Nestled into the folds of the Mother Lode hill country – which was swarming 170 years ago with gold hungry miners armed with picks and shovels, sluice boxes and pans – is a most charming little town.
Once populated by thousands at the height of its gold production, only about 700 populate the town of Mokelumne Hill today. They live in homes along hillsides and shuttle about on a handful of avenues shouldered by the old stone buildings, visages of time dating back to the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant.
Mokelumne Hill and the nearby river are named after the Plains Miwok, the first occupants of this part of the 209. The name is derived from “moke,” meaning fishnet, and -umne, a suffix meaning “people of.” The town – some call it Moke Hill if they can’t pronounce the name – dates back to the late 1840s when French immigrants found gold here and set up camp.
The first known white men mining in the region was a company under Captain Charles M. Weber who mined along the Mokelumne River in late 1848 between Big Bar and Lower Bar. A party of miners from Oregon who discovered Big Bar inticed a provision wagon to drive to the area and this was so successful that a store was opened in November in Mokelumne Hill. Colonel Jonathan D. Stevenson’s Regiment of New York Army Volunteers reached Mokelumne Hill in 1848 and Samuel Pearsall of the regiment was the first to discover gold in on the north side of Stockton Hill. In later years Col. Stevenson claimed to have been the first alcalde (mayor) of the town.
Like many of the towns springing up overnight with word of gold discovery and the infusion of hopeful immigrants to the Mother Lode, Mokelumne Hill’s star burned brightly before it faded. Once the largest town in Calaveras County, Mokelumne Hill served as the county seat from 1852 (after its removal from Jackson) until 1866 and boasted a cosmopolitan population of French, German, Chinese, and Italian, along with immigrants from the Eastern States. Water was supplied to the town by a canal system, while stages connected the town to Stockton and ships completed the link to San Francisco.
By the 1860s placer gold was tapped out and the town slid into decline. Farming and hard-rock mining boosted incomes around 1900 and helped the region weather the Great Depression of the 1930s.
While the Calaveras County berg looks as if it was forgotten by time, outside money has invigorated the business district for tourists. McHale’s Revival Shop occupies a building assembled of rock in 1855 and is dedicated to the “revival of vintage, frivolous, memorable and amusing items.” Also on Main Street, visitors can buy bagels, honey, handmade candies, cookies, pastries and espressos at Moke-A-Java/Moke Hill Nuts and Candies. The Whoopsie Daisy candy shop is another must stop.
Art lovers come to the Petroglyphe Gallery, billed as one of the finest boutique art galleries in Northern California that represents leading state and nationally known award-winning artists in a wide variety of subjects and mediums.
Weekend visitors with an appetite for wine or food can find Renegade Winery a place to relax on the outdoor patio in full view of the three-story Odd Fellows Hall – reported to be the first three-story building in California outside of coastal towns. The business offers flatbread pizzas, calzones, paninis and sandwiches, hamburgers, salads and wraps, a child’s menu. Live music is offered on weekends from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
The real draw to Mokelumne Hill, however, is the ambiance of gold rush era historical buildings that are have stood the test of time because of the use of stone blocks cut from nearby quarries. Worthy of admiration, many of the historic facades have plaques attached delineating their significance – or recapping snippets of town history.
By far the most impressive of structures is the Hotel Léger, built in 1875. Located at 8304 Main Street, it is one of the oldest continuously-operating hotels in California. One of its buildings was used as the Calaveras County courthouse when the town served as the county seat. The basement of the Hotel Léger was the first meeting place of E Clampus Vitus, commonly known as the Clampers. The hotel is a successor to the Hotel de France which was built on the site around 1851. In 1853 George Leger purchased and expanded the establishment. The building was destroyed by fires in 1854 and 1874, thus Leger constructed the current two-story, vernacular Greek Revival Hotel de Europe stone structure incorporating the neighboring old Courthouse building.
Another building that dominates the center of town is the IOOF Hall, or Odd Fellows Building. Also made of stone, it is reportedly the first three-story building in California outside of coastal cities. The original building was erected in 1855 as a two-story building. A third story to be used for lodge purposes was added later.
After the fire of 1874, many of the commercial structures were not rebuilt, due to the conclusion of the boom years for Mokelumne Hill as a commercial and political center.
The Congregational Church building is the oldest such in the state.
The original elementary school in Mokelumne Hill, which is still standing but has been converted to a private residence, was built in 1852 and was used until 1964. Unconfirmed legend has it that a bond issue to build the school failed, but citizens built it anyway.
Another interesting site is the former Baldwin Hotel, now a private home, located at the corner of Center and Clark). It was first built back in 1854 by John Rapetto and John Rogers and has housed several businesses including Raggio’s Stone House up until around 1876. When it was the Baldwin Hotel the basement was used as the Gardella Mortuary. The house was the site of a deadly self-inflicted gunshot wound of a James W. Porteous on March 25, 1903. The 25-year-old foreman of the What Cheer Mine had been drinking and gambling when he returned to his room and told his wife he wanted to shoot out the electric light. She told him if he must shoot to go outside. Heavily inebriated, Porteous reportedly shot himself by accident.
For those who want a truly historical experience, visitors can try to find the grave of Porteous who is buried at the Mokelumne Hill Cemetery, 8592 West Center Street, just down the road from where he tragically ended his own life. The Protestant Cemetery contains most of the former residents who were present in its heyday. They include Edith Irvine (1884-1949) who was a teacher but best known for her photos of the San Francisco Earthquake damage of 1906. On the morning of April 18, 1906, Edith happened to be taking her camera to the city by way of the Sacramento River. She photographed the earthquake damage, returned to Mokelumne Hill and developed the photos. She showed them to very few people and packed them away. Her collection of 275 glass plate negatives was discovered after she died in 1949. Sixty of those were of the San Francisco earthquake damage.
When they were discovered they proved to be a historically important treasure trove.
Others buried here include Melville Coggins (1840-1877), a mine foreman of the Duryea gravel mine on Chile Gulch, who was instantly killed in a cave-in. Another resident is Martin D. Fischer (1820-1909), a German native who in 1853 was part of the first pioneers who came to California through the Sonora Pass and the Walker River Trail.