You can't quite classify tiny Coulterville as a ghost town. Sure, this Mariposa County hamlet has ghosts and Gold Rush-era ruins, but it also has shops, a museum, a saloon and a population in the very low three digits. Up until 2014, it also had the historic Hotel Jeffery (more on that later) -- the spot from which Theodore Roosevelt launched his famous three-day camping jaunt with John Muir in 1903.
Drop by the Northern Mariposa County History Center, and you'll see Roosevelt's signature on the hotel register, along with descriptions of townsfolks' chagrin when, instead of attending the town's eagerly planned events, Roosevelt and Muir headed off to Mariposa Grove, Sentinel Dome and Glacier Point on a trip that inspired the creation of Yosemite National Park.
Stroll the town streets and you'll find vestiges of the Gold Rush past. At its height, Coulterville had 10 hotels, 25 saloons and more than 5,000 residents. Today, this semi-ghost town is a National Historic Landmark with 47 historic buildings, including the last remaining adobe from Coulterville's once-bustling Chinatown and the Hotel Jeffery, which is slowly being rebuilt after a devastating fire 14 months ago.
Some of the historic buildings are shuttered, but others have been remade into shops, their original stacked stone walls still visible. And Whistling Billy stands at the crossroads, under the Hanging Tree. This 8-ton locomotive was shipped around the Horn and delivered by mule team in 1897 for the Merced Gold Mining Co.
Billy used to pull up to 15 ore cars at a time from the Mary Harrison Mine to the stamping mill at Blacks Creek along what was then called "The Crookedest Railroad in the World." That title has been conferred on plenty of stretches of rail, of course, but this particular 4-mile stretch was steep, twisting and dangerous, and the ore cars weighed five tons each when full. Watty Piper's "Little Engine That Could" pales in comparison.
Peek at Billy, then head for the small museum behind the locomotive. Housed in the ruins of the three-story Coulter Hotel, destroyed in the Great Fire of 1899, and the multitasking Wells Fargo building next door, the museum holds models of the original hostelry, as well as displays of 19th- and early 20th-century clothing, an 1897 washing machine, rifles, tools and other relics from a long-ago time. Admission is free, and its friendly docents are eager to share their town's history and dish on the Great Fires of 1859, 1879 and 1899 -- and the most recent conflagration, whose artifacts are displayed under a "Great Fire of 2014" sign.
The flames damaged the 164-year-old Hotel Jeffery, but didn't touch the hotel's Magnolia Saloon, which still has the iconic swinging shutter doors of a Wild West tavern. But inspectors won't allow the saloon to reopen until its restrooms, which were on the damaged hotel side, have been repaired.
If You Go
Northern Mariposa County History Center: This small free museum will reopen for the season with an "All Aboard to Coulterville Gala" on Feb. 6. Regular hours, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, resume Feb. 10. For more information, go to the museum's Facebook page via the link from coultervillehistorycenter.org; 10301 Highway 49, Coulterville.