Driving along the secondary roads of Northern California to the base of the Sierras is like taking an inter-active lesson in history.
One horse towns like Groveland, Mariposa, La Grange, and Coulterville are proud of their heritage. They rise out of the foothills in stark contrast to their surroundings. Isolated, full of character, charm, and personality.
The buildings that line Main Street, every town has a Main Street, date back to sometime in the mid to late 19th century. Saloons and courthouses, I imagine the two saw a lot of the same customers, proudly display signs and placards declaring established dates and other historical information.
It seems there is more than one bar that is the oldest in the west.
Traveling west from San Francisco to Yosemite’s northern entrance takes about 4 hours if you do it one shot. However stopping along the way and smelling the roses is all part of the journey.
You are in cattle country.
We had a steak for breakfast. It was huge. At least 12 inches long, encased in garlic bread, and named in honor of the Cowboys that rode these parts more than a century earlier.
The Char-broiled Cowboy Steak Sandwich.
Next door was the Cowboy Museum that paid further homage to these early Californian trailblazers.
Groveland is the next town.
Well that’s not entirely true. China Camp is next but it’s solitary store was closed that day and to be honest if the intersection upon which China Camp was built had not displayed a sign, we would never have known we were there.
Groveland on the other hand was a regular gold rush metropolis. Main Street cut through
the center of town and shops, cafes, and bars line both sides. Within 10 feet you could
immerse yourself in California gold rush history with a beer and ranch grub while
sitting yourself down in the genuine article; a saloon that opened its doors in 1852 and continues to serve patrons today.
Or you can sip a half macchiato, half espresso at the Firefall Roasting Company next door.
Groveland, and Mariposa, have stayed alive and well because they have adapted to change. These towns have gone from housing prospectors to housing travelers who, for the most part, are simply passing though on their way to Yosemite.
Coulterville is a whole different type of town. Just as historic as the others but by no means a tourist destination. More a throwback in real time to another era and clearly proud of two facts; it’s heritage and it’s non-commercial persona.
Coulterville, unlike Groveland and Mariposa, allows the traveler a realistic glimpse back. A look at how life may have been. In fact Coulterville only recently declared itself to be more than just another ghost town, lost on the roadside, fading away.
Coulterville, like the others has a Main Street. Unlike the others however it also has a Kow Street and a Chinese Main Street.
Part of Coulterville was once sectioned off and became the home for a large population of Chinese workers. They had an extensive community; population in the thousands with businesses to cater. Today only the general store remains. It is now an historic landmark. One of the oldest surviving adobe structures in the west.
In the central part of town you could let your imagination go wild. It is not a far stretch
to imagine gunslingers in the street below the hotel windows where saloon girls would
ply their trade. Even the building eaves are weather warped and whisper of gunfights,
cattle rustling, and drunken gold miners flush with the weeks takings or broke but in the
same state of inebriation.
At least that’s what the building eaves told me.
Any western, movie or TV show, you’ve ever seen could have been played out here in Coulterville. You can hear boots on wooden sidewalks and the theme to “High Plains Drifter” whistling in the background.
Next to the Hotel Jeffrey, built in 1851, is a beautiful old tree; grand and possessed of self-importance. It’s known as the “Hang Tree”. It was from the sturdy branches that legal hangings took place. A grizzly reminder of past retribution.
The doors of the general store burst open.
Out walked a women. As tough and burly as you would expect in this town of isolated lawlessness. Her furry black house slippers, well worn beige night gown, calf-skin stetson, and half smoked cigar leaving you with no doubt that had this been a century earlier she would have been Miss Kitty, saloon proprietor. Quick on the draw and tough as nails. She would have shot your ear off if you looked at her the wrong way.
To be honest I cannot say for sure if this is still not the case.
La Grange is even smaller; population 345. As you travel down the Rte 132 you come to a bend in the road; that’s La Grange. General store, saloon, jail, school, church and museum; open only 3 hours a week.
Unlike all the other towns La Grange was settled by the French. A boom town with thousands of residents and known for its lack of respect for authority. Gold mines popped up all along the Toulomne River and by 1854 over 100 buildings formed the town center. In 1856 La Grange became the county seat.
In 1880 the tumbleweed blew in and all mining came to an abrupt end.
There are more towns scattered around Northern California that command interest and the use of imagination. They represent an important time in history and have all been preserved in one way or another.
Passing through these towns, stopping, reading the information, and soaking in a bygone era, makes any road trip through these parts a journey in time travel.