Beginning in the 1880s, the town of Grub Gulch staked its claim in western lore, as a place where dreams were born and died. Located on the old stage road north of Raymond in Madera County, about five miles south of Ahwanee and ten miles west of Oakhurst.
It was born out of the Gold Rush, as the search for the precious metal rapidly swept south though the central state. Rich quartz veins holding gold were discovered in the early 1850s in the southern end of the Mother Lode, along the Fresno River in eastern Madera County. Settlements soon popped up: places like Texas Flat (Coarsegold) and Fresno Flats (Oakhurst), Fine Gold Gulch and Hildreth.
Most early miners worked the streams that were rich in gold deposits through the 1870s, but hard-rock ledge miners soon followed.
In 1880, a nugget- the size of a man’s thumb- was found, which led to the discovery of a quartz vein, laden with gold, 8-inches across. Thus the famed Gambetta mine (aka the Arkansas Traveler) was established. On its heels were many mines that soon followed the golden trail: the Josephine (Surprise), the Mammoth, Savannah, the Rex, the Caledonia, the Crystal Springs. A number of smaller mines also dotted the area.
Hard rock mining and the stamp mills to pulverize the quartz to extract the gold were quickly set up. Great numbers of men were needed to dig and drill and blast the treasure from the earth. They came in by the droves.
As early as 1851 Chinese miners worked the Fresno River at the spot that was chosen for a settlement needed to support the hundreds working the mines. It was located on a long, sweeping curve on the narrow road the Chinese had picked, chiseled and blasted out.
But it it wasn’t until placer mining had pretty much played out in the river and streams, and that hard rock mining came into its own, that Grub Gulch evolved from a cluster of shanties and tents in the late 1880s into a real town and began to grow and prosper.
The origin of its name, as it was commonly known, came from a bit of frontier optimism, and humor: that in hard times, the miners could always pan (grub) enough gold from the gulch (river) to grubstake themselves into better times, or at the least buy enough food to get them by.
Standing on both sides of the road, a pair of two-story hotels were built, the top-notch Thomas and Morrison, five saloons, a general store, post office, a boarding house, a school, up a hill, away from trouble, but no church. Many permanent residences popped up as well.
A major problem at Grub Gulch was lack of water. Because of the depths of several mine shafts in proximity, which took away to water supply, it had to be hauled from Crystal Spring, a good distance to the south. It sold for 35-cents a barrel. Two water storage tanks were later placed above the town.
Despite this initial setback, it thrived.
Former resident Walter Mills, in a letter in the archives of the Madera County Museum, who lived there as a young boy, described Grub Gulch in as a “a very lively mining town, plenty of money and freely spent. Gambling games running day and night.”
Lindsay Wright another former resident, in a 1967 Fresno Bee story recalled the town living up to its reputation of a Wild West town: “Working, drinking, fighting and pleasuring, were ever the daily routine.” “We had a couple of killings when differences of opinion arose among miners from the different mines,” he recalled, “and teamsters were not adverse to joining in fights when the situation indicated”
At its peak in the mid-1880s to the late 1890s, several hundred people lived there. Gold dust and coin were the common means of exchange. Celebrations and dances- Grand Balls as they were advertised- were held at any excuse and at any time. Folks came from Texas Flat (Coarsegold), Poison Switch, Finegold, Fresno Flats, on horse back or fancy rigs to attend Saturday night dances.
By this time, Grub Gulch, which initially provided services for miners, now found new customers traveling by stage to a new found industry: Yosemite tourism.
Boarding trains from all places, from the world over, connecting at Berenda (north of Madera) for a journey to Raymond, and then by stage, eventually to Yosemite, which was made a national park in 1890. In the early days only the wealthy could afford the $45 round trip fare.
Often seen on the road through Grub Gulch were detachments of the United States Cavalry, going to and coming from Yosemite, as the park was then maintained and administered by the army.
So narrow was the rough, rocky, dust-laden road, the mule and horse teams had bells attached to their harnesses to serve a warnings on blind curves. It had to have been arduous travel, but exciting at the same time, some more than others, as noted later.
The rich and famous stopped at the Gulch, and in May of 1903, the little foothill town was in a particular frenzied state of excitement.
Flags, patriotic bunting draped from the railings of the Thomas and Morrison hotels, the long verandas, and the board walk that fronted Abe Taylor’s store, all closely packed with town folk garbed in their best clothes. Even a pair of prolific yellow rose bushes seemed to stand taller.
Along the curve in the road which was the town’s dusty main street, families waited, crowded together for a better view. In Charlie Lyon’s saloon celebratory customers lined the windows.
Then came the rumble of the large, eleven-passenger stagecoach with sound of pounding of horse’s hooves. In a cloud of dust, it pulled up in front of the Thomas. A stocky, mustached man with a wide, toothy grin stepped down to a great roar of of welcome.
He stood on the veranda, shook hands and spoke briefly. After rounds of hurrahs, whistling and friendly shouts, he climbed back into the stage, and with a crack of the whip, the most distinguished visitor to Grub Gulch was on his way.
President Theodore Roosevelt had been there and gone, en route to Yosemite Valley. He reportedly said of Grub Gulch, “This is a bully town.”
