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Monday, April 7, 2014

CALIFORNIA MOTHERLODE GHOST TOWNS: Hornitos



Although the state is criss-crossed with interstates, freeways, superhighways and is home to more millions of Americans than any other state, once in awhile you can find a seldom traveled stretch of asphalt that is actually a time machine.


One such road exists starting at highway 140 in the foothill town of Cathey’s Valley, about 20 miles east of Merced, California.
Turning north on Hornitos Road will take you through some spectacular rolling hill country dotted with happy cows. Green in the winter and spring, golden in summer and fall.

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After about nine miles, you’ll start to see mounds of rocks scattered about the creek off to the side.  Dug up around 150 years ago, these are tailings left by the original Gold Rush miners.  Following that creek, you’ll end up at the little town of Hornitos, which was settled by Mexicans who were kicked out of the nearby town of Quartzburg.
The joke is on them because Hornitos soon pulled much more riches out of the ground than their unwelcoming neighbors.
A collapsed shack sits a few feet from the sturdy jail.  The remains of a brick building stand next to the community hall. Across the street from that is an old brick saloon with sturdy iron doors and a cafĂ© that saw its last customer half a century ago.  Overlooking all of it is a tiny, white, Catholic church manning the watch over the town’s graveyard which features dirt packed so hard that the original inhabitants had to put their dead in above ground mounds that looked like the ovens the women used in baking.


Because of the appearance of the graves, the town was named after them using the Spanish word for “little ovens.”
You’ll come to understand why Hornitos is listed as a Gold Rush ghost town on many websites, books, and articles.  Although much rough and rowdy history has happened in and around the streets of this village, it’s not quite correct to call it a ghost town…yet.


The Ortiz family still opens the saloon on the town’s plaza. Come in and have a shot of tequila…the bartender would like it if you chose the Hornitos reposado over the Patron…and chat with him. There’s him and one customer as the three of us have our shots.
Manuela Ortiz is the legend who would open the bar when she felt like it and hold court with her shot of brandy. A living link to the town’s storied past, Manuela is now suffering the memory loss of advanced age and living in a home down the hill in Merced.
Her son now stands in her place, giving us the update on her condition and pouring our shots…without lemon or salt…as he tells us he appreciates it.
The saloon sits across the parking lot from the tiny U.S. Post office. That comprises 2/3 of the remaining businesses in town and the post office is on the verge of closing. A gift shop operates out of an old general store at the north end of town.
Over $8 million dollars worth of gold has been pulled out of the ground here. The population grew to 8, 10, or 12 thousand people depending on which source you consider reliable.  Down to 65 now, it does seem the spirits outnumber the living here.
Ruins are mixed in with the private residences and the few commercial buildings. Across from the Ortiz’s saloon…next to an out-of-place looking, very modern handicapped parking spot…sit the collapsed walls of a brick building.  Here, back before statehood, Domingo Ghiradelli opened a store.


He would not be here very long, moving on to San Francisco, but the little plot of land is still owned by the company he and his family founded…the Ghiradelli Chocolate Company.
In the plot next door, whatever building had stood is long gone but a mound in the dirt is covered with assorted boards and corrugated metal. The barrier is to keep people out of the tunnel inside that is a danger for collapsing.


In its rowdier past, the town was full of saloons. Beneath the saloons on the underground level were bordellos. So that the customers could arrive without being seen, tunnels were dug to connect them
A couple of doors north, another old saloon sits. Across the street, a tree grows out of the hole another collapsed brothel tunnel created.
There are two handicapped parking spaces in town. One is a new, state-of-the-art concrete creation with multiple ramps for access adjacent to the Stagg Hall, home of the town's annual enchilada festival each March. The other is across the street at the post office.  We're almost the only people here so we just park in a regular spot in front of the old cafe...I don't think they'll be getting any customers today to block our ramp.

We wander around town. Technically, it’s not too accessible with just a few feet of sidewalk, but the traffic is so light Tim can drive his wheelchair on the road without problem.
It’s a block or so to the north end of town where the gift shop sits. We wander in, buy some candy and beads, and check out the art work. I can believe that we were the only sale that day.


We drive up the hill to the graveyard. Someone at some time must have gotten access to some earth moving equipment because all the graves are now below ground.  The dirt is very hard, though.
There’s an admirable view fromup here high above the town. We spend a few minutes wandering the graves, seeing dates going back to the Gold Rush days along with some wooden markers whose inscriptions have long worn off in the weather here.


Going back down, we navigate through a flock of wild turkeys mingling with the ghosts in the town. Past the old school house on the outskirts of town, and then back towards the highway.
It would be wrong to call it a ghost town now but the town is hanging on the edge.


Darryl
Copyright 2012 – Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

4 comments:

  1. Oh wow, Darryl! This of course caught my interest because of the graves and the word "ghost" in the title. Ghost Towns are so awesome to explore, and this one is neat because it's not quite a ghost town yet. Close, though. Very neat info about how the town got it's name, based on the graves.

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  2. This is very cool! I couldn't imagine a town of 65 people! In DC, you'll find 65 people on my bus in the morning! The town sounds extraordinary! I hope that the city can survive. It has some great history.

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  3. Right,Good to see these useful info here..Thanks a lot for sharing them with us….

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  4. @Courtney March, technically Hornitos California IS a ghost town. There is an official classification system that includes towns that aren't totally abandoned.

    Also more information (and recent pictures) of Hornitos can be found here: http://pnwphotoblog.com/hornitos-california/

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