South of the River
A unique area of Tuolumne County is located south and east of the Tuolumne River. State Highway 120 is the only road that links the towns and settlements from Oakdale and across the Sierra’s Tioga Pass. Groveland and Big Oak Flat were originally part of a small placer mining area discovered by James D. Savage, a California pioneer of 1846. The gold was first found in the waterway later named Rattlesnake Creek, near Big Oak Flat. Both towns are located at 3000 feet elevation along Highway 120, above a steep grade on the way to Yosemite National Park.
James Savage founded the towns of Big Oak Flat and Garrote (now Groveland), then collectively known as Savages Diggings in 1849. Big Oak Flat got its name from a large oak located there. The Groveland section of the camp was named Garrote from its reputation of swift and hard justice by way of hangings. Garrote in Spanish means death by strangulation. A third small town one-mile east of First Garrote was named Second Garrote. All three towns were within three miles of each other.
Chronic water shortages that had limited the areas growth were alleviated in 1860 when the Golden Rock Ditch was built. It took water from the South Fork of the Tuolumne River, near Harden Flat, and brought it by ditch, flume, and inverted siphon to Second Garrote, Garrote/Groveland, and Big Oak Flat. In the 1850s, a wagon road was built from the paddle-wheel steamer docks in Stockton to service the gold mining towns of Garrote and Big Oak Flat. Hydraulic mining was introduced, but gold deposits were soon depleted. After a major fire in October 1863, Big Oak Flat burned down and its incorporation was abolished. In 1874, the Big Oak Flat road to Yosemite was completed as a tourism and freight route linking the San Joaquin River docks in Stockton and the Yosemite Valley. Passing through Big Oak Flat and Garrote, the road, now largely Highway 120 in Tuolumne County, became and remains an important factor in the vitality of the region. Seeking respectability, area residents renamed Garrote to Groveland in 1875.
In the late 1890s, Groveland had a second boom with deep shaft quartz mines and stamping operations. As mining profitability declined again, a new kind of boom started. The large Hetch Hetchy water project’s headquarters was in Groveland from 1915 to 1925. The City and County of San Francisco had gained generous rights to the Tuolumne River watershed in 1910 and set its sights on damming the main Tuolumne River as it meandered through Hetch Hetchy, a wide glacial cut valley almost as grand as Yosemite. O’Shanghnessey Dam, a key feature of the Hetch Hetchy Water and Power project, was constructed at Hetch Hetchy. Before the actual dam construction could get underway, the San Francisco project built the Hetch Hetchy Railroad extending from the Sierra Railway at the Hetch Hetchy Junction, fifteen miles west of Jamestown, and continuing to the dam site. The railroad carried cement, materials, and workers to the dam site. Maintenance shops were also centered at Groveland. Miles of tunnels were drilled to carry the water 150 miles to reservoirs in the Bay Area. Evidence of the Hetch Hetchy project can be seen along Highway 120 where four large penstocks descend to Moccasin, adjacent to Priest Grade.
Mary Laveroni Community Park: The site of San Francisco’s Hetch Hetchy construction headquarters. An administration building and large barn stood where the firehouse and parking lot are today. The Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum is now located on this corner. The railroad roundhouse and warehouses were located alongside Garrotte Creek near the present CalTrans yard. Up on the hill was the railroad’s main line and train station.
Groveland Jail: A simple Neoclassical frame structure built at the turn of the century, it was intended to house Groveland’s criminals during the hard rock mining boom. Prisoners were held here only until they could be transported to Sonora.
Iron Door Saloon & Restaurant: This two-story adobe structure erected circa 1851 is one of four Gold Rush era adobe buildings still to be found in the Groveland area. During the 1860-70s the Masonic Lodge #107 owned the upper story. Salvador Ferretti operated a butcher shop in the building until 1920. A fire destroyed the shop and later it was reopened as a shoe store.
Groveland Inn: The town’s largest adobe building. George Reed, a prominent Gold Rush sawmill operator, built this structure sometime between 1849 and 1852. Matthew Foot owned the hotel from the 1860s into the late 1870s. It has remained a hotel throughout most of its long life, undergoing few changes.
Big Oak Flat:
Odd Fellows (IOOF) Hall: Actually two separate stone buildings with an added second story, the west half of the lower story was constructed for Michael Gilbert in 1854. The larger east half, erected circa 1852, housed Kent and Grant’s Mercantile. After the great fire of 1863, the Odd Fellows acquired Grant’s store for a meeting lodge, and by the 1880s, purchased Gilbert’s old store.
Gamble Block: By far the most impressive stone structure in the Southern Tuolumne County area. Wells, Fargo and Co. was located in the eastern third of the building from the 1850s until the 1890s. Constructed before 1853, this stone and brick edifice traditionally house separate businesses. Besides the Express Office, a tinsmith, post office, cobbler shop, grocery store and saloon have operated at various times within this structure. In the 1850-60s, the massive building was erected for Alexander Gamble who was a successful Gold Rush merchant.
Catholic Church and Cemetery: Established in 1861, the property is located just east of the Big Oak Flat townsite boundary. The building may have been partially reconstructed around 1900. This is one of the oldest and best preserved from structures in Tuolumne County.
The Big Oak: The stately tree of Big Oak Flat had an estimated diameter of 11-plus feet. In the drive for gold, local miners undermined the tree’s root system and it soon died. Reduced by the great 1863 fire to a massive trunk, the giant fell to earth in the 1880s and was consumed in 1900 by an escaped campfire.