Accompanying Roosevelt on this three-day camping trip to Yosemite, was naturalist John Muir, who successfully lobbied the president to federally protect Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove (from state protection) to become part of Yosemite National Park. Roosevelt didn’t need much persuasion after seeing first- hand the wonders of Yosemite, and in 1906, Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias became part of Yosemite Natinal Park.
Roosevelt was not the only famous visitor to the Gulch. Others bent on seeing the wonders of Yosemite included President William Howard Taft and famed orator and politician, William Jennings Bryan.
And again, this was not a sleepy town.
Once, a lynching was averted. The guilty party was narrowly saved from the business end of frontier justice during a rowdy incident at Charley Lyon’s saloon. A man rushed into the general store next door seeking rope, the purpose of which was to hang a man at the bar. During a card game, a drunk gambler named Tom Averill, argued with another gambler, Bud Smith. Averill pulled a gun and said “Bud, there is blood in my eye” as he pulled the trigger hitting Smith in the neck, just missing the jugular vein. Averill was immediately knocked down by others. The rope was furnished, and in no time the affair “noised around town” according to Walter Mills. To the rescue came Averill’s wife who “rushed down in time to save her husband and the others from committing a rash act.” Averill hit the trail in one piece, and Smith recovered.
In another shooting, Charles Brim, a large man, town bully, and the aggressor in this story, met his end after severely beating a Gambetta mine foreman, Jack Keith-a much smaller man-on the porch of Thomas Hotel, on the evening of June 21, 1902. An argument turned quickly into a violent, one-sided, attack. After repeatedly being knocked down by Brim, with pleads to stop the assault, Keith finally pulled out a .32 Smith & Wesson pistol.
“I don’t believe you have the nerve to pull the trigger,” Brim taunted him, as he delivered a fierce uppercut, under Keith’s chin, so hard that it lifted the smaller man off the porch. On his back, Keith got off his first shot, a flesh wound that only furthered angered Brim, who continuously kicked Keith while he was down. At this point, he fired two more rounds into Brim’s body at point black range. He finally backed off, grabbing his stomach, stumbled and falling into the street. After being carried into the hotel, he died a half hour later. Keith was found innocent by means of justifiable homicide.
Stagecoaches robberies on the old road were common. But certainly the most audacious of these, not only in the central San Joaquin valley, but perhaps the state happened on the morning of June 2, 1900. Two miles below Grub Gulch, one bandit, armed with a shotgun, who disguised his face and hands blackened with theatrical makeup, and wearing a blue bandana, held traffic at bay for two hours, robbing three stages, one freight wagon, one lumber wagon, an officer and a soldier of the U.S. Cavalry.
One by one, as they arrived on the road, he stopped the vehicles. After disarming drivers and passengers, his orders were described as cool and direct, “climb down there; hurry up; no exceptions. Line up there…now you there pass the hat.” He had his captives- including Yosemite tourists from various countries- gather under the shade of nearby trees. Disregarding the circumstances, it seemed almost like a picnic.
One freight driver was tempted to offer the bandit beer he had in his wagon, but decided against it, not wanting to become too friendly.
His take was about $280 from 34 men and 5 women. The robber handed the first stage driver a card reading: “The Black Kid,” (perhaps a nod to famed stage robber “Black Bart”?), and saying “I hope we will get better acquainted, old man.”
The incident finally ended upon the arrival of eight cavalry troopers, bringing up the rear of the unit, when the bandit decided not to push his luck and fled through heavy brush and thicket. The troopers gave chase but came up empty. If he had been apprehended by the troopers, there would have been a problem…they had no ammunition for the guns they carried- it had been taken from them the night before during their stay in Raymond- to insure there were no issues because of their rowdy ways.
Suspected in a number of other stage robberies for five more years, he was never caught.
The once-bustling little town began its decline rapidly by 1900, as the mighty mines began to play out. Madera County boasted the production of $1,350,000 in gold between 1880 and 1892, nearly a million of which came from Grub Gulch mines. The top-producing Gambetta Mine extracted $490,000 in gold ore before it closed down in 1904. Last saloon was boarded up in 1910. On its deathbed, cattle ranching kept the Gulch hanging on, for a few short years.
Other factors in its decline were a new railroad to Yosemite, effectively ending the era of stage travel, and the ushering in of the golden age of the automobile, and with it, shorter and better roads. Cattle ranching kept the Gulch hanging on, barely for a few years. Some buildings were moved, such as the Morrison Hotel moved to a ranch in 1913, others torn down and others burned down.
All that remains is the town’s cemetery located behind a corral on private property above the townsite. A historical marker, on the site of the Morrison Hotel, overlooks the town.
But unbelievably and against all odds, the spirit of Grub Gulch lives on, in one of the two rose bushes planted in the 1880s. Remember Grub Gulch had no water- the roses struggled to survive for close to a hundred years, until one was rescued in the early 1970s by rose fanciers with an appreciation for history, who took rootings.
Two descendants of the rootings of the roses taken profusely live on, at the Oakhurst Community Center, and at Murphys Old Timers Museum in Murphys, both marked by monuments by E Clampus Vitus, Grub Gulch Chapter #41-49, which adopted the Grub Gulch Rose as their emblem and talisman.