While prospecting the gulches between Deer and Moccasin creeks in 1849, James D. Savage and his party camped one night on a wide flat beneath a large oak tree. The next morning’s panning uncovered rich placers and the prospectors decided to stay. Savage employed a large number of friendly Indians (he reportedly had several Indian wives) to work the streams and surrounding gullies, paying them in merchandise from his trading post.
Within a few months, the place was crowded with miners and a new gold camp had been born, appropriately named Savages Diggings. The miners found that the gold-bearing gravels in the area were substantial, varying in depth from two to twenty feet, too rich to be worked out in a few months and then abandoned for better diggings. As a result, permanent structures were built; trading posts, hotels, saloons and gambling houses. Mail delivery began, brought in from Chinese Camp on pack animals, and on June 21 of 1852, the camp’s own post office was established. The town was thriving.
Savage didn't stay around long enough to see the town boom; he left the area about a year after his arrival, due to friction between the miners and his Indian wives. Shortly after his departure, the town was renamed Big Oak Flat in honor of the big oak—Quercus lobata—which stood on the only level part of the camp. Thought to be the largest oak in California, its diameter was thirteen feet at the base, eleven feet at a man’s head.
During the mid-1850s, the town enjoyed a renewed period of prosperity when a rich vein was discovered between Big Oak Flat and Deer Flat. A ditch was later built to bring in the additional water needed to work the mines and the area boomed again. The total placer and lode mining production of the Big Oak Flat area is estimated at $25 million.
The mammoth oak, once the distinguishing feature of the area, suffered an untimely fate at the hands of greedy gold-mongers. Even though the tree was protected by a town ordinance, stealthy miners removed enough soil to pan from around its roots that it eventually died as a result. The tree was further decimated in the great fire of 1863, which destroyed most of the town and left the oak but a charred trunk of its former self. In 1869 the top fell off. Years later, a camper sheltering at its base accidentally set fire to the remains and then fled in terror at what he had done.
Big Oak Flat can be reached by turning east onto Hwy 120 from Hwy 49, just past the Moccasin Creek Power Plant which supplies electricity to San Francisco. Prior to this point, Hwy 49 follows Moccasin Creek, so named by early miners who believed the stream’s numerous water snakes to be poisonous water moccasins. This stretch of highway is remarkable for the piles and piles and piles of stones seen along the banks which attest to the unbelievable amount of hand labor expended recovering gold from the river gravels and bedrock. Look at all those rocks and remember, each one had to be lifted from the river bed, carried away from any area that was to be worked, and then piled into these vast expanses stretching literally for miles. And many of those rocks are heavy. I know, I've tried moving them.
The old Priest Grade follows what was the original wagon path leading up the mountain from Moccasin Creek to Priests Station, an early stage stop located on Rattlesnake Creek about a mile from Big Oak Flat. Earlier known as the Grizzly Gulch Road, it is shorter, steeper, (climbing some 1575 vertical feet in less than two miles) and scarier than Hwy 120, and if it’s open I definitely recommend it. Back in the old days, stage passengers often had to get out and walk as the grade was so steep the horses couldn't pull a loaded stage up the road.
Big Oak Flat is located eight miles east of Hwy 49 via Hwy 120.
The I.O.O.F. Hall dates from the early 1850’s and was originally two separate, one-story buildings; a close look will reveal where the two butt together. Both stores were built of dressed schist slabs set in lime mortar. Schist was plentiful in the area and proved to be an excellent building material. Lime; however, was scarce and had to be shipped in from a quarry near Sonora. This was an excellent method of construction, utilized by many of the Gold Rush era buildings that still remain in the Southern Mines. The five large iron doors are set in perfectly squared brick frames. The second story was added in 1924 and is reached by a covered outdoor stairway.
The east half of the lower story was built circa 1852 and housed Kent and Grant’s Mercantile. The slightly smaller west half was built in 1854 for Michael Gilbert who operated a grocery store. Both buildings survived the fire of 1863. Unfortunately, this was not the case for the Odd Fellows original building and shortly after the fire they purchased Grant’s store for a meeting hall. Gilbert’s store was obtained sometime during the 1880’s.
The Gamble Block, as it was known during the 1850s and 1860s, is one of the finest and largest stone store buildings remaining in the Gold Country. Completed in 1852, the structure was built for Alexander Gamble, a very successful Gold Rush merchant. Constructed in a similar fashion to the Odd Fellows Hall, of stone, lime mortar, and brick, this large building actually housed three separate stores within. Behind each of the six large iron doors are conventional wooden doors with glass panels. During the day the iron doors would be opened and fastened against the walls, allowing the store’s customers to enter and exit through the inner doors. At night, everything would be locked tight against fire and theft.
Inside the building, a stone wall divides the middle lengthwise and two other partitions divide the space in thirds. The result is three separate stores facing the street, each with a rear room for storage or office space. The building originally had a wooden roof over the porch, which burned; then a corrugated iron roof, which blew off in a windstorm; the porch now gets by with the sky.
A Stone Monument stands across the street from the I.O.O.F. Hall. Inside are displayed the last remaining pieces of the original oak which stood on this spot and gave the camp its name.
The Catholic Church and Cemetery is located on a small hill where it can keep an eye on the town and its parishioners. Established in 1861, Mt. Carmel Catholic Church is one of the oldest and best preserved frame structures in Tuolumne County. It has been renovated and expanded over the years and is kept in an excellent state of repair.