"Madera" is the Spanish word for "lumber", the first industry in the County. Part of the historic Sugar Pine Railroad remains as a tourist attraction. A huge flume once ran from the high Sierra Forest area down to Madera. One of the engineering marvels of early California, its history is preserved in articles and photos in the County Museum located in the beautiful old granite Courthouse in Madera. A replica of a section of the flume is on display. The Raymond Granite Company quarry supplies granite for some of the nation's outstanding public edifices. The mountain area is rich in the history of the 1859 California Gold Rush towns, with such names as Coarsegold, Finegold, Grub Gulch, Ahwahnee and Nipinnawassee. Panning for gold is still popular for both fun and profit. In 1855, a portion of Madera County separated from Mariposa County when Fresno became a County and in 1856, the rest of Madera separated from Mariposa County and became a County.
The growth of the territory known as Madera County has progressed in waves. The first small wave of men was composed of a few explorers, soldiers, trappers, and Spanish speaking settlers with Mexican land grants. These men came in the first half of the last century, and few stayed longer than a few months.
The discovery of gold brought the first big wave of immigrants, most of them placer miners who worked along the streams that were rich in precious metal, and soon a new mining era came with the development of hard-rock ledge mining for gold, silver and copper.
In 1919, a group known as the Gold Chain Council was formed to get what was then a dirt road of various qualities, conditions and dimensions made into a State highway. It obviously was successful, and continues to this day as the oldest highway association in California.
The State Legislature officially named Highway 49 the "Mother Lode Highway" in 1921. At that time, it extended south only as far as Mariposa, and the section from Mariposa to Oakhurst was known as Bootjack Road. In 1969, the State Highway Commission and State Legislature finally incorporated Bootjack Road into Highway 49. Oakhurst rightfully received recognition and was legitimized as the southern terminus of the scenic and famous route which winds its way through eleven counties.
Gold fever hit the hills here in 1849 and 50 but the actual gold rush came more slowly. Previously, no one had any good reason to explore the mountains and they had remained virtually uninhabited wilderness.
The records show that one early resident of the area, Jim Savage, employed Chinese to work the San Joaquin River for him. At first, Jim was involved in fighting the Indians, but as the area became more populated, he made friends with them, even to the extent of marrying at least five Indian girls, one from each tribe. He is given credit for the discovery of Yosemite Valley on March 27, 1851, and named it after the tribe which inhabited it.
Legend has it that at one time there were 5,000 residents in Grub Gulch and 10,000 in Coarsegold. However, local records do not confirm these figures. An 1853 Army report placed a considerable number of Chinese at Millerton and in Coarsegold Gulch in 1854. Later 2,000 were reported to have worked in the Raymond area. There is considerable evidence of Chinese labor in that area; miles of stone walls meander through hills between Raymond and Mariposa. Local ranchers hired the Chinese to clear their fields of rocks and to use them for boundary fences. They were built without mortar and still stand today.
Early Placer Mines
These mines were located around Coarsegold Gulch, Grub Gulch, along the Fresno River and Gold Creek near Hildreth (southeast of Oakhurst) and Fine Gold Gulch. The latter community - no longer in existence - was given this name to distinguish it from Coarsegold Gulch. Gold found at Coarsegold was generally in nugget form; that at Fine Gold was more in the form of dust. Millions were reportedly mined, but no accurate records were kept. Due to the fact that the gold dust was used as a medium of exchange, the amount actually taken was probably exaggerated by changing hands so frequently.
The Coarsegold Area
Here, the oldest and most extensively worked mine was the one generally known as Texas Flat. In 1855, there were four claims filed, apparently by some greenhorns from Texas who may have been the victim of some sharp salesmen with a worked out mine on their hands. However, the four struck "pay dirt" and made a fortune. Later the Texas Flat Gold and Silver Mining Company was incorporated for 1 1/2 million dollars in 1863. No record exists of its success or failure.
Then, in 1877, a new Texas Flat Mine Company found a 2 to 6 foot lode, but had insufficient capital and soon went broke.
Finally, in 1882, a Santa Cruz group erected a fine stamp mill, but work didn't really get going until 1904. The mine became one of the deepest in this part of the country, going down to 900 feet. Before it was shut down, it produced $185,000 of ore.
This community no longer exists. It was about 10 miles west of Oakhurst on the road from Ahwahnee to Raymond.
The Gambetta mine - also called the Arkansas Traveler - was the first and richest mine around Grub Gulch. It was discovered in 1880 and produced $490,000 in ore before it was abandoned in 1904. Close to it was the Josephine, worked in the 1880's, producing $360,000 in gold. Also close by was the Mammouth (Woodland or Starlight). One of the foremen at this mine, Charles Wood, was not only a good miner, but he and another man made a good living by promoting mines. Well, Charley found a good, rich vein in the Mammouth, but left it untouched. Along came an Englishman looking for an investment. He was shown samples from the unworked vein and bought the mine. An official State report says "About 1896, a ten stamp mill was erected by an English Company. Operations continued only a short time". The mine was finally abandoned in 1914 when heavy rains caused cave-ins.
The Enterprise was also developed in this area in 1881-82. The first buyer exhausted a rich pocket, sold out for $20,000 to another miner who found a new vein and got his money back in two weeks.
In the Hildreth area about $100,000 was taken between 1880 and 1895. At the present time there is a semi-active tungsten mine here.
The California Journal credits, what is now Madera County, with the production of $1,350,000 in gold between 1880 and 1892. Of this amount $958,000 was produced by three Grub Gulch mines: The Gambetta, Josephine and Enterprise. This leaves less than $400,000 for all the other mines in the area.
Recent efforts to produce gold have mostly been limited to small suction dredges. There are two in nearby streams, both inactive.
One gold activity does flourish here, however. Gold panning contests are held frequently at Ahwahnee and the gold panning champion lives in this area.