Also known as Cherokee Flat, Forks in the Road, and Winterton, Altaville was established on Cherokee Creek, northwest of Angels Camp in 1852. According to legend, the area was a favorite haunt of Joaquin Murieta, the bandit, who supposedly spent so much time here that a mountain northwest of the creek was named Joaquin Mountain. While rich pockets of gold, the "richest of the state," were discovered here in 1854, the gold only lasted a short time. The town was also an important point for supplies and machinery; however, which enabled it to survive even after the gold was gone. The camp eventually became a part of Angels Camp as that town continued to grow and expand into the outlying areas.
Altaville achieved a measure of notoriety for being the starting place of what many consider to be the Gold Country’s greatest hoax, the Pliocene Skull affair. It occurred in 1866, when a human skull was found deep in the Matson Mine on nearby Bald Hill. The skull was given to Professor J. D. Whitney, then State Geologist, who later presented a paper at a meeting of the California Academy of Sciences at San Francisco in July of 1866. In his paper Whitney claimed that the skull was the remains of a prehistoric man, "dating back to Pliocene times." For years after, the press was full of stories as many scientists were eager to accept the age of the skull, while many others merely scoffed. In 1903, the American Anthropological Society accepted the skull as a genuine relic, but questioned the extreme age attributed to it. One newspaper may have reported the truth when it printed, "The unscientific public hailed the story as a huge joke on the state geologist perpetrated by the fun loving citizens of the camp." Bret Harte’s poem, "To the Pliocene Skull," relates the humorous episode.
The Prince & Garibardi Store was built in 1852 of dressed blocks of rhyolite tuff by B. R. Prince and G. Garibardi. The square, two-story stone building first housed their general merchandise store and was later improved in 1857 by the addition of living quarters on the second floor. The building was also the site of the Prince Undertaking Parlor. An early advertisement read in part: "I will give the service of my elegant plumed hearse free of charge with any coffin worth twenty dollars or more at my establishment. All facilities for embalming at hand."
The Altaville Grammar School was erected in 1858, which makes it one of the oldest grammar schools in California. Built of brick manufactured in a local kiln, the building measures twenty-four feet wide by thirty-six feet long. The land upon which the school originally stood was donated by M. D. Harmon. Most of the funds required to build the school were raised at a dance held in the billiard room of the Prince & Garibardi building, with the furnishings being financed by various social events in the community. An item in the San Andreas Independent of January 8, 1859, notes: "The new schoolhouse is nearly completed. It stands upon a beautiful natural eminence and presents quite a pleasing ornament as well as a useful appendage to the town." It remained in use until 1950. Left alone and abandoned, the building was on the verge of collapse when, in 1981, a campaign was launched to save the historic structure. The Calaveras County Historical Society spearheaded the project, and along with the County of Calaveras, Angels Camp, and local citizenry, helped to raise $28,000 to restore and move the school to its present site near Hwy 49. The 90-ton building was moved in December of 1983, and in 1989 the final restoration was completed. The historical society currently maintains the structure, whose front portion is generally open, allowing visitors a look at the typical schoolroom of the last century.
The Altaville Foundry, the oldest iron foundry in California, was established in Altaville by D.D. Demarest in 1854. It manufactured mining tools and machinery of all sorts, and supplied much of the mining equipment for the entire Mother Lode. All that is left from the original buildings today are a few low walls hidden by shrubbery, located right off the highway in a shopping center parking lot.
Altaville's Protestant and Catholic Cemeteries date back to the early days of the Gold Rush and are located a short distance southwest of Hwy 49 along Stockton Road. This rather interesting epitaph is located on a stone in the Protestant cemetery:
- All you that read with little care,
- And turn away and leave me here:
- Do not forget that you must die,
- And be entombed, as well as I.