by Willow Polson
If you’re looking for an authentic Gold Rush history experience in the Yosemite area, take a trip to the historic boomtown of Coulterville, CA, which features many structures from the early days of Mariposa County’s settlers and Native American population. The entire town has been designated as a California historic district and no building does a better job at telling the story of this pioneer community than the Northern Mariposa County History Center (NMCHC). The Northern Mariposa County History Center provides an authentic look into Mariposa County history as you’ve never seen before. If you are planning a visit to the area, find the details. Take a look at our video below to see and hear what the Northern Mariposa County History Center is all about.
Striking It Rich: California Gold Rush History
Locally curated and financially supported by the community, the Northern Mariposa County History Center shows what it was like to live in Coulterville during the gold-mining boom of the late 19th century through the lives of the pioneer families who still call it home today. The town and museum are well worth the drive up either Highway 49 (the north-south “Golden Chain” highway) or Highway 132 from the central valley. 132 becomes county road J-132 where the two roads intersect and this route was recently designated the John Muir Historic Route.
Muir, a famous naturalist, and advocate for Yosemite National Park in the early 20th century, would have walked right past what is now the History Center on his journeys to and from Yosemite, and could have even shopped at McCarthy’s store on the same site. The stone remains of the Coulterville Hotel form the museum’s entry courtyard, with the museum itself nestled inside the Wells Fargo and McCarthy’s store building.
The NMCHC houses a number of interesting displays, including a large model of what the hotel and store would have originally looked like before a major fire in 1899 took the grand building down to its stone walls. The model itself is a fascinating look at what life was like during the gold rush and pioneer days of the Motherlode area.
Fires were extremely commonplace in California gold rush history, and Coulterville was devastated three times. If a building was stone, brick, or adobe, it at least stood a chance of survival in some form, and many of these original buildings are there today for you to explore. Be sure to get the walking tour map of the town so that you don’t miss any of these interesting details and see how the town has evolved over time.
One of the more well-known surviving buildings is the Sun Sun Wo general mercantile store, constructed of stone and adobe. The original ledger books, scales, and other items from this important piece of the town’s Chinatown district are on display in the museum, as well as a number of other Chinese artifacts on loan from local families or discovered nearby. The museum is working with descendants of the Sun family to translate some of the books from the original ink-brush calligraphy handwriting.
Family is a strong theme at the Northern Mariposa County History Center. Each year, a pioneer family is selected to be featured in one of the displays, and even the most seemingly mundane items hold interest. Great-Grandmother’s white kid leather gloves and eyeglasses might be next to Uncle’s trumpet that was played in the Coulterville town band, accompanied by another family member’s favorite fishing gear or an engraved gold miner’s headlamp.
The History Center marries the connection between modern visitors, the pioneer families who still live there, and the deeper history of this little town that hasn’t changed much in 150 years. If you stroll from the main display room into the Victorian parlor around the corner, you’ll find the Shimer Organ as part of the furnishings. The organ was transported by horse-drawn wagon from San Francisco over the dirt mining roads to the Shimer homestead, where the same family still lives today. Other household items throughout the Northern Mariposa County History Center help visitors connect with the different cultures that came together to form this unique community, including Italian, French, Irish, and Sierra Miwuk Native American families.
Out in front of the museum’s buildings, you’ll also find the little train engine Whistling Billy, shaded by the original town Hanging Tree. A wonderful photo op for all ages, this little steam engine served the Mary Harrison Mine just up the road, and several other nearby mines, hauling ore cars for many years as part of the town’s rich gold rush history. On the other side of the building is a selection of farm and mining implements, possibly the world’s smallest post office, and a nice collection of horse-drawn and early vehicles, including a hearse.
Coulterville: Nostalgia Beyond its Gold Rush History
The NMCHC is far from a static snapshot in time, however. Recently, through a generous donation from the local Barrett family, the Northern Mariposa County History Center acquired the contents of what was the original McCarthy store, located just behind Whistling Billy. The store’s “ghost paint” signs advertise what the building once held (including hardware and dry goods), and museum staff found a treasure trove inside this time capsule. They are reinforcing the floor and doing other safety retrofitting as finances allow, and can’t wait to let visitors step back in time on their Yosemite journey, just as John Muir once did.
As you follow in Muir’s footsteps up Main Street, take time to explore the variety of shops inside the historic buildings and have a bite at one of the restaurants, which feature comfort foods like burgers, vegan and paleo fare, and pet-friendly outdoor dining.
If you’re looking to learn even more about the area’s California Gold Rush history, be sure to check out the pioneer cemetery up on the hill behind the 1920’s schoolhouse. For an extra bonus, plan your trip for late September to experience the town’s big annual shindig, CoyoteFest, which celebrates these local Sierra Nevada furry four-legged creatures with “a howl of a good time.”
Parking at the History Center is ample, free, and easy to access from the highway, with room for RVs as well. There is disabled access to the museum via a ramp at the back. Additional bus and RV parking is available in Coulterville on Broadway, near the county park.
The NMCHC is a locally-supported non-profit museum, with community members volunteering thousands of hours of personal time. If you enjoy the museum, be sure to let the staff know, and make a donation at the conclusion of your visit.