La Grange

Town History - Gold Discovery, Early Citizenry, Legends

Historic Sites - Local Ruins, Relics, Buildings & Scenery
      • St. Louis Catholic Church
      • Schoolhouse
      • Old Adobe Building
      • Trading Post Buildings

Travelers' Tips - Directions, Museums, Lodging, &c

Town History

      A group of French sailors jumped ship in San Francisco Bay, commandeered a small whaleboat, and set sail for the gold mines. Upon reaching a promising location on the Tuolumne River, they commenced mining and were rewarded for their desertion by discovering rich placers. The sailors sent word to friends and relatives and their small camp grew into quite a sizable settlement, known throughout the region as French Bar or French Camp. The year was 1849.
      After the disastrous floods of 1851/52 wiped out the diggings, the water-logged citizens gathered what belongings they could find and headed for higher ground. Choosing a spot about one mile upstream on the south side of the river, and above the flood plain, the business of mining was soon resumed. This new site was said to be located on property belonging to Elam Dye, who was operating a sawmill in the area in 1852.
      The name of the camp was changed to La Grange on December 2 of 1854, when the post office was established, with Dr. Louis M. Booth as the first postmaster. Meaning “the barn” in French, the origin of this name is unclear. Maybe an inhabitant of the camp was from La Grange, Georgia. Perhaps it was taken from a well-known singer of the late 1840’s and early 1850’s, Anna Caroline de La Grange, Countess of Stankowitch. Perchance a calculating fan of the famous French mathematician, Joseph Louis Lagrange, made his feelings known. Quite possibly, the post office’s location in an old adobe barn had something to do with it.
      By 1856, La Grange had become the center of trade for a wide area. The town’s population numbered in the thousands, a substantial portion of whom made up the camp’s Chinatown, where “Feuds were numerous, shooting scrapes were not infrequent and gambling and fan tan the daily practice.” The Miners and Business Men’s Directory listed 215 merchants, miners, artisans, hotel keepers, attorneys and physicians located in town. There were also syrup makers, two brewers, three butchers, a barber, gunsmith, blacksmith, billiard saloon, traders, painters, numerous restaurants, and D. H. Woods, the Daguerrean.
      Three stage lines served the busy settlement, offering daily service to such spots as Stockton, Knights Ferry, Mariposa, Montezuma, Chinese Camp, Jamestown, Sonora, and Columbia. The town’s fraternal organizations included a Masonic Lodge which was organized in May of 1856, and the Odd Fellows, who formed Lafayette Lodge No. 65 on June 14 of 1857, the first in the county. The rich bottom lands along the river developed into fine agricultural producers and a flour mill was erected by John Talbot & Co.
      La Grange had become an important city, and in January of 1856, it became the county seat of Stanislaus County, which it remained until 1862 when the seat was voted away to Knights Ferry. By this time the easily obtained placer gold had been mined out, and many of the prominent lawyers, merchants and businessmen followed the county seat to Knights Ferry. Mining activity continued well into the 1870’s; however, thanks to some $5 million being spent on the construction of ditches to carry water to nearby hydraulic diggings.
      hile many of the mining camps of the Gold Country were extinguished by fire, La Grange’s fiend was fire’s foe: Water. Lots of water. Flood. The first freshet coming in the winter of 1851/52, leading to the town being moved to higher ground. In 1856, high waters washed away John Talbot’s flour mill, also doing damage to the farm lands near the river. In the winter of 1861/62, the water rose again. Many Chinese reworking the placers along the river were drowned as the flood swept away everything in its path. Houses were destroyed, crops ruined. Louis Booth, his boy, and their dog spent two nights in a tree as the river raged past below. They were later rescued by a pioneer La Granger, Peter Ducot, seconds before the tree gave way.
      The distinction of being the first person legally hanged in Stanislaus County belongs to William Gregory, a miner who stabbed his friend Robert Hall to death in July of 1855. The two men were arguing over a bet that had been called off the night before, which Hall did not believe Gregory would have paid had he lost. Tempers flared, a knife flashed, and a man died. This capacity for violence remained with La Grange for many years. As late as 1912, sheepman Robert L. Bright wore his guns to town, fearful of what the cattlemen might do were he unarmed.
      La Grange sits on the side of a low hill, overlooking the Tuolumne River and the valley below. Millions of rocks have been moved here since the town’s beginning, literally no stone left unturned in the manic quest for gold. This mining heritage is evidenced today by extensive tailing piles still visible on the banks of the Tuolumne River and by the several historic Gold Rush buildings that remain in town.
      La Grange is located twenty-one miles out of Coulterville via Hwy 132.

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