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Mariposa: John C. Fremont's Town Survived the Gold Rush

Updated on December 18, 2017
Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle's interest in California history was rekindled when she began leading tours at a local museum in an 1850s gold rush town.

John C. Fremont

In the old days, getting your face on a cigar box was like having your portrait on the Wheaties box.
In the old days, getting your face on a cigar box was like having your portrait on the Wheaties box. | Source

A Town With a Plan

The footprint of Mariposa, California was planned and plotted out by John C. Fremont in the early days of the gold-rush era.

Unlike other little towns and settlements that grew "organically" according to the random placement of campsites, miners shacks and deer trails, this one was actually planned by a military officer, surveyor and mapmaker who had enlisted the famed scout, Kit Carson to accompany him on several exploratory expeditions.

Fremont mapped out the streets of Mariposa in straight lines which followed the general direction of the meandering creekbed at the low point of a narrow foothill valley.

The ore-crushing stamp mill. (A rather wobbly video-- pretend it is a California earthquake.)

A Logical Numbering

The short cross streets were numbered. First , Second, Third-- up through Eighth.

The long streets were named after himself (Charles-- his middle name), his wife (Jesse), his brother-in -law (Jones) and his father-in-law (Bullion).

His wife's father was a prominent senator, Thomas Benton, a gold-standard advocate sometimes known as "Old Bullion".

A headquarters structure for the mining operation was built with adobe brick with foundations of hand laid stone. Hefty timbers were raised for a general store, a hotel, a saloon and card parlor. A livery stable followed, as well as a warehouse. Other businesses and residences were added, one after the other.

Fire, the fearful destroyer of hastily built boom towns, ravaged the community more than once during its history, but the stone foundations and retaining walls survived and rebuilding began almost before the embers cooled. Some buildings were reborn in brick with fireproof steel doors.

Other permanent buildings arose with plastered walls and fire resistant sod roofs. They had covered walkways in front and decorated trim on the cornices.

There are still stories in the foundation stones. Basement apartments and shops, an antique shop and a beer bar still reveal traces of the amazing rock substructure that shows the pioneer intention of a town that was meant to endure.

It has endured. Though economic tides have waxed and waned, Mariposa is still very much a living town, retaining much of its historic flavor.

The mines have been closed for many years, but hobbyists and rockhounds still do some prospecting. Tourism fuels most of the business now, though ranches and vineyards are still going strong in the area. Artists and outdoor enthusiasts have also come to call it home.

Mariposa County Courthouse : Built in1854

The old county courthouse survives from gold rush days and is still in use.
The old county courthouse survives from gold rush days and is still in use. | Source

If the prospectors who originally came for the gold returned today they would still recognize the town.

The neo-classical style courthouse has been the seat of county justice for more than a a hundred and fifty years. It's clock tower bell still struck the hours faithfully until just a few years ago. (The clock and the building are now awaiting a much needed repair and refurbishment.)

The slender steeple of St Joseph's Church still points heavenward, and a row of buildings on either side of the main street looks much the same as it did during the latter years of the gold rush.

Old hotels have maintained their Victorian style, The Oddfellows Lodge hall and the Trabucco store still have their iron shutters and pressed tin ceilings.

Mariposa honors its heritage by preserving historic buildings and keeping modern intrusions to a minimum. There are dozens of historical landmarks and buildings in the county. There are only two fast food franchises, but those are outside of the historic district. Even then, corporate signs are not prominently displayed.

Gold ore-crushing stamp-mill at the history museum.

The stamp mill still runs, thanks to museum volunteers.
The stamp mill still runs, thanks to museum volunteers. | Source

There have been modernizing changes in the past century and a half. The roads are paved now. There is electricity and a couple of gas stations. There are telephones and a few TV satellite dishes. People even have internet access.

There are more churches and fewer saloons than in the old days but there are still no traffic lights in the town. A four way stop signs mark the highway intersection at the north end.

The stamp mill that once crushed gold ore 24 hours a day, with a thunderous and rhythmic pounding, now is only put into action when a busload of tourists stops at the history museum.

General store exhibit in the Mariposa Museum and History Center

Items collected by pioneer families give a glimpse of earlier days in California.
Items collected by pioneer families give a glimpse of earlier days in California. | Source

Community organizations have barbeques, and pot lucks , and craft shows, and square dances and concerts. Some of these events are fund-raisers for a community member who has had an emergency. Everyone seems to pitch in to help their neighbor. If your car breaks down, someone stops to help.

At least half of the people in town are volunteers for one thing or several. People give their time to various service clubs, church activities, the history center, the animal shelter, the hospital, the 4-H club, the creek beautification committee, the artist's cooperative gallery, the friends of the library, the police department, the senior center, the emergency food pantry, the woman's shelter, the arts council, the schools, the search and rescue team and-- of course -- the fire department is all volunteer.

