It was written: "Gamblers, girls and roughnecks...they were a tough lot,the worst in the southern mines. They reverenced nothing but money, cards and wine...blood was upon nearly every doorstep and the sand was caked in it." Hornitos. Gold Camp.
The streams in the area were first worked in 1849, and by the following year a sizable camp had been established near Burns Creek. The town's early population was made up of Mexicans who had been driven out of neighboring Quartzburg by their American counterparts, who considered any non-whites "foreigners" with no right to own a mining claim. This was usually just an excuse for the Americans to take over any rich diggings being worked by other nationalities. In this case; however, the Mexican miners had the last laugh as Hornitos became one of the most prosperous towns of the Southern Mines, at one time being the only incorporated town in Mariposa County. Meanwhile, the placers at Quartzburg soon played out and that camp dwindled away to nothing.
The ground in this vicinity is very hard and rocky. As a result, the original Mexican residents preferred to bury their dead in above ground tombs built of rock and adobe. These small, some-shaped mounds somewhat resembled the common outdoor ovens used for baking break in Mexico and the Southwest, thus the graves were known as hornitos, meaning 'little ovens' in Spanish. Soon the word was being used to refer to the town as well, and Hornitos was born.
Gold, it seems, is always brighter on the other side of the county. Oddly enough, when miners heard of a new strike they would often abandon well-paying claims to head out for the new diggings, in hopes of richer dirt. This was exactly the case with Hornitos. Shortly after the newly discovered gold was traded at Mariposa for supplies, the location of the new strike was determined and a rush was on to Hornitos.
The camp grew quickly and its Spanish heritage is still apparent in the many building which remain from the days of gold. Built around a central plaza, rock and adobe buildings lined the narrow streets running out from the center of town. During its prime, Hornitos is said to have had a population of over ten thousand, although the actual figure is undoubtedly quite less. The town supported four hotels, six fraternal lodges and organizations, a post office, six general merchandise stores, a Wells Fargo Express office, and numerous saloons and fandango halls. Several of the infamous fandangos were built underground and lined the road leading to the plaza. These subterranean saloons were all connected by doors so patrons could roam from one to another without the inconvenience of having to step outside, where they might be seen.
During those early years, Hornitos was known throughout the mines as a "lawless, wild place, the scene of nearly unbelievable tales of knife duels, lynching and other grim escapades." A man named Joseph Branson happened to witness an interesting event in the plaza during his youth. Two fandango hall girls apparently had a romantic interest in the same man, resulting in heated words and tarnished honor. To settle the matter, the two women armed themselves with daggers, wrapped their left arms in the scarfs and then proceeded to mortally carve each other up, much to the enjoyment of the bloodthirsty, cheering crowd.
Mining was hard work, very hard work. And when the mining was done the miners was ready for some fun. If he wasn't watching a knife duel or hanging, he was probably drinking or gambling away his hard earned poke in one of the saloons or fandango halls which never seemed to close. Bull and bear fights were sometimes staged to created a little excitement and occasionally the furious chicken race known as La Carrera del Gallo might occur. This time honored sport consisted of tying a $10 gold piece to the leg of a live chicken, then burying the unlucky fowl with just its head exposed. The object of the contest, open to anyone willing to pay the entry fee, was to snatch the chicken from the ground while galloping past on a horse. When someone succeeded in grabbing the chicken, the other riders would try to chase him down and wrest the chicken, and the purse, from his grasp. Afterwards, the chicken was eaten.
In 1853, a man named John Studebaker arrived in Hornitos and worked as a blacksmith. After earning a bit of money, he moved on to Hangtown to make wheelbarrows and wagons for the miners. Another early day Hornitian to later become famous was Domenico Ghirardelli who ran a general supply store here during the mid-1850s. After selling his business, he moved to San Francisco to devote his full attention to another business venture, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company.
Joaquin Murieta, notorious badman of the Southern Mines, was reputedly a frequent visitor to the mining camp during its wild and crazy years. Legends say he robbed by day, then slipped into town by night to share a drink with the ladies of the fandango, keeping extra horses in a secret corral should the law happen to make an appearance.
The only things making much noise in Hornitos today are the dogs and a squeaky windmill on the north side of town. Being located off the main roads accounts for the quiet, sleepy feel of the town and is most likely responsible for the good number of Gold Rush era buildings and ruins which remain.
Hornitos is located thirteen miles off Hwy 49 via the Old Toll Road, which branches off Hwy 49 just north of Mount Bullion.
The Old Toll Road from Mount Bullion to Hornitos is a consolidation of two early-day toll roads, the Zinkand and the Burkhalter. It winds through hills, along streams, midst the oak and chaparral, the only difference today being parts of the road are paved and cattle rather than miners roam the fields and ravines.
The Hornitos Schoolhouse sits a little ways off the Hornitos Road, just before the road forks off to enter the town itself. Built during the 1860’s, the school served the town and surrounding area for many years before the present school building was erected.
The Masonic Lodge was built in 1852 of adobe and native stone which came from nearby rock exposures. At the time of its construction, it was a different kind of fraternal building, known as the High Tone Saloon. As the wild days were coming to an end and the town was growing more civilized, a saloon every hundred feet or so was no longer necessary. The Masons purchased the building for a meeting hall in 1860, and thanks to the special sanction of the Grand Lodge, were allowed to hold their meetings on the ground floor, the only lodge in California so permitted. Legend has it that one day the Masons decided to add a basement to the building. Bids were solicited, with one bidder offering to do the work for nothing. Naturally, he got the job. And by taking every wheelbarrow of dirt down to the creek, he reportedly panned upwards of $8,000 worth of gold from the basement he was digging for free.
