Jamestown and the Way West

Before the state of California, in the days of volcanoes and uplifting mountains many eons ago, a sinuous river of lava flowed westward towards the lowlands.  The mountains became the Sierra Nevada and the river of lava became known as Table Mountain after the softer soil washed away, leaving deposits of gold and other minerals.

The Central Sierra Me-Wuk thrived in the forests and open lands until explorers and travelers found gold in summer 1848 at the site of Woods Crossing, the first gold mining settlement in what was to become Tuolumne County.  The discoverer of gold was an Oregon prospector, Benjamin Wood and his party, which included James Savage.   They called their camp Woods Crossing, and the creek Woods Creek.  About a year later when easily found gold disappeared, the settlement began to move a mile east to the site of present-day Jamestown.

Among others, Colonel George James became a gold speculator with Native Americans and miners working for him.  He had a lavish lifestyle with a huge, well-stocked tent and trading post so the town was named in his honor after Colonel James plied them with champagne.  When Colonel James suddenly departed in the night leaving many miners and investors unpaid, they angrily changed the name of Jamestown to American Camp.  That name did not catch on so the name went back to Jamestown or “Jimtown”.  Later in 1850 there was a movement to form a new camp in the northern portion of Jamestown and call it Georgetown, but citizens voted on May 25, 1851 to call both camps by one name, Jamestown, which has remained ever since.

Gold Fever brought people from all over the world to the area and many small settlements and towns sprang up as a result.  Places with names like Campo Seco, Yorktown, Poverty Hill and Algerine Camp have disappeared with only a street or road name to remind us of its existence.  Under the mining laws of the Jamestown District, which were enacted in November 1853, “Each miner shall be entitled to one claim of 100 square feet, and no more.”  Other provisions included “All claims hereafter located, must be ditched around them, one foot wide and one foot deep, within three days from the time of location, and notice placed upon them, unless the owners are constantly at work upon them, in which case, stakes at each corner will be sufficient.”  Claim jumping did occur and murders took place as a result.

Jamestown was a center of mining, transportation and trading activity, which grew fast as a result.  In town there were many businesses such as a bank, livery stables, doctors offices, drug stores, butcher shops, hotels, saloons, Masonic Hall, bakery and others.  In 1852, the Jamestown Methodist Church was founded and the pre-1861 church building is still in use.  Author Prentice Mulford wrote about teaching there in 1862.  “My school house was the church, built and paid for partly by the gamblers and partly by the good people of Jimtown ‘for the use of all sects’ on Sundays, and for educational purposes on week days.” 

The Sierra Railway arrived in Jamestown from Oakdale in 1897 with much fanfare.  By taking Fifth Avenue from Highway 120 you are driving or walking along the original railroad corridor to the working roundhouse, locomotives, railcars and site of the Jamestown depot.  Since 1919 the rolling stock has appeared in over 200 movies and television shows.  Because of massive local public support, in 1983 all historic steam maintenance facilities became Railtown 1897 State Historic Park with an interpretive center, steam train rides, roundhouse tours and depot store.  From April to October train rides, special event excursions and many other railroad displays and activities are a part of the seasonal activities.

As gold mining went up and down through the years and hard rock mining came into play, like the Harvard Mine, many fortunes were made in Jamestown.  There have been hard economic times for the town but it has never become a ghost town. Most recently an open pit mine was used to extract gold near the original gold discovery site but closed in 1996 when the price of gold made it unprofitable.

Table Mountain:  A distinctive geological landmark, Table Mountain is visible from many areas in Tuolumne County.  It was formed by a lava flow that ran down the ancient course of what is now the Stanislaus River, and then hardened.  Over millions of years, the adjacent softer soils eroded away and left flat-topped Table Mountain.  Spring time brings a profusion of wildflowers and fresh vernal pools.  Table Mountain, though most of it is privately owned, can be seen from Highways 120/108/49 while driving in the Jamestown area.  Pulpit Rock is a formation atop Table Mountain, near the break in the mountain through which Rawhide Road passes.  Pulpit Rock has cultural significance to the Me-Wuk and is a landmark that can be seen from some areas in Jamestown.

Emporium: This 1897 Eastlake design building at 18180 Main Street was built by C. H. Wilson and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Originally built as a pioneer department store, it served as the county telephone exchange from 1906-1923.

Ramirez-Preston Building: Ignacia Ramirez, female pioneer and native of Mexico, owned this Main Street building constructed in the 1850s.  Upstairs was the meeting hall of St. James Masonic Lodge #54.  The building was acquired by R. A. Preston in 1877.  It served as the Jamestown Post Office in the 1930s, was later the medical office of Dr. James Hadley.

