The tourist pamphlets are quick to tell us that Sonora is “the Queen of the Southern Mines.” Gold was discovered in nearby Jamestown way back in 1848. Within months, Sonora was a cosmopolitan and often lawless community composed of migrants from around the world. The sounds of picks and shovels echoed throughout the town as miners worked their way along treasure-laden creeks and tunneled under countless hillsides. The City of Sonora was incorporated in 1851. Before that, the area was home to the Mi Wuk Indians. Today, Sonora is the county seat of Tuolumne County. It’s interesting to note here that Sonora today has less than 5,000 residents in its city limits–far fewer than during its Gold Rush heydays. Nevertheless, local residents and tourists to this great town should be happy they are here today and not back then. Frankly, a lot of those stories about claim jumpers, rustlers and banditos were true. Read on!
Sonora has one of the best examples of an historic gold rush downtown of any of the communities stretching the 250 miles or so commonly called “Gold Country.” A walk along just about any downtown street is a visit to an era that history books teach us was one of the greatest migrations in world history.
The Tuolumne County Courthouse, still very much in use, is a great example of yesteryear. As you walk inside, you are transported back in time. The seats in the courtrooms have hat racks underneath. The wooden bannisters, the black and white tiny tiled floors, the signs–everything exudes an older…and a wilder west. In front of the courthouse is…Courthouse Park! And in front of Courthouse Park is Washington Street, the main drag of downtown Sonora with some great old architecture and more than a few interesting shops.
Up Washington Street is St. James Episcopal Church–locals call it the Red Church. Check it out firsthand. It is a small church–nothing grandiose as we might see in Europe. It is magnificent in its simplicity however and, like most everything else in this part of town, quite historic–it was built in 1860. Recently, we learned a bit more about its history. Seems that part of the grounds behind the main chapel is sinking. Engineers were brought in last year to see what was wrong. Turns out there is a huge abandoned gold mine directly underneath. Actually, much of Sonora is built above abandoned gold mines. Some of those mine shafts, historians tell us, were quite useful during the city’s wilder times. Gamblers and bootleggers alike could make a hasty retreat when sought after by the law.
Further down Washington Street is the completely restored Opera House. Yes folks, during the Gold Rush era not only did Sonora have bordellos and bars…it also had culture. Thanks to a massive community fund raising drive, the Opera House is once again entertaining local residents. Lilly Langtree may be long gone, but local and regional acts have a first class venue in the Sonora Opera House.
Behind the courthouse a couple of blocks is the Tuolumne County Museum and History Center. The main building is the old Tuolumne County Jail which housed yesteryear’s desperados right up until 1961 when it was turned over to the local historical society. Here you’ll see jail cells not unlike what Hollywood has portrayed in hundreds of western movies. There’s also a sizeable gold collection and a gallery of old photos and artifacts. Admission is free (donations are welcome). Hours are Tuesday through Friday: 10am to 4pm, Saturday: 10am to 3:30pm & Sunday (Memorial Day through Labor Day): 10am to 4pm. This is a great little museum and, if the Wild West and the Gold Rush interest you, this is a must-see. It’s located at 158 Bradford Avenue. Their phone number is: (209) 532-1317.
Sonora today is the commercial center for some 100,000 people living in Tuolumne, Calaveras and northern Mariposa Counties. Sonora has fast food, car dealers, Walmart, a 10-screen movie complex and 24 hour super markets–luckily it still has its wonderful historic downtown.