Sonora: Crossroads of Tuolumne County

Some of the first miners to reach Tuolumne County were discharged Mexican War veterans and miners from the state of Sonora, Mexico known as Sonoranians.  In 1848, gold seekers were few and placer was abundant.  Friction between Americans and Spanish-speaking miners increased at the end of the Mexican War, when Americans considered California conquered territory giving them the right to exploit its riches.  As the number of miners increased, Sonoranians were forced from their diggings and moved along the gold laden creeks and drainages.  On March 17, 1849, Sonoranians vacated their camp and moved to a new camp on Wood’s Creek now the site of Sonora High School.

When the Americans realized the Sonoranians had moved to a new camp, they began to prospect nearby.  In the area of today’s Coffill Park, Americans found rich diggings.  The camp was engulfed by Sonoranians and others and became known as Sonoranian Camp.  Later this was shortened to Sonora.  The old Indian trail which extended from the Wood’s Creek diggings down to the American diggings later became today’s Washington Street.  This was the center of commerce for the miners and later for the City of Sonora.

Sonora’s motto remains the “Queen of the Southern Mines.”  With the discovery of gold, people came from all over the world to Sonora.  Originally many foreign languages were spoken here, such as Mexican, French, German, Italian and Spanish.  By early 1852, Sonora was a far more cosmopolitan town than many other mining camps, with its architecture reflecting its diverse population.

The Bonanza Mine, lying just north of Sonora’s Episcopal or “Red Church” enjoys the reputation of being one of the Mother Lode’s richest pocket mines.  Originally discovered in early 1850s, when free placer gold was extracted, it was not fully developed until 1879 when a pocket of gold was encountered worth an estimated $250,000.  They encountered other rich leads throughout the life of the mine.

California passed legislation in February, 1850 dividing the state into 27 counties and designated a seat of government for each county.  Sonora was designated the county seat, but citizens were upset to find their assemblyman had changed the name of the town to reflect his own name, Stewart.  A petition was signed and amendment was passed naming Sonora the county seat of Tuolumne County.   

On September 9, 1850, California became the 31st state.  The City of Sonora was incorporated on May 1, 1851 and has always been the county seat of Tuolumne County.  There are only ten cities in the State of California that have been incorporated longer. 

During the late 1860s the population of the area declined as men left to serve in the Civil War and as placer gold was exhausted.  During the 1860s and 1870s, thousands of Chinese miners came to work the abandoned placer mines.  Many remained to seek other types of work.  They populated the area east of Stewart Street, between Lyons and East Bradford streets.  This area was previously occupied by Hispanics and known as “Tigre”, but as the Chinese became numerous the area was knows as Sonora’s “Chinatown”.

Up until the early 1900s gold mining was very important to Sonora’s economy.  In the later part of the 1800s a second gold rush occurred when new mining methods were used to more profitably extract the gold.  Also, in the late 1880s, the lumber industry became a major contributor to Sonora’s vitality.  The Standard Lumber Company incorporated by D. H. Steinmitz was originally headquartered in Sonora and eventually moved to a company town, Standard.  In 1908, they were awarded a $1 million box contract by Fruit Grower Company in Los Angeles.  The Sierra Railway exported lumber products to the national rail network by way of Oakdale, California.  When you tour Sonora you will find that many of our most impressive buildings were constructed from 1880 to 1910. 

Coffill Park:  Located between Washington and Green Streets along Sonora Creek.  After the lot was mined for gold a livery stable was built on the site.  This building burned down in 1900 and was replaced by another livery stable that was able to house 80 horses in the basement (entrance from Green Street) and the upstairs (entered from Washington Street) had space for buggies and additional stalls.  When you visit Coffill Park today you can see the walls of the 1900 basement and picture what the stables looked like.  From a livery stable it developed into an automobile dealership.  It was destroyed by fire in 1970.  Marjorie Coffill, owner of the property, generously donated it to the city to create a park.  In recognition of her contribution it was named Coffill Park. 

Sugg House:  Stands at the southeast corner of Theall and Stewart Streets. Construction on this home began in 1857. William Sugg came to California about 1850 as a slave. He was a harness maker and obtained his freedom in 1854 “in consideration of the sum of One Dollar and as an act of  benevolence.” William married Mary Elizabeth Snelling in 1855. The home was originally four rooms and is the core of the present building.  It was constructed of adobe brick made on the site. The large bricks formed walls up to 18 inches thick. A layer of regular sized bricks was added to the outside, which was then painted red. Expansions to the home to accommodate the family’s 11 children were of wood. 

Opera Hall: 250 S. Washington Street.  It was constructed from the ruins of the Star Flouring Mill that was originally on the site.  James Divoll and Joseph Bray who owned the Bonanza gold mine, which was located close to where Sonora High School is today, had built the mill in 1879.  Some thought that gold from the Bonanza was stored at the flourmill until it could be transported by wagon to Stockton.  In August 1885, some men broke into the flourmill, probably searching for gold.  A fire was started which destroyed much of the flourmill.  Jacob Bray, the night watchman, and Joseph’s brother were killed in the fire.  Instead of rebuilding the flourmill, Divoll and Bray decided to use the remaining brick walls in the construction of the Opera Hall.  On Christmas Eve 1885, a roller skating party was held as the inaugural event.  At that time roller-skating was very popular with adults and children.  The City of Sonora acquired the building in 1985 and was able to restore it with grants from the State of California and donations from private individuals. 

Tuolumne County Courthouse:  41 West Yaney Avenue.  Construction was started in 1898.  This three-story Roman pressed brick building was erected on the site of the first courthouse, an 1853 wooden building.  This building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Tuolumne County Museum: 158 Bradford St.  Rich history of Tuolumne County is on display in what was the site of the county jail from 1857 to 1961.  

Sonora Fire Museum:  125 N. Washington Street at Rother’s Corner.   Collections of photographs and other memorabilia are on display from Sonora’s volunteer fire companies, which have been in existence since the 1850s.  The 1876 hand pumper is one of the feature pieces of equipment.

Shay Engine #3: Located at the entrance to the Mother Lode Fairgrounds.  Shay #3 was put into operation in 1910 as part of the Sugar Pine Railway, the steam-logging railroad of the Standard Lumber Company, which was succeeded by the Pickering Lumber Company.  The standard gauge, two truck, 60-ton locomotive pulled many flatcars of logs from the rich timberlands of the Sierra Nevada east of Sonora.

Woods Creek Park:  Located on Stockton Road, across from the Mother Lode Fairgrounds.  The park has picnic tables and children’s play area.  At the end of the park is the beginning of Dragoon Gulch Trail. This trail will take you though some old mining areas and up the side of a hill giving you some wonderful views of Sonora’s historic downtown.

Prospector Park:  Corner of Bradford St. and Linoberg Streets.  Representations of early mining techniques can be viewed: an arrastra, one of the earliest mining methods, a stamp from a stamp mill and a pelton wheel that was used to provide waterpower.  There are illustrated displays to explain how each method worked.