St. Josephs Catholic Church : Built in 1862

The Historic church stands on land originally donated by the mining company in Mariposa.
The Historic church stands on land originally donated by the mining company in Mariposa. | Source

Every so often there is a parade in town and it is pretty much the same no matter what holiday is being celebrated. Townspeople line the street to watch the fire trucks from each corner of the county pass by.

The veterans have an honor guard, the high school band plays, the pizza joint employees march while spinning and tossing fake rubber pizza crusts into the air.

Service clubs have floats decorated with crepe paper. Old men drive their classic cars and a few people ride their horses. Everyone throws candy to the kids.

Mariposa is still a small town. There is a core of generations-old families here, but the population has grown so that newcomers are not necessarily considered "outsiders" as they might have been a couple of generations ago.

Many newer residents are often from Southern California or the Bay Area. They have blended in, not as people who want to change the lifestyle here, but as those who want to preserve it.

The Mariposa History Center and Museum was started by a group of local residents around 1950.

The California Centennial got some people thinking that they had better start preserving some of the remnants of earlier days.

The exhibits are put together in a charming and informative way that puts related items into a context.

Touring the displays is like peeking into the windows of previous centuries to see the saloon, general mercantile, woodworkers shop and many kinds of stores and residences.

Authentic "old stuff "which was actually owned and used in the area, is displayed in an interesting manner.

The museum exhibits are based on the letters of an educated young man who came from Massachusetts as a gold seeker.

His Eastern friend and his family saved the letters which had a lot of observations about life and times in the gold camps of this area between 1850 and 1852.

The grounds have a full-size operable stamp mill, other mining equipment, a blacksmith shop and, a few relocated historic buildings.

(See my "silly person's tour of the museum" by clicking here.)

Yes, it's a small town.

For anyone who is interested in the California Gold Rush, it is a good place to start a tour of highway 49- "the Golden Chain" from the south. . . or a good place to end up, from the north.

Mariposa also has the California State Mining and Mineral museum at the fairgrounds. (Check on this-- it has been slated for closure due to state budget cutbacks.)

Gems and minerals make a dazzling display, including a unique and priceless 13 lb (almost) chunk of crystallized gold known as the Fricot Nugget.

A pleasant day or two can be spent visiting the old church and cemeteries, the famous "Oldest courthouse in continuous use west of the Rockies", and other interesting old buildings.

In addition to the historic sites there are antique stores, art galleries, wine tasting, gift shops, a couple of excellent restaurants, motels, stationary store, gem shop, drugstore, other general shopping stores for hardware, groceries and other necessities and of course the cultural center of modern Mariposa...the Auto Parts store.

State Highway 140 (which overlaps Highway 49 through the town of Mariposa) will take you to Yosemite National Park in less than an hour.

Mariposa feels like it belongs to an earlier era. An interesting place to visit, you might just find yourself imagining what it would be like to find your own gold mine.

-- photos by Linda Gast

Have you ever visitd Mariposa, California?

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    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      20 months ago from California Gold Country

      To wpcooper... thanks for reading. Businesses in Mariposa come and go or move to a different nearby location. They actually have quite a few great eateries in town for a community of this size. Many entereprises are locally owned so business hours are variable. Tourists keep the town humming, but restaurants have to be good to survive (only ifthey have the continual support of the locals). It seems that Mariposa is having a little revival lately, a few new shops, a couple of micro breweries another art gallery. The local History Museum is great! A nice stop in the way to or from Yosemite.

    • wpcooper profile image

      Liam Cooper 

      20 months ago from Los Angeles

      Mariposa is such a neat little place. I went there quite frequently in the 90s and at one time the main street there - with the cafe with great chicken fried steak - was busy. i went back a year or so later and everything was closed. I really like the library and it seemed they had some neat little shops and an art house theatre. you can really breathe. Interesting article.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      7 years ago from California Gold Country

      I've been there a couple of times, There is a new museum there now that has been restored by a couple of former soap opera stars who decided they didn't want to raise their kids in LA. The woman was on General Hospital for quite a while-- and she has boundless enthusiasm for the restoration project. Search the web for Raymond Museum and/or Lynn Northrup, and you will see some pictures.

      (Lynn Herring is her stage name)

      Thanks for reading my hubs.

    • bgamall profile image

      Gary Anderson 

      7 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

      My adopted mother was born in 1912 in Raymond, just down the road. She passed away in 2009.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      8 years ago from California Gold Country

      I hope you enjoy your visit. Thanks for visiting my hub again.

    • profile image

      Jim Tarbox 

      8 years ago

      Hi Rochelle.

      Sorry I have not replied before, I am back in Mariposa this July 2011 to do some more searching and of course will be calling on Dave and Charlie.



