Hiram Hughes was fed up with the Silver Rush. Leaving the mines of Nevada’s Comstock Lode, he returned to Calaveras County in 1860 and began prospecting for gold along Gopher Ridge. Noticing a resemblance in the rock formations here to those of the Washoe region in Nevada, he staked a claim on Quail Hill that May. Hiram worked the claim, turning up small amounts of gold and silver, and a lot of reddish colored ore referred to by the local miners as “iron rust.”
Later that year, Hiram’s ten year old son, William Napoleon Bonaparte Hughes, discovered vast amounts of the iron rust ore on nearby Hog Hill. Curious to determine what the stuff was, Hiram sent a sample to San Francisco to be assayed, where the ore was found to contain a high copper content worth $120 per ton. Father and son immediately claimed as much of Hog Hill as possible and named the claim the Napoleon, after the boy. When word of the discovery became known, speculators, miners, and merchants headed for Grasshopper City, later called Telegraph City, and the copper rush was on.
Copperopolis, originally known as Copper Canyon during its first year of existence, was also founded in 1860, at the site of the second big discovery of copper ore in the region. William K. Reed, Dr. Allen Blatchly, and Thomas McCarty discovered and located a rich claim they called the Union. It was situated about five miles northeast of the Napoleon claim and within a year was producing vast amounts of copper ore. Before long, several other claims had been established, including the Keystone, Consolidated, Empire, Webster, Kentucky, and the Calaveras. Located in the famous Copper Canyon District, the claims, the men they employed, and the businesses needed to provide what the miners needed, are what formed Copperopolis. With such a great influx of miners into the region, it wasn’t long before a mining district was formed and a set of mining laws adopted for the area. This took place on August 3 of 1860, and the laws allowed each miner to file one claim by location on a lead or vein of 150 feet in length and 300 feet in width. A miner discovering a new vein was entitled by the right of discovery to an extra claim of the same extent.
The town grew rapidly, enjoying immense prosperity from 1860 to 1867. The center of town, known as “The Plaza,” was located across from the Armory. From there, Main Street runs about one and a quarter miles northwest to the end of town, paralleling the rich copper lead. During the copper boom, this road was lined solid with buildings of all shapes and sizes, offering the population anything they might desire. Many of the brick buildings were constructed from bricks hauled in from Columbia, where the buildings were being torn down so the miners could mine the ground underneath.
An estimated two to four thousand inhabitants called Copperopolis home during these years, during which it contains several hotels, numerous saloons, billiard parlors, churches,schools, apothecaries, barber shops, restaurants, livery stables, rooming housed,telegraph office, race track, armory, fraternal organizations, and a newspaper, The Copperopolis Courier, which was published weekly by L.W. Ransom and J.O. Bean. Four different stages made scheduled stops here, including a few robbed by Black Bart.
Copperopolis owed much of its prosperity to the Civil War, as tremendous amounts of copper were needed for shells and bullets. But getting the copper to the Union forces was in itself a tremendous task. In 1863, William Reed built a toll road over which ox teams hauled $1.6 million in copper ore that first year. The ore was then taken to Stockton, shipped downriver to San Francisco, loaded onto sailing ships, taken around Cape Horn, to finally arrive at smelters in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. The copper was then available for use by the Union Army. The war also brought a lot of publicity to Calaveras County as the region (which included Copperopolis, Telegraph City, and Campo Seco) became the second largest copper producing district under northern control during the Civil War. Due to this publicity, mining shares of the principal claims skyrocketed. In 1863, shares in the Union Mine sold for $25,000 or $170 a foot. By 1864, the Union Mine was valued at $2 million. When the war finally ended; however, and the price of copper fell from 55 cents per pound to 19 cents, the mine’s future didn’t look so bright. To make matters even worse, mining costs and shipping expenses were increasing, and by 1867 the copper mines lay idle. It was just too expensive to mine.
