Friday, June 12, 2009

The Sierra Gold Country Series: Sonora (2 of 5)

Located in Tuolumne County , Sonora 'The heart of Gold Country', is situated in the Sierra Nevada foothills of North California at an elevation of 1,825 feet, with an estimated population of 4,610.

The City of Sonora, known as the “Queen of the Southern Mines,” was established in 1848 by miners emigrating from the State of Sonora, Mexico. The early settlement was often referred to as the Sonoran Camp.

News of the gold discovery at the Sonoran Camp spread quickly and hopeful miners from the East Coast and foreign countries began the long journey to the promised land. Many boarded ships on the East Coast and sailed to Panama where they crossed the Isthmus on foot or horseback and vied for passage on crowded ships bound for San Francisco. From San Francisco it was an additional two day trip by schooner to Stockton and then a dusty stage ride through the foothills to Sonora. When arriving in Sonora the travelers were covered and choked with dust. They found a camp of dirt streets and tents with very sparse accommodations.

The Opera Hall was built in 1885 & the City of Sonora acquired this "Jewel of the Mother Lode" in December of 1986

On December 12, 1896, the headline of the Sonora Daily Union Democrat read, "Opera Hall To Go". The local newspaper was aghast, reporting, "It is a source of much regret to our people to learn that the only public hall in Sonora worthy of the City's name is to be converted into a carpenter shop and forever closed as a place for giving public exhibitions...It seems a shame that the one building in the town to which our people were able to point to with pride is to be transformed into a carpenter shop". The fate of the Sonora Opera Hall was sealed that day.
The following 80 years were hard ones for the Opera Hall as the building was modified to meet new needs. Throughout the 1980's, attempts by the private sector to raise restoration funds proved unsuccessful. Consequently, in December of 1986 the City of Sonora acquired the building and began the task of grant requisition and fund raising that has brought it to its present state of completion. The Opera Hall is once again the "Jewel in the crown of Sonora".

The hotel is named for Dr. Lewis C. Gunn, a native Philadelphian who was lured to the area to seek his fortune in the California gold mines. Recognizing the vast beauty of the terrain, he settled in Sonora, where using local labor he built the area's first two-story adobe building as his home and subsequently as his place of business after failing as a gold prospector.
Since Gunn's departure the house has been expanded well beyond the original two-story adobe core. For a while it served as a hospital. Later it was christened the Hotel Rosa Italia.
In 2002 Innkeepers Mike and Shirley Sarno purchased the Gunn House and undertook the most recent and most impressive restoration of this historic structure. Together, and like their historical predecessor, using local labor, the couple painstakingly restored, upgraded, and without detracting from the historical charm of the sprawling three-story structure, created a true labor of love. As a result, please visit and enjoy a bit of the past in one of the newly renovated, antique appointed rooms of the most historic hotel in Sonora. All rooms have modern private baths, heating and air conditioning, the highest quality mattresses, and local cable T.V. The Gunn House continues to remain a favorite getaway to California’s romantic and historic Mother Lode.

The Tuolumne County Museum and History Center is an impressive complex devoted to local historical displays, genealogical research and the Tuolumne County History Collection. The museum is a historic building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was built in 1857 as the Tuolumne County Jail and rebuilt in 1865 following a disastrous fire that killed the inmate who allegedly started it. In 1978 a building program was inaugurated resulting in the seismic stabilization and rehabilitation of the Old Jail, construction of the Museum Annex, conversion of the prisoners' exercise yard into a courtyard available for social events and restoration of garden areas.

St. James Anglican Church, also known as the Red Church, was built 1860 in Sonora California during the post-Gold Rush era. Its eight-sided steeple is an example of the Swedish architectural style. Rev. John Gassman, a Norwegian native, helped design the building and was the first pastor. The red painted board and batten exterior walls are made from California redwood. In 1868 a part of the church had to be rebuilt after a fire destroyed the steeple and the west side of the building.

The church was consecrated in 1870 by the Rt, Rev. William Ingraham Kip, first bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California. Reportedly the seventh Episcopal parish as well as the oldest Episcopal church building in California, it has been designated California Historical Landmark No. 139.

As the area’s cultural center, Sonora is home to museums, art galleries and live theatre. The City also plays host to numerous festivals and special events throughout the year. Just outside the City limits are year-round outdoor recreational opportunities at resorts, campgrounds, lakes, golf courses and high country waterways.

With its rich heritage, historic charm and small town hospitality, visitors and locals alike enjoy a relaxing stroll along the City’s historic main street while shopping in the many specialty and antique shops, taking time out to have a delectable meal in one of its many fine restaurants, bakeries and coffee houses.

Today, Sonora is the commercial center for some 100,000 people living in Tuolumne, Calaveras and northern Mariposa Counties. Residents are proud of their city's historic roots and something relatively new to the community: the Black Oak Casino in nearby Tuolumne City is owned by the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians.

So here we go again, off to the next town. Ride along with only gets better!


  1. Fun read, excellent research and writing. Enjoyed the tour...and the informaton on the historic buildings of note!

  2. Wow! A history & geography lesson tied into one! Thanks for sharing, I feel as if I have been to Sonora!

  3. Very nice, some of the pictures look like they are out of a movie set.. I hope to get out west some day.. darn.. I still have a long way to retire :) Keep up the great posts

  4. I can't wait to see more. This is a great deal of information.

  5. Love the photos! Once again, you've inspired me to add another locale to my "must see via motorcycle when the kids leave for college" list. I have an award for you - stop by to pick it up :)

  6. You’re killing me…your making me want to go on a long ride so bad…great blog
    Big Al

  7. Ah, old stomping grounds. I grew up there and there are days that I sure miss it. I miss the quaint small town sense of community. Thanks for the beautiful photos!