As I sat at the saloon bar having lunch, hearing tales of the town, the saloon doors creaked open behind me, but I heard no footsteps. I turned to see if the ghost of a 49er had just swaggered through the door. You know who it was? It was a low down dirty dog. Literally. A big, fat, arrogant, yellow dog lumbered on in with nary a glance at me and on passed the bar like he owned the place. I laughed pretty hard at this, but none of the locals were surprised. They casually informed me that he was just one of the town’s colorful characters, “the town dog”. Apparently, he saunters in and out of homes and businesses like a family member. He doesn’t wait for an invitation or bother to knock. Mok Hill is his oyster and all treat him like a friend.
In 1848 Mokelumne Hill had such a rich deposit of gold to be mined that the miner population actually began to starve. Nobody was willing to leave their claim long enough to make the trip to Stockton for provisions. Finally, one of the bunch was convinced to make the trip and he returned to open a general store, charging his eager customers and arm and a leg for what they needed.
The managers of Historic Hotel Leger in Mokelumne Hill, CA were proud of their town and of the hotel. They told me something about gold rush towns that I didn’t know. Many gold rush towns in the Motherlode had underground tunnels that connected the various important buildings.
These tunnels had multiple purposes. First, they acted as something like bomb shelters to escape the inevitable town fires. Second, they were inconspicuous routes used to transport gold to the bank. Third, gentlemen used them to cross the street from the respectable saloon to the brothel. No man of good reputation may be seen entering the brothel through the front door, so under the street he went. (Ladies, never be so sure you know exactly where your man is. Just sayin’.)
We were lucky to be offered a tour of the ruins of the portion of the tunnel that ran under the hotel. The cities tunnels are now incomplete. In places of the town the tunnels caused sinkhole cave-ins. Many segments are walled off. The segment under the Hotel Leger has been walled off with stone and the resulting caves have been converted into event rooms. They are cold in winter, but refreshingly cool in summer when they hold most of their cave functions, including paranormal explorations.
In the 1800’s, the old courthouse building had been purchased to expand the Hotel Leger. Under the courthouse was a jail. The jailroom remains with a portion of the bars. This room is now used to host special events including weddings. Yes, they said that the predictable comparison between marriage and jail is frequently made at such events.
The town hero is Edith Irvine (of the Irvine, CA development family). She was a young school teacher living in Mokelumne Hill. In 1906 she had planned a boat trip to Europe. She traveled by stage to Stockton where she caught a boat to San Francisco. Unfortunately, her European vacation was ill fated. She arrived in San Francisco just after the 1906 earthquake had struck and it, plus the ensuing fires, had destroyed the town. Edith was an accomplished photographer and had the means to own a quality camera. The police did not want anyone taking photographs of the ruins of San Francisco because they thought it was bad public relations. So Edith hid her camera in an abandoned baby buggy she found and continued taking photos. Her collection of guerrilla photos of the immediate aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake were later donated to the Brigham Young University and are now the most famous collection of photos of the city at that time. Coincidentally, we had booked ourselves into the Edith Irvine Room for the night.
The hotel has a lot of old world charm. Most rooms share a bathroom in the hall. The floors are creaky. When one person begins to stir on the second floor, everyone hears the floorboards telling the tale. But I loved that about the place. The wide wrap around porch is accessible from many rooms and a wonderful place to look down over the town and valley. Mok Hill was a delightful little secret place for us to tuck ourselves away for the night amongst friendly people.