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.
Visit Calaveritas's Historic Sites