The settlement known as Calaveritas, which means “little skull” in Spanish, was originally two separate camps known as Lower Calaveritas and Upper Calaveritas, located about a mile or so apart on Calaveritas Creek.
Lower Calaveritas was the first camp, established in 1849 by Mexican miners. It quickly became known as a wild and dangerous place and soon rivaled nearby Yaqui Camp as a hangout for badmen and desperados.
Upper Calaveritas was founded in the fall of 1850 by William Workman, an American miner from nearby Angels Camp. Workman had camped overnight with his ox team and in the morning did a bit of prospecting. He discovered gold and before long many miners were working the gravel deposits along the creek and adjacent hillsides.
While Upper Calaveritas prospered, Lower Calaveritas did not. It faded away as quickly as it had appeared, joining the ranks of hundreds of other such ghost camps.
By 1853, Calaveritas was a well-established mining camp with one livery stable, two butcher shops, several general stores, restaurants, saloons, gambling halls, and fandango houses. A contemporary account of the typical fandango hall gives us a glimpse as to its attractions: “In the simon-pure Fandango the air is stifling; oxygen, like virtue and all decency, has long before taken flight. Upon the scene the tallow candles cast a feeble glare, and the smoke of cigaritos and cheap and bad cigars fills the room with a dim haziness. Through the murky gloom the dancers are moving with a perfect looseness, a crowd of men, spectators of the scene, line the sides of the apartment, while the perspiring guitarist and the catgut-torturing fiend of the violin lustily horrify the drowsy ear of night with uncouth sounds from their dyspeptic instruments.”
By 1857, the camp’s population had reached its peak, with the majority of its estimated eight hundred inhabitants being either Mexican or Chinese. The following year, many of them became homeless as the town suffered a disastrous fire on the third of August, from which it never fully recovered. Apparently upset over losing his gold dust in a card game, a vindictive gambler named Shelton set fire to a vacant building located next to the gambling establishment. Fifty-one buildings were destroyed at a loss of over $35,000. Only a few buildings escaped the flames and as the placers were almost played out by this time, most of the burned buildings were not replaced. The miners moved on to richer diggings and Calaveritas was practically deserted, a few families remaining and such is the town today.
Calaveritas is located five miles from San Andreas via Mountain Ranch Road, and then Calaveritas Road.
The Luigi Costa Store is the only Gold Rush survivor left in Calaveritas. Costa arrived in Calaveritas in 1851, this adobe building was built in 1852. It may have been operated at one time by an early merchant named John Sharp. During Costa’s proprietorship, the building was used as a butcher shop, a distillery, a general merchandise store, and various other enterprises for a total of fifty years. Descendants of the Costas have preserved this handsome building over the years, and its beautiful location amidst the green rolling hills make it well worth a short side-trip off the main highway.
The Stone Monument located near the Costa Store relates a brief tale of the town's mining years.