George and Margaret Coulter came west from Pennsylvania in a covered wagon to make their future. Traveling along the Overland Trail, with a stop in Santa Fe for the birth of their son, the Coulters arrived in Stockton in 1849. After a short stay with Charles M. Weber, the founder of that town, the small family left for a place of rich placers known as Solomons Gulch, located on the Merced River. There they pitched a canvas tent and opened a trading post, providing the miners with supplies and provisions.
While operating the trading post at Solomons Gulch, Coulter learned of the need for a trading post at Maxwells Creek, a rich new diggings. He received a letter from Martin Evans, a friend engaged in mining at the new diggings, which read in part, “We camped two days under the oaks near this busy Maxwell Creek. Here are large outcroppings and rich placer diggings. The surroundings are beautiful and I think, healthy, being a little under two thousand feet. There is no store, and I acquaint you with its likelihood as a trading post.”
Coulter had been looking for a nicer area to settle down in and upon learning that the nearest trading point for the miners at Maxwells Creek was Sonora, some thirty miles to the north, he recognized the opportunity. Purchasing additional supplies and a large canvas tent, the Coulters packed up their belongings and set out for Maxwells Creek in the spring of 1850. Upon arriving, Coulter opened up for business by attaching his tent to the limb of a wide branching oak and flying a small American Flag atop his new store. His round, blue tent with the Stars and Stripes flying above became a local landmark to the hundreds of miners working the creek and the place was reportedly called Banderita, meaning “little flag” in Spanish, by the Mexican miners.
Coulter’s store did well and within a year he moved it about a mile east to slightly higher ground where he enlarged the store and put up living quarters in the back. Both Coulter and George Maxwell, for whom the creek was named, were desirous of having the growing settlement bear their name. As the story goes, sticks were drawn to see which name would apply to the town. Maxwell agreed to this arrangement with the condition that if he lost, he would get to name the post office should one ever be established in the vicinity. History shows us who won.
On November 20 of 1852, a post office was established in the area and true to their agreement it was named Maxwells Creek. This lasted until 1872 when the post office’s name was changed to Coulterville. Today the only reminder of George Maxwell is the creek which bears his name. In 1852, the placers were yielding an average of between $15 and $20 per day to the man, not a bad wage for the time. But no matter how rich the placers might be, it was only a matter of time before they would be played out. In this case; however, the loss of the placers was not of much importance as the town was becoming quite an important supply center. Separated from other towns by miles of rugged, steep terrain, the merchants delivered goods to the surrounding mines by pack train. Also, it happened to be sitting squarely atop a three hundred foot wide ledge of one of the richest veins of the Mother Lode. It didn't take long for many rich quartz mines to be established, among them the Louisa, the Penon Blanco, the Malvina, the Potosi, the Tyro, the Virginia, and perhaps the richest of them all, the Mary Harrison. Coulterville quickly gained importance as a hard rock mining center, with many of these quartz mines being worked well into the twentieth century.
In the spring of 1853, Margaret Coulter gave birth to Anna Mary Coulter, the first child born in the settlement. By this time Coulterville’s inhabitants consisted of nine nationalities and numbered near several thousand, with the population of Chinatown being a large portion of that total. The town claimed ten hotels and twenty-five saloons along with the mercantiles, blacksmiths, and other businesses which made up the thriving mining town.
Plagued by fires, Coulterville has burned to the ground three times, always in July, and twenty years apart in 1859, 1879 and 1899. The last fire reportedly started the town’s “Gold Rush of 1899.” The story claims that a former resident of an old adobe building had hidden a poke of gold coins in the walls of his home. Rubble from the burned out ruins was later used to fill potholes in the streets and when the first winter rains arrived, gold coins began to appear in the road. Soon the entire town was out in the streets with picks, shovels, spoons, and saws, digging away with reckless abandon. The streets became impassable.
Even though many of the original buildings have been burned, razed or melted away by the elements, a number of ruins and many historic structures still remain. In fact, Coulterville is a State Historic Landmark with forty-seven designated historic buildings and sites located in the town limits. In 1981 its Main Street was entered into the National Register of Historic Places as every building there, with one exception, dates from the 1800’s and early 1900’s. Coulterville is located on Hwy 49, at the junction of Hwy 132.
