A small group of Mexican miners were the first prospectors here, arriving sometime during the
winter of 1848. Locating their camp on a gulch about one-quarter mile above the present center of
town, they commenced mining the ravine by sinking holes down to bedrock and then washing out the
dirt with batteas. The first Mass held in the new camp took place on November 30, Saint Andrew’s
Day, of 1848, which may have been responsible for the camp being called San Andreas.
By 1849 the Mexican population had increased to nearly one thousand miners, and before the
year was out the American miners began appearing, concentrating their operations in the main
gulch. Their appearance ignited a small rush to the area and the camp began to see a number of
French and Chinese arrivals as well. This sudden influx of miners also attracted a number of
storekeepers and gamblers, and soon the town’s main street was lined with fandango halls,
saloons, boarding houses, and a variety of stores. The first frame building to be erected was the
Bella Union, a combination saloon, courthouse, gambling hall, and meeting place which went up in
the spring of 1851. The camp’s first hotel, the Main Street House, was also built this year by a
man named Philip Piper. To keep water flowing into the diggings year round, two water ditches
were built during 1851 and 1852. The “Silver Ditch” was built by Captain Robert Pope and brought
water in from Willow Creek. The Union Ditch provided the miners with water from nearby Murray
The placer deposits which first attracted the gold seekers were rich, but they were only
surface placers and began to give out after a few years. Unbeknownst to the early inhabitants;
however, a deep, prehistoric river channel ran under the town of San Andreas. Orson Murray and
Captain A. P. Ferguson are reported to be the discoverers of the channel at San Andreas,
supposedly taking out seventy-six ounces of gold from a single load of dirt when the channel was
first found. The channel sparked a tremendous amount of drift mining after its discovery,
resulting in tunnels and excavations being worked along its entire length. The channel entered
town from the south, passed though the southern part of town, and then continued west under Gold
Hill, where a major discovery took place in 1853.
The renewed mining activity occasioned by the channel discovery spurred a fresh bout of
growth in San Andreas, which began to look less like a camp and more like a town. The post office
arrived on November 14 of 1854, moved here from Third Crossing. Substantial buildings were
erected, new streets were laid out, and business boomed as miners from all over the world came to
San Andreas. Some of the early street names reveal how far some traveled in their search for
gold: French Street, China Street, and Spanish Avenue.
True to the heritage of a mining camp, San Andreas suffered numerous fires in its early
years. In 1854 a blaze destroyed a number of wood and canvas buildings, afterwhich the townsfolk
rebuilt. On the morning of February 2 of 1856, the cry of fire was heard once again. Starting in
the Old Empire Mine on Main Street, the fire leaped from building to building, burning everything
on the south side of the street as far as Crowley’s restaurant. The north side of the street was
obliterated down to the main gulch, with the exception of the American restaurant, a fire-proof
stone building. On June 8 of 1858, yet another conflagration swept through the town. This fire
was the work of an incendiary and originated in a vacant building at the lower end of Court
Street, formerly used as a fandango. Mr. Bellows, the private watchman, discovered the fire, but
as no water could be produced in time, the building was soon ablaze. The flames spread to both
side of Court Street, quickly reaching its junction with Main. Most of the camp was left in
ashes. It was after this last great fire that most of the brick and frame Classical Revival
buildings were constructed.
The ancient river channels responsible for the town’s existence continued to produce gold for
many years, enabling San Andreas to rebuild completely after each fire. The claims hereabouts
continued to pay well as late as 1867, with the Plug Ugly reportedly producing $1,100 in a single
day, while another nearby mine unearthed nine pounds of gold in one forenoon. Such results keep
San Andreas hopping, making it one of the largest and most active towns in Calaveras County
during the early 1860’s. The citizens felt that their town should be the final home of the
jumping county seat of Calaveras County and decided to make it so.
When Calaveras County was created in 1850, it embraced all of the adjoining territory north
of it now known as Amador County. The first seat of this large county was located at Double
Springs, today just a wide spot in the road. An election in 1851 moved the seat to Jackson,
another election in 1852 removed the seat to Mokelumne Hill. In 1854, Calaveras County lost a
chunk of land to the newly created Amador County, with Jackson being made its county seat.
Finally, after a controversial election with Mokelumne Hill, San Andreas won the county seat and
has retained it ever since.