December 1, 2002
Steven W. Ells
You can't fly directly to Yosemite National Park — but close by in Mariposa there's a very nice airport. And from there it's only an hour drive to the Yosemite Valley, a world-famous geological wonderland that everyone should visit at least once.
Yosemite is a must-see destination, but it wouldn't be wise to pass through Mariposa too quickly — the town's history is fascinating. Like a few better-known gold rush-era towns that dot the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada, Mariposa's commitment to the preservation of its history encourages visitors to imagine life 140 years ago.
Mariposa was the site of rough-and-tumble living during the gold rush years between 1845 and 1860. Joaquin Murrieta, known to some as the Robin Hood of the West, added to the wild reputation of this area by plying his trade near Mariposa.
The Mariposa town fathers set about bringing formal law and order to their community when they signed a $9,000 contract for the construction of a courthouse building in 1854. In the 148 years it has stood, many noted civil, mining, and water rights cases have been decided within its hand-hewn walls. This two-story structure, built from a local stand of white pine, is still in daily use. It's the oldest county courthouse in continuous use west of the Rockies.
In 1866 a clock was installed in the bell tower, and it too is still marking the passage of time for Mariposa's residents. Historical documents and drawings are posted on the courthouse walls and walk-in visitors are welcomed. Tour arrangements can be made by calling 209/966-3685 or 209/966-2456.
A fascinating collection of the artifacts and writings that add breadth and depth to Mariposa's history are displayed in the Mariposa history museum at the corner of Jessie and 12th streets in Mariposa.
In the museum, local history is laid out like a lush buffet for all who want to know more about the early days of California. With recent expansions, new exhibits feature artifacts, clothing, and memorabilia from Mariposa's large and hard-working Chinese community. Chinese immigrants arrived in great numbers from San Francisco beginning in 1848. By 1860 the Chinese population in California had reached 35,000.
The museum also has a good collection of artifacts and information about the local Miwuk Native American culture.
Letters written between 1852 and 1854 by Horace Snow to a boyhood friend named Charlie in Cambridge, Massachusetts, provide a literary look into life around Mariposa during the formative years of California. A book full of "Dear Charlie" letters is available from the museum.
One of Snow's letters opined, "The greatest blessing that could be conferred upon this beautiful country would be to place a line of battleships at the Golden Gate and sink every vessel bound for Frisco with liquor aboard." Snow later married and settled near Eureka, California, where the climate was more like that of his home state.
You may not come across a chunk of gold such as the 13-pound Fricot Nugget that is on display at the nearby California State Mining and Mineral Museum, but the gold-panning classes at the Mariposa Museum and History Center guarantee that some gold will show up in your pan. Classes are held Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
The history museum also has restored examples of pioneer homes, offices, wagons, and buggies including the "Cannon Ball" stagecoach that gained its name by transporting passengers from the railroad terminus near Madera, in the Central Valley, to Yosemite Valley at a rollicking speed of 12 miles per hour.
In 1862 Fr. Louis Auger supervised the construction of St. Joseph's Catholic Church that has been in continuous use since its dedication in 1863. Although it was enlarged slightly in 1958, the beauty and symmetry of the original structure was retained. Weekend masses are scheduled for 6 p.m. on Saturdays and 7, 8:30, and 11 a.m. on Sundays.
There are many other historic buildings clustered along the main streets of town. The Schlageter Hotel, the Jones residence, the Odd Fellows Hall, and the Old Jail (the granite walls are two and one-half feet thick) were all built before 1870.
The California State Mining and Mineral Museum is two miles south of town, near the fairgrounds. This museum, a California State Park, provides a look into the lives of early miners and features exceptional specimens of mining artifacts and California minerals. For more information call 209/742-7625 or visit the Web site ( http://cal-parks.ca.gov).
The Mariposa-Yosemite Airport is situated in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range at 2,230 feet msl. This airport is exceptionally well maintained and has a very comfortable office and pilot lounge.
Runway 8/26 is 3,310 by 60 feet (it was widened and lengthened slightly in October — the numbers listed here reflect the runway size before the expansion project). (See " AOPA Action in California: Improvements Take Shape in Mariposa," following p. 18.)
"There isn't really anything tricky about the airport but a lot of people come in too high," said Mark Steele, the airport's assistant manager. "I think the hills on the north side of the runway are the cause." The airport Web site cautions that crosswinds from the north may occur during night hours. Steele related another myth about the airport, "People think the runway goes uphill from east to west, but it appears steeper than it is. The grade is only 1 percent." Both runways are equipped with two-light VASI systems to help pilots gauge their approaches.
Camping is permitted on the airport. "There are picnic tables and water, and the restrooms are open 24 hours a day," said Steele. There's 80- and 100-octane fuel available at the 24-hour self-pump island.
The airport is four miles from town. Since there are few surrounding lights, this airport may appear to be in a black hole during dark nights. Be aware that all patterns are to the south since there are mountains immediately to the north of the field.
I was able to catch a ride with Airport Manager Maria Liddle as she drove to town on an errand. Enterprise Rent-A-Car can provide rental cars, but reservations are required. Enterprise can be contacted by calling 559/683-6464, or arrangements can be made by contacting the airport office at 209/966-2143 or by e-mail ( [email protected]).
Inexpensive transportation from Mariposa to Yosemite National Park, or to other towns up and down Highway 140, is provided by Yosemite Area Regional Transport System (YARTS). Call toll free 877/989-2787, local 209/388-9589, or see the Web site ( www.yarts.com) for more information.
The combination of manpower and the sudden wealth that was dug out of the ground in this part of California created new towns almost overnight. Because of a high level of craftsmanship, a dry climate, and the efforts of local citizens, many of Mariposa's early structures are still in use.
Whether you're a beginner at seeking out California history, or an old hand, a visit to historical Mariposa and a little bit of imagination will take you back to the days of early California. And when you've taken in all Mariposa has to offer, there's a whole universe of outdoor adventure just up the road at Yosemite National Park.
For guidance in exploring Mariposa County, contact the Mariposa County Chamber of Commerce at 209/966-2456 or visit the Web site ( www.mariposa.org).
E-mail the author at [email protected].
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