Whistling Billy is one of the most noticeable relics from Coulterville’s mining days. The eight-ton Porter Locomotive’s final stop was beneath the branches of the town’s old hanging tree. This little steam engine was shipped around the Horn and came to Coulterville in 1897 by mule team. Purchased by the Merced Gold Mining Company for $3,500, Billy ran on twenty-four-inch gauge track and was capable of hauling fifteen ore cars, each weighing five tons when full. Its four-mile route ran from the Mary Harrison Mine to the “Forty-Stamper” located at Black Creek. It was a steep and twisting climb, for which it earned the title, “Crookedest Railway in the World.” At one point where the track crossed Maxwells Creek, the train was fifty feet high on a wooden trestle.
The Hanging Tree which now shades Whistling Billy rather than the dangling corpse of some badman swinging in the breeze, is a giant gnarly oak which the old-timers insist was once the town’s official hanging tree. Of the many hangings this noble tree has supported, one of the most dramatic occurred at daybreak on March 16 of 1856, when Leon Ruiz was hanged for the vicious robbery and murder of two Chinese miners at Bear Valley, from whose sluice he had stolen more than $600 in gold.
The Coulter Hotel is currently part home to the Northern Mariposa County History Center. When the fire of 1859 destroyed Coulter’s big wooden hotel on the plaza, he immediately began looking for bigger and better quarters. William McCarthy had just completed a large, three-story building which also faced the plaza. The first two floors were stone, the top story was of wood, and a canopied porch ran the length of the front. It was a very elegant building and Coulter quickly rented the structure and reopened his hotel. Alas, the structure burned in the great fire of 1899 and was never rebuilt.
The McCarthy Store and the Wells Fargo Building adjoin the remains of Coulter's Hotel. Built in 1856 of red brick, the buildings still posses their massive iron doors which helped preserve them through the terrible fires of Coulterville's past. Nelson Cody, brother of Buffalo Bill Cody, was the Wells Fargo Agent here during the 1870s and also served for a time as postmaster.
Barrett’s Blacksmith Shop was once the place where local miners would have their tools and mining equipment made and repaired, their horses and mules shod, and their other metallic needs fulfilled. Constructed in the early 1850s, Barrett’s has served as a garage, gas station and grocery store over the years.
The Powder House, built in 1860, was used to store the explosives used at the hard rock mines in the area. Very few powder houses remain standing today, due to the volatile nature of the contents they housed, and for this reason they were usually located on the outskirts of town. This is the only known example in Mariposa County were adobe materials were used in the construction, most were built either of brick or stone.
The E.E. Warne Store is one of the most unique buildings in Coulterville today. Originally built in the 1860s, the building housed Warne’s general store on the bottom floor while the top story was leased to the Knights of Pythias for a meeting hall. It was destroyed in the great fire of 1899 but was rebuilt shortly afterwards with side walls of quarried stone and a wooden false front and balcony.
The Bruschi Brothers General Store was first constructed as a warehouse for Francisco Bruschi’s thriving mercantile business. Bruschi and his wife Rosa came to California by way of Panama, first arriving in San Francisco where Francisco taught German and French while learning the cobbler’s trade. Arriving in Banderita shortly after Coulter in 1850, the Bruschi’s put up a tent and opened for business. Francisco repaired boots for the miners while Rosa baked pies which sold for an expensive price. As business was good, the couple hired laborers to enclose their tent with stone walls and a roof, creating their first real building. The following year Bruschi built a second store, this one of bricks hauled in from Stockton. Expanding their business to include mining supplies, Francisco then began to deliver supplies to the miners with the aid of a pack train of burros. Fancied up with red tassels and silver bells, Francisco’s pack train was easily distinguishable from his competitors and could be heard jingling down the mountain trails. Bruschi built his third and largest store sometime prior to 1857, and as business was thriving, it became necessary to build a warehouse for his merchandise. After one of the frequent fires gutted his first three buildings, Bruschi converted the warehouse into a store and conducted business there until his death. The warehouse survived the fire due to its thick adobe walls and the layer of dirt above the ceiling, which prevented the flames from entering the building. Only the wooden roof was lost to the flames.