By 1870, only 170 persons were living in Copperopolis. During the 1880’s; however, the population increased somewhat as the Union and Keystone mines became active once again after being purchased by a Boston conglomerate. Work was done on the shafts and a one hundred-ton furnace was erected. The mines of Copperopolis continued to produce over the years, with boom periods occurring during the two World Wars. The U. S. Bureau of Mines credits the mines of Copperopolis with 72,598,883 pounds of copper from 1861 to 1946. That’s over $12 million worth of copper.
Copperopolis may not have been a gold town, but it was a mining town. The mines, tailing piles, tracks, old buildings, and cemeteries here are extremely interesting to wander about in. There are also several ruins in the area, small stone structures in varying stages of rubble, which give rise to speculation about the purpose they once served. Home, saloon, mercantile, outlaw roost, mine office, storehouse. Who knows, but it’s fun to guess. Luckily for visitors today, several of the town’s historic structures have undergone restoration, enabling us to catch a glimpse backwards in time of old Copperopolis.
Copperopolis is located twelve miles southwest of Altaville via Hwy 4, between the slopes of the Bear Mountain Range on the east and Gopher Ridge on the west. It's a very nice drive through rolling hill,on a well-maintained highway.
The Congregational Church is as fine an example of Gothic Revival architecture as exists in the Mother Lode. Built of brick in 1866, the lot upon which it stands was purchased the previous September from a Mr. J. M. Pike. The Reverend M. A. Starr assisted in raising the $12,000 needed for the construction, and also served as the first minister. The church was dedicated on June 23 of 1866, by the Reverend Mr. Beckwith of San Francisco. When the mines began to slow down, the church experienced a drop in membership and the building was leased to the Presbyterians for several years. It was used once again by the Congregational Church from 1874 to 1895. Following several years of vacancy, the Mineral Lodge of the I.O.O.F. purchased the building in 1903 for use as their lodge room. It remained thus until it was given to the community of Copperopolis in 1939.
The Armory (building on the right) is another fine specimen of Gold Rush architecture; its massive iron doors are among the largest to be found in the Gold Country. Built in 1864 by public subscription, at a cost of over $8,000, the brick building served as the armory and training center for the Copperopolis Union Guard Third Brigade during the Civil War. Enlistment records show that eighteen Copperopolians joined the Union forces during the war. The building was sold a few years after its completion for $800 in gold. In 1875, the I.O.O.F. acquired the building. Recently restored, the structure currently serves as a community hall.
The Copper Consolidated Mining Company Office is the large brick building located next to the Armory. Built during the 1860’s, this two-story building has a large basement area and was used by the mining company as an office building. William Reed may have operated a store here during the town’s early years. A coating of whitewash or plaster once covered the building, but time and the elements have been at work, and the red bricks used in its construction are now visible over much of the building. Restoration efforts are underway.
The Union Mine Warehouse and a small Store Building made up the small structure located across from the mine office. The brick structure served as a store for a man named Honigsberger and later as the Union Mine's warehouse, while the small frame, sheet-metal-covered building adjoining it was used for a variety of functions, including a store, saloon, and laundry. The two buildings have recently been restored.
The Waste Dumps of the Union Mine, huge, grey heaps of rubble, are visible on the other side of Main Street. Dotted with pieces of old timbers, the piles are made up of waste rock from the mine and consist of many different rocks and minerals.
The Copperopolis Cemetery is unique from other Gold Country boneyards in that it is actually four cemeteries in one; Masonic, I.O.O.F., Presbyterian, and Catholic. The cemeteries are separated by low stone walls, in which gates allow access from one to another. The graves date back to the early 1860s, and many of the town's pioneers are buried here, including William Reed, the man who discovered copper in Copperopolis. Another notable grave belongs to William Shepley, whose epitaph has gained some measure of renown in this graveyard of old bones where squirrels keep the dead company. Carved in Shaws Flat and possibly of Columbia marble, the tombstone reads:
Stop traveler and cast an eye
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now so you must be
Therefore prepare to follow me!
Prepare for death make no delay
I in my bloom was snatched away
When death did call me to depart
I left my friends with aching heart.