Masonic Cemetery: Jamestown-Shaws Flat Road. Owned by the Masonic Grand Lodge of California, it was started by the St. James Lodge in 1854, which had a membership of 41. The charter was surrendered in 1875 when they had just 7 members.

1897 Jamestown Branch Jail:  Located in Rocca Park, Jamestown’s original 400 square-foot brick and wood jail was rescued from a Lodi theme park in 2007 and returned to Jamestown within 125 feet from its 1897 construction site.  The jail was active as a holding facility to the County jail in Sonora until 1945.  It was purchased by R. B. Pollard for a western theme park in 1964 and was moved 70 miles away.  In 2006, the Pollard family contacted merchants of Jamestown and asked if they wanted to reclaim the jail for free since the property had been sold to developers and the jail would soon be demolished.   A Rescue the 1897 Jamestown Jail committee was formed and in June 2007 the jail was brought back to Jamestown.  On October 21, 2008, the 1897 Jamestown Branch Jail was dedicated by the County Board of Supervisors to the citizens of Tuolumne County after an eighteen month rehabilitation effort.  On January 20, 2010, the State Historic Preservation Office presented the 2009 Governor’s Historic Preservation Award to the Tuolumne County Administration Office and the Tuolumne County Historical Society’s Landmarks Committee for the Return and Reconstruction of the 1897 Jamestown Branch Jail.

John Pereira House:  Located next to the Post Office on Main Street, this house was built between 1850 and 1861, one of the oldest in the area.  Mr. Pereira was a native of Madeira, Portugal, a prominent businessman and owner of about 350 acres of orchards, vineyards, mines, the early Jamestown Hotel and a livery stable.  There was a large winemaking establishment on the lower floor of the house.  Much of his acreage was purchased for land development by the railroad in the vicinity of Railtown 1897 State Historic Park.

Methodist Church: This pre-1861 Gothic Revival Church was built facing Main Street, in 1916 it was jacked up and turned facing Seco Street with a new cement foundation and porch. The altarpiece was originally in St. James Catholic Church on Seco Street and brought here when that church ceased to function.

St. James Catholic Church: From 1854 to 1913, St. James was located on the hill above Main Street, on the southwest end of town. In 1916, a new church was built at Seco and Donovan Streets, only a monument remains at the site. Like many older churches, a cemetery is part of the grounds; notable are the many Irish and Italian names. the original altar is located at Jamestown Methodist church and a smaller altar from St. James is in the rectory at St. Patrick’s Church in Sonora.

“City” Cemetery: Established in 1850 just south of town, at Woods Way on Highway 108.  This is the public cemetery which has the remains of many early pioneers.  Carved wooden headstones used to mark many of the burial sites.

Areas Around Jamestown

Wood’s Crossing: West of Jamestown on Highways 120/108/49, a plaque at Bell Mooney Road commemorates the gold discovery at Wood’s Crossing a short distance away. Gold discovery in 1848.

Stent: One can drive out of Jamestown on Jacksonville Road and look for the hamlet of Stent. This is the area of “Poverty Hill” in Bret Harte’s stories. The Jumper Mine is located here, famous for its unique specimen gold. The view of Quartz Mountain and rolling hills towards the mountains can be seen from here.

Stevens Bar Bridge: Just before starting over the bridge at Lake Don Pedro, the plaque commemorates Stevens Bar founded in 1849.

Highway 120/49 Going North: At the vista point there is a plaque commemorating the town of 1849 Jacksonville, founded by Col. A. M. Jackson, now submerged under the waters of Lake Don Pedro. The Don Pedro Dam near La Grange on the Tuolumne River creates a 160-mile shoreline when the lake is full.

Chinese Camp: About 1849, a group of Englishmen employed many Chinese miners at this place that came to be known as Chinese Camp. A busy village in its day with gold mining and stage lines, the first Tong War in the state was fought about three miles away near Crimea House between the Sam Yap and Yan Woo Tongs. Period buildings still stand such as the 1854 stone and brick building later used form many years as post office. Across the highway is the tiny St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, built in 1855. Nearby, is Red Hills, famous for distinctive fauna and flora.

Montezuma: Named for “Montezuma’s Tent” the home base of prominent miners, Solomon Miller and Peter Aurand. This short-lived mining camp peaked after 1852, when a ditch and flume brought water along the base of Table Mountain. Montezuma, like many mining camps was the scene of violence as a result of the 1850 Foreign Miners Tax. A lone plaque along Highway 49 between Chinese Camp and Highway 108 is the only physical reminder that Montezuma City once bristled with fortune seekers.