You can’t tell by driving around the tiny berg of Copperopolis that it significantly contributed to the Union’s victory over the South in the Civil War. The copper mined from the hills of this Calaveras County community beginning in 1860 was shipped back east where it was used for bullets and shell casings fired upon the Confederates during the War Between the States.
“We were the second largest copper producer for the Union in the Civil War,” said town resident Copperopolis Carolyn Lipnick, a member of the non-profit Copperopolis Community Center.
The 160th anniversary of the town – which owes its origin to the mines named Gopher Ridge, Napoleon, Union Copper and Keystone – was intended to be celebrated at the community’s annual Homecoming Pancake Breakfast in April. The event was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. It was disappointing for participants, including members of the Lake Tulloch Quilters who were readying to decorate the historic Armory, built in 1864 to protect the copper from Confederate raids, with their handiwork.
Lipnick said the Copperopolis Community Center was the first non-profit organization of Calaveras County, formed in 1940, to receive the unincorporated town’s two oldest historic buildings. One of the buildings was the Congregational Church built in 1866.
Lipnick marvels at the way copper ore was transported to Boston and Swansea, Wales for crushing and smelting before May 1869 when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed. The heavy copper ore was hauled on the backs of mules and wagons to Stockton where riverboats continued the journey on the Delta to San Francisco and around the tip of South America.
The discovery of copper in 1860 resulted in Copperopolis cropping up out of the rolling hills. Business establishments swelled in number from 28 in 1861 to over 90 by 1865.
The town’s short-lived importance ended with an 1867 fire that left the center of town smoldering in charcoal ruins. Copperopolis didn’t completely rebuild because of decreased demand for copper with the conclusion of the war, high transportation costs and an exhausted copper supply. A resurgence in copper mining occurred in the 1880s when Oakes Ames of Boston purchased the Union Mine and placed back into production. This time, however, a smelter was built on site. Copper mining continued on and off until the 1930s.
Lipnick said her group regularly takes second- and fourth-graders on a tour of their town to learn about their town’s significance in the early days.
Copperopolis is also known as the place frequented by famous stage coach robbery Charles Boles, AKA, Black Bart. While living in San Francisco he conducted the robbery of the Sonora-Milton stage at the same location on nearby Funk Hill 10 years apart. His last robbery east of Copperopolis on Nov. 3, 1883 would lead to his arrest and trial in San Andreas. Bolton spent six years in San Quentin State Prison. His whereabouts have been debated for over a century since he was released in 1888. One theory is that he lived out his dying years in Marysville under the alias of Charles Wells.
Copper is no longer the bread and butter of Copperopolis. In 1996 real estate developer Castle & Cooke built the semi-private Saddle Creek Golf Resort and later the Town Square, a commercial development with retail and restaurant space as well as apartments.
“They really tried to involve the town and the heritage,” said Lipnick. They named all the streets after families that started the town and are still here.”
The development was sold to Copper Valley LLC in November 2018 and renamed The Square at Copper Valley.
Restaurants of Town Square attract a steady stream of customers but retailers have had a rough go of staying put over the years. A hotel of about 24 rooms is being incorporated into the square’s clock tower building. A housing project for the golf resort is also on the drawing board.