Sonora: Queen of the southern mines

The beautiful Tuolumne County Courthouse is just one of the many historic structures still found in the old mining town of Sonora, Calif.

The beautiful Tuolumne County Courthouse is just one of the many historic structures still found in the old mining town of Sonora, Calif.

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Despite some rampant strip development outside of its town core, Sonora has managed to retain much of its historic flavor and character.

Sonora is another of the many Mother Lode mining towns that can be found along Highway 49—Northern California’s Gold Rush Country. Because of the presence of significant gold reserves, Sonora became one of the largest and most prosperous of the Mother Lode boomtowns.

The first settlers in the Sonora area were Mexican miners, who named the camp after their hometown o Sonora, Mexico.

Founded in 1848, Sonora was one of the first mining camps in the Mother Lode. Within a year, the town boasted more than ten thousand Mexicans and four thousand American and European miners.

The mixture of cultures and amazing wealth—by one estimate, $160,000 of gold was mined in a single day in 1849—gave Sonora a remarkably cosmopolitan atmosphere in its early days.

The town, which became known as “Queen of the Southern Mines,” contained everything from adobe homes to strolling mariachis to elaborately-decorated bawdy houses.

The harmony was short-lived, however, as the Americans began to resent the Mexicans. The state of California imposed a “Foreign Miners Tax” aimed at the Mexican miners.

Violence erupted between the two groups. Finally, most of the Mexicans departed to avoid a full-scale war. The unjust foreign tax was repealed in 1851 but the drop in population threw the town into slump and it never quite regained its prominence.

Like any mining town, Sonora has experienced ups and downs. The rich placer fields soon played out but hard rock mining has provided consistent yields over the years.

With the decline of mining, lumber became king around these parts. At the turn of the century, most of California’s orange crates were manufactured here.

Fortunately, despite several late 19th century fires, major portions of historic Sonora have survived. The main street, Washington Street, is lined with buildings of various architectural styles—Victorian, Art Deco, Mission, etc.

Among the more noteworthy structures are the 1852 City Hotel and the 1898 Tuolumne County Courthouse. The latter is an imposing three-story, yellow brick Roman-style building that features an unusual Byzantine-style clock tower.

The St. James Episcopal Church, built in 1860, is another landmark with its rich, deep red exterior and tall bell tower. St. James’ is the second oldest wooden Episcopalian Church in California and boasts beautiful stained glass windows.

Across the street from the church is the impressive Street-Morgan Mansion, an elegant Queen Anne built in 1896 by a local lumber czar.

The town’s oldest building is the Gunn House, a two-story adobe, constructed in 1850 by Dr. Lewis C. Gunn, an early civic leader. It was later used as offices of the Sonora Herald, the town’s first newspaper.

The magnificent Sonora Inn, in the center of town, is a classic example of Spanish California architecture with its elegant stucco archways and clay tile roof. Built in 1896 (and refurbished over the years) it’s located in the town center.

Wandering Sonora’s main boulevard, you can find plenty of antique shops, gift stores, watering holes and restaurants.

Sonora is, in fact, a good place from which to explore the Mother Lode country. Within an hour, you can get to dozens of historic mining towns, such as Columbia and Angels Camp, or places like Yosemite National Park (you’re about an hour from Yosemite Village).

The best place to learn about Sonora’s past is the fine Tuolumne County Museum and History Center at 158 W. Bradford, a few blocks from downtown. Located in the former county jail (which looks more like a large house), the building was used as a hoosegow from 1857 to 1960.

Inside the museum, you’ll find reconstructions of a gunsmith shop, a traditional bunk house and, of course, a jail cell. The museum contains an excellent minerals exhibit with samples of gold and quartz as well as historic displays on the area’s major gold rushes in 1849, 1890 and the present-day operations.

Sonora is located about three and a half hours south west of Carson City via U.S. 50 to Placerville, then south on Highway 49.

For more information, contact the Tuolumne County Historical Society at

Rich Moreno covers the places Nevadans want to visit.


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