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Taking You Back in History: Big Oak Flat Fire of 1863, Part 2

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

The fire of October 1863 was an apocalyptic event for Big Oak Flat. The only surviving structures were two stone buildings still standing today: the “International Order of Odd Fellows Hall” (IOOF) and the Gamble Wells Fargo building.

The “IOOF” building was a one-story, two-section building built in 1853 from local schist and lime from Sonora. The two separate sections were owned by local merchants: Philander Grant (mercantile) and Michael Gilbert (grocery). Shortly after the fire, the IOOF bought the Grant store to replace their hall lost in the conflagration and, 20 years later, the Gilbert grocery. They added a second story in 1924. The IOOF sold the entire property in 2018.

The Wells Fargo Gamble building was built in 1852 for Alexander Gamble, a prominent local businessman, of native slate and lime mortar and comprised three separate sections, each with 2 large metal doors easily visible from the adjoining highway. The most notable tenant was the Wells Fargo Company who provided critical financial and assaying services for the mining community. Despite the fire and the unrelenting decline in local mining, it remained in Big Oak Flat until 1893. The building itself saw a series of tenants (including a post office) through the early 1900s until it was essentially left empty by the mid-20th century. In 2007 it was donated by family members to the Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society who are now charged with its preservation and maintenance.

The community also began a long process of re-building to replace the businesses, homes, and other wooden structures destroyed in the fire. The Kenny Hotel referred to by Ellen May was rebuilt. In fact, she took a job in the new hotel, where she met her husband. Another hotel named Yo Semite was also constructed by a new proprietor, Thomas Barnes. The Golden Rock Water Company needed a headquarters for its continuing operations and built its own office in Big Oak Flat opposite the Gamble building.

A rough map drawn for Ms. Schlichtmann’s book (The Big Oak Flat Road, 1955) reveals the variety of businesses and homes that were rebuilt in the aftermath of the Great Fire: Betzer smithy, Hoffer’s bakery, Fisher home, Longfellow stable and livery, Harper carpenter shop, Judge Murrow’s home, Marconi bakery, Maccabee’s dance hall, Cavagnaro general store, Nozilgia bakery and orchard. Life in Big Oak Flat had taken a severe blow from the Fire, but it hadn’t stopped completely.

Big Oak Flat, 1911

One Big Oak Flat business and family are prominently shown on the Schlichtmann map and are of particular note. James Mecartea moved to Big Oak Flat with his wife Elvira in 1872 to found a blacksmithing and livery business. The Mecarteas had 13 children, and one son Austin continued the business through the 1920s. Their stone building was located on the Divide between Big Oak Flat and Groveland, a local landmark until its collapse and final demolition in the 1980s.

Thanks to its location at the top of the Grade, Big Oak Flat continued its prominent role in transportation and communication between the Central Valley (and beyond) and the communities further up the hill. Charles Baird ran a livery business carrying goods from the Valley to the mines with long horse-drawn stage coaches (as well as the Baird Hotel in Groveland) In addition, the town was the location for a succession of telegraph offices connecting with Yosemite and Sonora and the Central Valley, starting perhaps in 1866.

Gold mining in Big Oak Flat suffered through a series of “boom and bust” cycles from the 1870s to the early 1900s. In the late 60s and 70s, hydraulic mining emerged as a way to use water to expose underlying gold. However, those deposits also depleted. Evidence of the incredible environmental damage resulting from hydraulic mining can still be seen in Big Oak Flat in the red “cliffs” behind the houses on the south side of Highway 120.

Starting in roughly 1880, technology improved to enable “quartz” or “hard rock” mining whereby deep shafts were dug into the earth and ore extracted to the surface. Formerly unprofitable mines became economically feasible. There were a number of mines and stamp mills for processing ore in Big Oak Flat: the Longfellow, the Mack, the Mississippi, the Ophir, the Mohrman. A small railway was constructed in Big Oak Flat to carry ore from various mines to a central mill in town (the Longfellow).

However, by the early 1900s, even these ore bodies were fundamentally exhausted. Regardless of technology, the industry couldn’t hold on. Big Oak Flat mining was over. Now, there is little visible evidence of the mines or mills.

Big Oak Flat also took part in the birth and growth of the tourism business to Yosemite National Park. By the time of the Fire in 1863 the area now incorporated in the Park was already experiencing noticeable development for tourism and for other business (logging, sheep, and cattle). In 1864, thanks to pressure from far-seeing citizens, President Lincoln was persuaded to set aside the Valley and the Mariposa Grove as a “special preserve” under state management. President Lincoln’s pronouncement notwithstanding, the 1860s and 1870s saw increasing pressure from local businesses to provide tourism to Yosemite. A competition began between two alternative toll roads to Yosemite, one from Coulterville, the other from Big Oak Flat. In 1874 the Big Oak Flat road came out ahead in the competition (even though being completed after the Coulterville road). The series of “stage coach stations” on the way to Yosemite started in Big Oak Flat at the “Priest Station.” When tourist visitors left Priest Station, they would pass through Big Oak Flat on their way east - as they do today.

Despite the occasional economic surges after the 1863 Fire, Big Oak Flat never recovered its civic and economic momentum. In 1877 a government survey revealed that there were less than 40 buildings in the town. The town voted to “dis-incorporate” in 1874. And so it is today.

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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