today, the Sonora Opera Hall continues to live out the dream of its builders, being open for public rental, booked with concerts, dances, weddings, high school proms, and all means of social gatherings.
The City Hotel, 139-145 S. Washington St.: The structure was built in 1852 by James Lane and Alonzo Green, one of Sonora’s first City Mayors. The two-story City Hotel was built in place of a previous hotel that had been destroyed in a great fire earlier that same year, and was constructed of two-foot thick slate walls bound by adobe mortar.
Behind the hotel was the local “Hanging Tree”, where, after being found guilty for assault, outlaw Jim Hill had been forcibly seized from the County Sheriff by an angry mob of miners and hanged. The hotel was nonetheless marketed as a family inn, and featured a saloon, billiard rooms, and dining rooms on the first floor, with twenty private rooms on the second. The City Hotel became the end of most local stagecoach routes, bringing in many weary travelers, including author Mark Twain.
Around the 1860s, a man by the name of Oliver Bemis took over management of the hotel. His family lived in an apartment near the back of the hotel, closest to the water heater and gravity-fed water tank so as to always have hot water. His nephew, Charles Fitch, eventually inherited the City Hotel, and married May Lick, the daughter of Rebecca Lick, owner of Rebecca Lick’s Ice Cream Parlor and Candy Store in the Lick Building next door. It is said that many of the town’s prostitutes would get candy from Rebecca Lick, and then be housed at the City Hotel by her daughter to rest up.
The Bemis/Fitch family kept the City Hotel until around the 1930s, when May returned to the Lick Building to live with her aging mother. The City Hotel no longer serves as a hotel and has since been remodeled and converted into office rooms, but its original namesake of the “City Hotel” can still be seen faintly painted on its upper left side.
The Tuolumne County Military Museum, 9 N. Washington St.: This local memorial hall is dedicated to honoring those who served the US in World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and other successive battles.
The Memorial Hall was built with Columbia marble in 1933, atop the original site of the Art and John Duchow printing shop, home of the successful Tuolumne Independent newspaper. The Tuolumne Independent eventually moved to a new building further down Washington Street, and the abandoned real estate became an antique iron shop before being torn down to make way for the Memorial Hall.
The Sonora Fire Museum, 125 N. Washington St.: The museum is actually not a historic building, but instead houses the history of the long battle with Sonora’s oldest foe: fire.
Sonora experienced its biggest fire in 1852, less than a year after its incorporation. After falling asleep while reading, a man’s candle at the Hotel de France engulfed some drapes and created a fire of such intensity that nearly the entire town was leveled. Starting near the intersection of Stockton and Washington streets, the fire could not be stopped until it reached all the way to the site of the current St. James Episcopal Church. Luckily, the only fatality was of the man whose candle had started the fire.
After the fire, the City Council ordered the widening of many of Sonora’s streets, and the abolishing of a Mexican-style City Plaza that used to sit at the base of Washington street. Side streets were also added between housing blocks as fire breaks. The previously burned wooden buildings were replaced with ones of slate, adobe, and steel so as to help prevent future disasters.
The Red Church, 42 Snell St.: Locally referred to as “The Red Church” for its distinct color, the Saint James Episcopal Church has served as the head of Washington Street and the unofficial mascot of Downtown Sonora for over a century.
In 1859, as Sonora was beginning to take shape as more than a simple mining camp, calls for an Episcopal congregation were made. The church was completed in 1860, and was designed by Reverend Gassman, who took inspiration from the Gothic Revival in his homeland of Norway. It was built atop the tunnels of the Bonanza Mine, one of the most successful mines in California, which can still be accessed inside the church. The Red Church’s first sermon was held on the first Sunday of October 1860, by Reverend Gassman, the church’s first Rector and minister.
On March 30, 1868, the west side of the building was extensively damaged by a fire started across the street at the United States Hotel. The hotel was completely destroyed but the local firemen were able to save the Red Church, albeit with some major damage. The church was repaired and reopened and has remained largely unchanged since.
The church was consecrated by Reverend Kip in 1870 and is known to be the seventh of the Episcopal churches in California and the oldest in the state. Today, it is officially recognized by the state as California State Historic Landmark No. 139, and still remains the center of Episcopal worship in Tuolumne County, holding regular sermons and being frequently utilized for weddings and other social gatherings.
For the complete downtown tour map, visit: www.sonoraca.com/downtown-sonora.