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Mariposa, Calif.

The Gold Rush lives on in a Sierra foothill town outside Yosemite.

Mariposa County courthouse, Mariposa, Calif.
Photo caption
The stately Greek revival courthouse: still active after all these years.

First thing Monday mornings, Gary Meyer climbs the clock tower of the Mariposa County Courthouse and gives the clock crank exactly 52 turns. "Fifty-two on Monday, 45 on Wednesday, 40 on Friday," says Meyer, an employee in the Department of Public Works. "It’s not the most glamorous job in the world." Still, he’s doing more than keeping a clock running. He’s also keeping history alive.

The courthouse has stood on this grassy rise above the town of Mariposa, Calif., since 1854, when the glitter of gold lured tens of thousands of prospectors to the Sierra. At that time, the young state urgently needed courts to settle sometimes violent disputes over mining claims. Much of the nation’s Mining Law of 1872 was written here, in the sugar pine–paneled chambers where lawyers argue cases today; this is the oldest county courthouse in continuous use in California.

Like its courthouse, Mariposa, located about 40 miles northeast of Merced on Highway 140, balances the past and present with grace. The downtown preserves more than a dozen buildings that early prospectors would have known well. Stroll by the Schlageter Hotel and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Hall, both rebuilt in 1867 after a fire swept through the frontier town. Small wonder that the 1858 jail remains standing: Its granite walls are two feet thick. From a wooded hill nearby, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, dedicated in 1863, presides with austere beauty. The graveyard behind, dotted with headstones that often mark tragically short lives, attests to the hardships faced by early pioneers, many of them immigrants.

Beaver Creek Sales & Equipment Rentals (209-966-8165) has prospecting gear—and advice. A good spot to pan for gold, locals say, is on the Merced River at Briceburg, 15 miles north of Mariposa on Highway 140.

Mariposa is far more than a museum, though. Its handsomely restored Gold Rush era buildings house a lively collection of galleries for local painters and photographers, several fine restaurants, an artisan doll maker, a shop that sells locally handmade shoes, and a whatever-you-need-we-got-it hardware store. You’ll also see the offices of the Mariposa Gazette, the state’s oldest weekly newspaper that hasn’t missed an edition since it began printing, the same year the courthouse was built.

A few blocks north of the old downtown, the Mariposa Museum and History Center provides glimpses of what the place must have looked and felt like during the time of the forty-niners. Items donated by pioneer families fill the exhibits, which include recreations of two early saloons plus a drugstore, one-room schoolhouse, and prospector’s cabin. Scattered throughout are excerpts from letters written by Horace Snow, a miner who came to Mariposa from Massachusetts in 1854. One of them describes another kind of rush, when mail for homesick miners arrived at the post office: "We were all crowded up around the counter six or eight deep and the person that stood next to me was so excited that I could feel his heart beat against my side."

See the 1865 Fricot Nugget—a 13.8-pound chunk of crystallized gold—at the California State Mining and Mineral Museum. Highway 49 South, (209) 742-7625.

A carefully preserved stamp mill on the museum’s grounds, once used to crush quartz for gold, still operates on occasion; its five half-ton weights drop through scaffolding with a chest-thumping boom. "Back in the 1850s, when dozens of stamp mills were operating, people could find their way to Mariposa just by the noise they made," explains Ron Loya, a mining expert.

At the fairgrounds, 1.8 miles south of town, the California State Mining and Mineral Museum displays a dazzling collection of items from around the world, including California’s state gemstone. Any guesses? It’s benitoite, named after San Benito County, the only place in the world where large deposits of this blue stone can be found. The museum also boasts a 175-foot replica of a mine tunnel and a working miniature stamp mill.

Take a break from local history and check out the new nature walk on the banks of Mariposa Creek a block west of downtown. For longer hikes, the county has trails aplenty. In spring, brilliant displays of wildflowers dot the landscape. You’re likely to find hummingbirds, since the area is a popular flyway. The name Mariposa means "butterfly" in Spanish, which is fitting; warm weather also brings the colorful flutter of thousands of butterflies. For today’s visitors, as for those of yesteryear, the region’s natural beauty is as good as gold.

Photography by John Elk III

This article was first published in March 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.