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Taking You Back in History: Big Oak Flat Fire of 1863, Part 1

By Scott Belser, Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum/Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society

For many coming to Yosemite and Groveland, Big Oak Flat is now little more than a CalTrans sign, gas stations and scattered buildings, and a relatively flat stretch after the steep Priest Grade. Go back 160 years, however, and Big Oak Flat was one of the leading towns of the California Gold Rush – much larger than today’s pleasant small community.

What happened to that earlier Big Oak Flat? In a word: fire. The Great Fire of 1863. A fire that destroyed the town and from which it never really recovered.

The Big Oak root ball, a local attraction

To appreciate the fire’s devastation, one should know just how large and successful Big Oak Flat had become by the 1860s. Big Oak Flat was the site of the first gold find and gold camp in the area. In 1849 – only a year after gold was first discovered near Sacramento – James Savage, a native of Illinois, found gold in Rattlesnake Creek flowing through what is now Big Oak Flat. Savage had actually worked near the gold discovery site (Sutter’s Mill) and quickly moved south along the foothills with the hope of finding gold for himself. He was well-known in the early settler community as one who was friendly with the Native Americans wherever he lived, learning several of their languages and even marrying a number of Native American wives. He established a trading post on Woods Creek (above present-day Jamestown), but resolved to search for gold elsewhere. Reportedly, his Native American contacts led him to a favorable gold site above the Grade where he established his first gold camp. The exact location may never be known for certain, but it was likely to be near the current Miner’s Mart.

The site was rich in ore potential. Promoters of development claimed that the gold-bearing earth was up to 20 feet deep. A number of camps sprang up along the creeks in the area. The first camp uphill was labeled “Garrote” to reflect the hangings that were common in those early lawless days (later re-named “Groveland” by respectable town fathers) while the second camp was “Second Garrote.” Together, they were called “Savage’s Diggings.” However, the largest and richest camp was Big Oak Flat.

The town got its name for a famously large oak tree above the gold claims. Oak trees were an important part of the culture of the Me-Wuk tribe that had lived for centuries in the area providing food, fuel, and shelter. Greedy miners paid no attention, and the area was systematically logged for mining purposes. The namesake “Big Oak” itself was undermined by rapacious miners in search of gold in the dirt below the tree. It fell in 1869 exposing an enormous root ball that was a well-known attraction for locals and tourist alike.

The richness of the southern Tuolumne County gold deposits prompted fast growth in the area. Miners flocked in from all over the globe. Early gold camps were typically very rough places with crude shacks of wood or canvas. Miners would come for the quick riches and then depart nearly as quickly when their fortunes turned downward. Gradually, with continuing mining operations, the miners and those who provided served them (such as merchants, stores, supplies, bankers, restaurants, and entertainers) built sturdier structures. Big Oak Flat became a proper town, incorporating in 1860.

One important requirement for successful gold mining from its earliest days was water. By 1855 community leaders organized a company – Golden Rock Water - to build a water system to bring water from the South Tuolumne River 38 miles to the mine fields in the Groveland – Big Oak Flat area. The first water arrived to Big Oak Flat in March 1860. Ore-bearing areas previously unused could now be productive by employing the water to expose the underlying gold veins.

IN 1860 Big Oak Flat seemed on the cusp of significant success. The population was large for the area and time, with estimates ranging up to 3 or 4 thousand. It had 150 commercial and residential buildings, four hotels, a flourishing “Chinatown” with a Chinese cemetery, an 800-person theater, a Wells Fargo office, and (most notoriously) a number of “fandango houses” where miners could indulge themselves in all types of sins. In 1861 the Mt. Carmel Catholic church was established on the hill above the camp. There was regular transport service from the Central Valley. Some thought it should become the county seat (rather than Sonora, the ultimate choice).

The winter of 1862 – 63 was perhaps the wettest year in all of California history. The Central Valley became a large lake. Sacramento flooded. However, the summer of 1863 was a severe drought. Months without rain brought bone-dry conditions throughout the Motherlode.

Big Oak Flat after the Great Fire of 1863

On October 24, 1863, a fire broke out in Big Oak Flat. Such fires were not uncommon in 19th century mining towns due to highly flammable wood structures, poor fire-fighting infrastructure, and reliance on fires for cooking and warmth. It quickly swept through the town (nearly all buildings were of wood), destroying everything in its path. The flames were so bright and high that the glow could be seen from Sonora 25 miles away.

A local resident, Ellen Harper May, recalled the fire (as remembered in the excellent local history book by Irene Paden and Margaret Schlichtmann (The Big Oak Flat Road, 1955):

“It was early October, and everything was terribly dry. Suddenly the fire started. Water was low, and the sparks flew in all directions and started new blazes. About the only buildings that didn’t burn were those built of stone and there were hardly any trees left. All of Chinatown burned. It was on the north side of the road. The entire business section was wiped out..”

She goes on to recount the loss of many well-known structures and businesses.

“The Odd Fellows’ Lodge burned; the Yo Semite House, owned by Mr. James Kenny, was destroyed at a loss of $5000. The loss of Mr. Longfellow’s livery stable and hay amounted to $ 800. Jacob Betzer realized a loss of $ 5000 when his saloon, house, and blacksmith shop were destroyed. The total loss to the community was $48,900, a terrific amount in those days.”

The specific cause of the fire is not known. Fortunately, there appear to have been no deaths resulting from the blaze.

To learn what happened to Big Oak Flat after the fire, stay tuned for Part 2.

Taking You Back in History is provided by the Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society (STCHS) and the Groveland Gateway Museum. The Museum is open Friday - Sunday 10a - 2p.


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