Starvation almost ended this town before it was even started! In 1848, a group of miners from Oregon stopped at Big Bar along the Mokelumne River to test the waters. The placers ended up being so rich that no one wanted to leave their claim to go get more provisions in Stockton. Some of them almost starved to death. It wasn't until a man named Syree was finally persuaded to go get supplies, that he decided to set up a trading post complete with food, supplies and tools. He sold these items out of a canvas tent at very high prices that made up plenty for what he had missed out on in the diggings.
Samuel W. Pearsall was the first to discover gold in Mokelumne Hill, just over on the north side of Stockton Hill. This caused many of the miners to leave their claims at Big Bar and head over when they caught word of the diggings. Not long after, tents covered much of the landscape around the Mok Hill mines. The men were not disappointed. The soil was so rich that many profited up to $20,000 and the claims were limited to only sixteen square feet. The success of Mokelumne Hill attracted gold-seekers from all over hoping to strike it rich. The population was said to reach near 10,000 and was quite diverse, consisting of Americans, Germans, Spaniards, Chinese, Frenchmen, Mexicans, Chileans and many others.
Mokelumne Hill borrowed its name from the river which was named after a Mi-wok Indian village near the valley section of the river. Father Narciso Duran, president of the California Missions, was the first person to record the name of the town in April of 1817. During the Gold Rush era the name was spelled many ways: Moquelemes, Mokelemy, Mokellemos and countless more. Only two years after the initial finding, Mok Hill was one of the largest communities in the region. There were various strikes that proved successful surrounding the camp. The first was named Stockton Hill because there were several trails that passed over it on the way to Stockton. French Hill was named after the “French War” which occurred there in 1851. Sport Hill earned its name for the race track that was located there. Finally, Negro Hill got its name after gold was discovered there by an African American in 1851.
Also in 1851, certain events took a dark and sometimes gruesome turn. Because there was so much gold that was easily extracted, people from all walks of life came looking to strike it rich. Some of these people were quite violent, so robberies and killings were frequent. Even the notorious bandit, Joaquin Murietta, was a usual patron in the gambling halls. There are reports that for seventeen weeks in a row there was at least one man killed each week, usually on Saturday night. Eventually a vigilante committee was formed to help stop the murders and put some order back into the town.
Mokelumne Hill was widely known for other reasons than just being violent. It served as the county seat for Calaveras County from 1852-1866. The mines continued to produce and the population kept growing. In the town there was also a skating rink, rock quarry, race track and even a large brewery! The Chinese had a large population. They had shabby wooden homes built very close to each other on the outskirts of town that created a constant hazard of fire.
Unfortunately there were three destructive fires that burned through Mok Hill and each time, most of the town was destroyed. The first fire occurred on August 24, 1854. It started in Levenson’s Store which was a canvas covered building and incinerated everything in its path except for two stone buildings. The losses were estimated to be over $500,000. When the rebuilding started, they made the structures out of a stone called rhyolite tuff. The next large fire happened on February 26, 1865 and started in the second floor of the Union Hotel. The third large fire virtually destroyed all of the businesses in town as well as a few surrounding homes.
Eventually the gold began to run out in the 1860s and people started to pick up and float elsewhere to try their hand at whatever site was rumored to be prosperous. Even the county seat was changed to nearby San Andreas which further faded the allure of the town, never to regain the importance it once had in its heyday. Today, you can still see the Calaveras County Courthouse and one of the first ever, three story buildings that was the IOOF Hall in the Gold Country. The rest of the town is sprinkled along the hills bypassed from Highway 49.
The historical landmark is located at 8360 Main Street near the post office. Be sure to visit Petroglyphe Gallery which offers contemporary art from North American artists.
Along with Mark Twain’s famous "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" story that spun into an annual fair and Jumping Frog Jubilee, Calaveras County is rich with Gold Rush history and folklore. Remnants of the railroads and Hispanic culture add to the charm of the county located in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Calaveras Big Trees State Park, a preserve of Giant Sequoia trees, and the uncommon gold telluride mineral Calaverite was discovered in the county in 1861, and is named for it.