A group of French sailors jumped ship in San Francisco Bay, commandeered a small whaleboat, and set sail for the gold mines. Upon reaching a promising location on the Tuolumne River, they commenced mining and were rewarded for their desertion by discovering rich placers. The sailors sent word to friends and relatives and their small camp grew into quite a sizable settlement, known throughout the region as French Bar or French Camp. The year was 1849.
After the disastrous floods of 1851/52 wiped out the diggings, the water-logged citizens gathered what belongings they could find and headed for higher ground. Choosing a spot about one mile upstream on the south side of the river, and above the flood plain, the business of mining was soon resumed. This new site was said to be located on property belonging to Elam Dye, who was operating a sawmill in the area in 1852.
The name of the camp was changed to La Grange on December 2 of 1854, when the post office was established, with Dr. Louis M. Booth as the first postmaster. Meaning “the barn” in French, the origin of this name is unclear. Maybe an inhabitant of the camp was from La Grange, Georgia. Perhaps it was taken from a well-known singer of the late 1840’s and early 1850’s, Anna Caroline de La Grange, Countess of Stankowitch. Perchance a calculating fan of the famous French mathematician, Joseph Louis Lagrange, made his feelings known. Quite possibly, the post office’s location in an old adobe barn had something to do with it.
By 1856, La Grange had become the center of trade for a wide area. The town’s population numbered in the thousands, a substantial portion of whom made up the camp’s Chinatown, where “Feuds were numerous, shooting scrapes were not infrequent and gambling and fan tan the daily practice.” The Miners and Business Men’s Directory listed 215 merchants, miners, artisans, hotel keepers, attorneys and physicians located in town. There were also syrup makers, two brewers, three butchers, a barber, gunsmith, blacksmith, billiard saloon, traders, painters, numerous restaurants, and D. H. Woods, the Daguerrean.
Three stage lines served the busy settlement, offering daily service to such spots as Stockton, Knights Ferry, Mariposa, Montezuma, Chinese Camp, Jamestown, Sonora, and Columbia. The town’s fraternal organizations included a Masonic Lodge which was organized in May of 1856, and the Odd Fellows, who formed Lafayette Lodge No. 65 on June 14 of 1857, the first in the county. The rich bottom lands along the river developed into fine agricultural producers and a flour mill was erected by John Talbot & Co.
La Grange had become an important city, and in January of 1856, it became the county seat of Stanislaus County, which it remained until 1862 when the seat was voted away to Knights Ferry. By this time the easily obtained placer gold had been mined out, and many of the prominent lawyers, merchants and businessmen followed the county seat to Knights Ferry. Mining activity continued well into the 1870’s; however, thanks to some $5 million being spent on the construction of ditches to carry water to nearby hydraulic diggings.
While many of the mining camps of the Gold Country were extinguished by fire, La Grange’s fiend was fire’s foe: Water. Lots of water. Flood. The first freshet coming in the winter of 1851/52, leading to the town being moved to higher ground. In 1856, high waters washed away John Talbot’s flour mill, also doing damage to the farm lands near the river. In the winter of 1861/62, the water rose again. Many Chinese reworking the placers along the river were drowned as the flood swept away everything in its path. Houses were destroyed, crops ruined. Louis Booth, his boy, and their dog spent two nights in a tree as the river raged past below. They were later rescued by a pioneer La Granger, Peter Ducot, seconds before the tree gave way.
The distinction of being the first person legally hanged in Stanislaus County belongs to William Gregory, a miner who stabbed his friend Robert Hall to death in July of 1855. The two men were arguing over a bet that had been called off the night before, which Hall did not believe Gregory would have paid had he lost. Tempers flared, a knife flashed, and a man died. This capacity for violence remained with La Grange for many years. As late as 1912, sheepman Robert L. Bright wore his guns to town, fearful of what the cattlemen might do were he unarmed.
La Grange sits on the side of a low hill, overlooking the Tuolumne River and the valley below. Millions of rocks have been moved here since the town’s beginning, literally no stone left unturned in the manic quest for gold. This mining heritage is evidenced today by extensive tailing piles still visible on the banks of the Tuolumne River and by the several historic Gold Rush buildings that remain in town.
La Grange is located twenty-one miles out of Coulterville via Hwy 132.
The St. Louis Catholic Church is surrounded by a small cemetery, shaded by old trees, and kept company by the wind. Built in 1852 by the French citizens of La Grange, this was the first church of any denomination in Stanislaus County. An old bell mounted near the front door once served to call the townspeople to services. In 1854 it was dedicated by the Catholic Church as a mission. It is located on Floto Street, on a small hill overlooking the town.
The Schoolhouse is also located on Floto Street, up behind the La Grange Hotel. Bret Harte, the author, is said to have taught school in La Grange; if he did it wasn’t in this building. It was built in 1875, long after Harte had left the Gold Country, never to return.
The Old Adobe Building that stands next to the La Grange Monuments is the oldest structure in town. Reportedly built prior to 1850, it served as the camp’s first post office and was possibly responsible for the town’s name. It was later used to stable horses.
The Trading Post Buildings were constructed from local stone in 1850 or ’51, and rank among the earliest buildings in the county. Often the owner of a building would want to give his store a more dignified look. One way to accomplish this was to plaster the front and then groove lines into the plaster, making it appear that the building had been built of quarried blocks. Underneath the smooth exterior of the front wall are stones only somewhat less rough than those making up the sides of these buildings. The large iron doors also added to a prosperous look when kept freshly painted and repaired, besides offering the structure protection from fire and thieves. These two buildings served the town for many years and in many functions: post office, butcher shop, general store, stage stop, Wells Fargo office, bank, and warehouses.
The Jail was built shortly after a fire burned the old county jail and courthouse in 1900. The Clampers helped restore the small wooden jail in 1976.
The I.O.O.F. Hall, a white, two-story structure was built in 1881.