The Gazzola Store’s two large iron doors bar the entrance of anyone wishing to poke around the ruins. Built about 1860, the building originally had two stories and served for a time as a clothing store and the post office. The second story is totally deteriorated and it appears the rest of the ruin may soon meet a similar fate.
The Gazzola Building’s first story was built of stone during eh early 1850s. Giant blocks of ice hauled in by wagon from Yosemite were stored in an ice room here, providing cool drinks well into summer for the saloon patrons, an enticement most of the other saloons in town could not offer. The second story, constructed of wood, was built after the fire of 1899 and served as a fandango hall and hotel.
The Commissiona Store dates back to the 1870s when the main portion of the structure was built. The building housed a general store which was operated by a Mrs. Commissiona for many years. The stone portion of the building was added at a later date and used as a warehouse for the store.
The Sun Sun Wo Store is the lone remnant of one of the Mother Lode’s largest Chinatowns. Built in 1851, the store’s adobe walls were formed of soil which came from its basement excavation. Several inches of dirt were placed over the beamed ceiling which helped insulate those inside from winter cold and summer heat. It also made the ceiling fire resistant which accounts for the structure being one of the few buildings in Coulterville to survive the 1899 fire intact. The store is named after its original owners, Mow Da Sun and his son Sun Kow. It was the largest store in Coulterville under Chinese ownership, filling extensive orders from the surrounding mines and ranches, not just the local Chinatown. The store remained in continuous operation from 1851 to 1926 and the original shelves and counters are still inside. At the rear of the building are storerooms, a blacksmith shop and the store’s office. Strong evidence points to part of the office being used as an opium den. It is located on the corner of Kow and Main, across from the goats.
The Ching Cemetery Site is located behind the Sun Sun Wo Store. The burial ceremonies of the Chinese were very elaborate, or at least very different from what the Americans had ever witnessed. For this reason a local grade school teacher would take her class to watch the ceremonies from under and oak tree at the intersection of Hwy J20 and Broadway St. As the Chinese believed that the souls of their deceased could not find rest buried in foreign soil, they would later remove the remains and ship them back to China when financially able. Thus there are very few Chinese graves visible today which date to the Gold Rush.
The Canova Storehouse was built in 1870 by Mexican Stone masons. Constructed of schist stone, mud and mortar, its walls are three feet thick, making the building virtually fire-proof as its presence today relates.
The Jeffery Hotel is undoubtedly the most impressive structure in Coulterville today. You can’t miss it. Built in 1851 as a saloon and fandango hall, the building originally had two stories with adobe walls some thirty inches thick. Known then as the Mexican Hotel, it was purchased by George Jeffery in 1852. The Jeffery family owned and operated the hotel for many years, repairing it after each of the disastrous fires which swept through Coulterville. With each rebuilding the hotel grew bigger and better, finally becoming the striking three-story hotel standing today. Being located on the road to Yosemite, the Jeffery Hotel has had its share of distinguished visitors; Theodore Roosevelt dropped by in 1902. Although Jeffery owned and operated the hotel from 1852, he did not receive title to the property until 1878, when a county judge issued property deeds and he was able to officially buy the land on which it stood. George Jeffery is buried in the Public Cemetery, look for the tombstone spelled incorrectly, George “Jeffrey.”
The Public Cemetery, with its intricate rockwork and aging gravestones, rest in peace under shady trees on a small hill on Cemetery Street. George and Margaret Coulter are buried here and a walk through the cemetery will reveal many other names of the early pioneers who helped found and build this town.
The Mary Harrison Mine actually consisted of a number of claims, the first of which was discovered around 1852. In 1853, a French company installed a mill and smelter, but found their process unprofitable. The mine was later successfully operated by a Boston company with a twelve hundred foot shaft, twelve levels, and five thousand feet of drifts. Ore from the mine was hauled four miles to a mill on a stretch of track the locals termed the “crookedest in the world.” The mine was eventually closed in 1904 due to scarcity of wood for fuel, as electricity was unavailable. Total production for the Mary Harrison is reported at $1.5 million. Located about a mile south of Coulterville and three quarters of a mile west of Hwy 49, are the ruins of the Mary Harrison. They consist of a boiler house, a few crumbling retaining walls, and several stone foundations, most of which were constructed either of brick, or with schist slabs quarried from local outcroppings and set in mud mortar.