The Pacific Saloon is one of the original buildings that once faced the Mexican-style plaza around which Hornitos was built. Built of simple adobe construction in 1851, it was then the favorite meeting place of large groups of French miners who were working the area. Samuel McClatchy purchased the saloon in 1862, dolling up the aging building by removing its old canopy and adding the brick trim around the door, windows, and corners. The finished result was so elegant that the miners afterwards referred to it as “The Bank.”
Merck's Bakery and Saloon is the thick-walled adobe building adjoining the Pacific Saloon at its rear. Built in 1851 for use as a general store, it was sold to a French lady by the name of Mrs. Merck in 1860 for use as a bakeshop and saloon.
The Cassaretto Store was built in 1851 of stone and adobe, the outer walls were later coated with a lime mortar. Originally a Mexican store, an Italian named Cassaretto bought the building in the 1850’s, added the iron doors and then stocked it with miners’ necessities. The so-called Murieta Tunnel ran under the street from the basement of this store to Rosie’s Fandango. The legend goes that friends of Murieta built the tunnel so that he could make a quick exit from the town should a peace officer appear unannounced. A short distance away was the secret stone corral where Joaquin generally kept his getaway horses. While this is a romantic story, it’s more likely that the tunnel was dug and used for storage of beer barrels and other fandango necessities, rather than a secret escape route. Nothing is left of Rosie’s two-story Fandango today, but the crumbling tunnel entrance is still visible beneath the shady tree on Main St.
The Gagliardo & Co. Store is a bit farther down Main Street. This large brick building with its heavy iron doors supplied the inhabitants of Hornitos with various and assorted sundries, many of which can still be viewed today at the Mariposa County History Center in Mariposa. The front room of the museum recreates the general store, displaying the merchandise much in the manner as it was back in the old days.
The Opium Den, which today resembles a weathered old barn more than anything else, was at one time a frequent retreat for many of the Chinese miners who once worked in this vicinity. The back wall of the room was lined with bunks upon which the opium users would recline as they smoked themselves into oblivion, perhaps dreaming of the day when they could return home.
The Ghirardelli & Co. Ruins are among the most interesting remnants left from the early days throughout the Gold Country. Once consisting of several rooms and levels, this large, sprawling ruin was originally built in 1855 of dressed schist and adobe walls. After selling his trading post on the Stanislaus River, Domenico Ghirardelli trekked to Hornitos in response to the wild tales of rich strikes which had been circulating about the country. Hoping to cash in on some of that gold for himself, Ghirardelli planned to open a general supply store to serve the miners’ needs. After three years of successful operation, Ghirardelli sold his business and moved to San Francisco to devote his full attention to the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company he had previously established. After his departure, a brick upper story was added to the building and the Odd Fellows Lodge was then located on the second floor. The lower floor was then used for an amusement hall and saloon.
The Hornitos Jail rests on solid bedrock, it isn't going anywhere and neither did its occupants; there was only one recorded escape. Chinese coolies were employed to quarry native granite in the nearby hills, cart the blocks to High Street and begin construction of the town jail. Erected flush against a guardhouse, the stone jail was built solidly, the walls measure fourteen by fourteen feet square and are over two feet thick, as visible around the massive iron door which was imported from England. The two tiny windows, each one foot square, were located on opposite walls to allow a nice cross breeze. In order to better secure the prisoners, a huge iron ring was embedded in the center of the floor to which they could be chained “low down.” And for those more dangerous felons, iron rings were located in each corner for securing the leg irons of the shackled miscreants. The jail may seem small, but it was only used to hold prisoners, generally overnight, until the local Justice of the Peace heard the case. If the prisoner was to be held for trial, he would then be transferred to the jail in Mariposa.
The next morning they found China John, lying broken on the floor in a pool of blood, beneath the small, barred window, the hangman’s noose knotted around his neck. Somehow the men had lured him to the window, perhaps with the offer of drugs or tobacco. Once there, he was grabbed and held as the noose was slipped over his head and pulled tight against his throat. Then with repeated jerks and pulls on the rope, China John’s brains were bashed out against the rock wall. Even for Hornitos, this was a wanton, brutal murder which shocked the citizens upon its discovery. Those responsible were never brought to justice. The evidence of this vicious crime remained visible for many years in the form of bloodstains on the wall of the jail. But in 1902 a coating of lime was applied to the inside walls and the tell-tale marks were covered from view.
St. Catherine’s Catholic Church watches over the town of Hornitos from a little knoll rising behind the old jail. Built in 1862, there isn’t another building quite like it in all the Gold Country. The church was built of wood along simple classic lines, and then made unique by the addition of stone buttresses on each side of the building, to help hold the walls in place. Perhaps the builders were fearful of strong winds, although more likely, they envisioned a long life for their church and wished to help it stand for the years to come.
A walk through the cemetery behind St. Catherine’s will reveal the last, crumbling remains of one of the original hornitos, the above ground rock and adobe graves which gave the mining camp its name. On a nearby grave is an old wire cross which is said to be one of the town’s oldest remaining relics. The headstones in the cemetery relate just how world-wide an event the Gold Rush really was, as miners of many different nationalities made this old mining camp their final resting place.