    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      8 years ago from California Gold Country

      I'm glad you had a memorable experience. Yes, the people are friendly and always willing to welcome visitors and show them the "sights". Charlie is a popular local musician and Dave is a superb craftsman with old time skills. Your comment is appreciated.

    • profile image

      Jim Tarbox 

      8 years ago

      Its now a year since my wife and I visited the wonderful town of Mariposa, where I visited my father's (Glenn Moss) grave along with his parents and sister, and met so many lovely people, Jim Baker, Dave Burgess and Charlie Wildt. Thanks to all of you.

      Jim and Audrey Tarbox. UK

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      9 years ago from California Gold Country

      I'm sure there are many that have a similar feel. Thanks.

    • profile image

      Four Leaf Clover 

      9 years ago

      Small town is the backbone of this country

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      10 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thanks R. Graf-- it's my 'adopted home town' thugh i live some miles away.

    • RGraf profile image

      Rebecca Graf 

      10 years ago from Wisconsin

      I love to read about small town histories. It makes them so much more alive and vital. Thank you.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      10 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thanks, Dr. Benson, I always appreciate your comments-- even if i don't always reply immediately.

    • Benson Yeung profile image

      Benson Yeung 

      10 years ago from Hong Kong

      interesting and informative.


    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      10 years ago from California Gold Country

      Mariposa survived the fire, though thirty residences in the hills were burned. Everyone got out safely. Residents of this community have come together to help those with losses

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      10 years ago from California Gold Country

      Mariposa is now threatened by the "Telegraph Fire". Hundreds of residents have been evacuated from nearby Midpines, CA. The fire is in rugged country, difficult to fight. Conditions are very dry, and there is lots of dry vegetation to feed the fire. Mariposa is endangered-- but lots of resources have been brought in to fight the fire

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      11 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thanks Glenn, It's not that much of a tourist town, but it does have some authentic historical structures and relics. You can zip right past the Burger King ( the only francishe fast food in town) unles you are really looking for it.

    • Glenn Frank profile image

      Glenn Frank 

      11 years ago from Southern California

      Great little local-history article! (but maybe I am biased?)

    • sixtyorso profile image

      Clive Fagan 

      11 years ago from South Africa

      This a very interesting Hub. It is reminicent of Pilgrims Rest in the Eastern Transvaal ( now called Mphumulanga) in South Africa which was also a gold rush town, It too, is a historical monument with preserved buildings and hotel. It features a robbers grave which faces opposite to all the other graves in the small town cemetary and it is close to a major National Park, the Kruger National Park.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      11 years ago from California Gold Country

      No, it's not so distant . . . Oh wait, you're a Brit. This is almost in my backyard. In fact we get lots of visitors from all over the world stopping by the Mariposa Museum-- most of them are always traveling to or from Yosemite, which really is one of the world's most beautiful spots. I'm glad that a number of them stop for a bit. and most of them seem pleased as well.

      Now-- I know you have traveled extensively and written some wonderful impressions of your destinations. How about writing about your "backyard"?

    • CJStone profile image

      Christopher James Stone 

      11 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      Nice hub. I enjoy reading about distant places I might visit one day, and Mariposa is definitely one of those.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      11 years ago from California Gold Country

      Sounds like a good idea-- especially since you already have your foot in the door with historical novels that are read in your school system.

      I just saw a travel thing on TV last week about the gem hunters in NC-- You know whre that is?

    • DonnaCSmith profile image

      Donna Campbell Smith 

      11 years ago from Central North Carolina

      Some of the politics was touched on in the novel I read (Sierra by Richard Wheeler) But, di you know the first gold rush in America was here in my state, NC. In fact there were some mines in my county which is in central NC, but most was in the western piedmont of the state. I am kicking around the idea of a YA historical novel set during NC's rush.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      11 years ago from California Gold Country

      A lot of people come to the Mariposa museum, seeking facts about their adventuring ancestors. There are a lot of old records in the vault and archives since Mariposa was one of the original counties of the state of California-- In fact it was one of the largest, covering 1/5 of the state. As population grew it gradually got whittled down to one of the state's smallest counties-- but it still has the courthouse and the old records.

      Fremont was the first Republican candidate for president-- and the first to make anti-slavery an issue, (before the civil War )-- He lost to Buchannen ( I think) and we all remember him ... right? (not).

      One book that sorts out his very complicated personal history is actually a biorgraphical novel about his wife, Jesse Benton Fremont. "Immortal Wife", by irving Stone. In most libraries, i'm sure--its an old one.

    • DonnaCSmith profile image

      Donna Campbell Smith 

      11 years ago from Central North Carolina

      Thank you for writing about the gold rush. I just finished reading a histoical novel about it, and Fremont is mentioned. I think my gg-grandpa Campbell when out to Cal to seek his fortune, but got in some trouble and came back to upstate NY. The details are fuzzy.


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