GPS: 37.502634, -120.238241
From Modesto California, head south on Highway 99. At 7.8 miles take Exit 218 and turn left on Keyes Road. Follow for 10 miles then turn right on N Montpelier Rd towards Montpelier. This becomes Oakdale Road. Follow Oakdale for 12 miles then turn right on Turlock Rd. towards Hopeton. At 8.3 miles Turlock joins with Highway CA-59. Follow it through Snelling, Merced Falls and to Hornitos Road. Follow Hornitos Road to Hornitos California.
*Note* There are multiple ways to get here, all of them complicated. Hornitos is a great stopping point on the way to Yosemite National Park especially if you enjoy exploring back roads.
Hornitos California is the epitome of Ghost Towns. Various sites state that the population was anywhere between 6000 to 15,000 people. For decades it has been a stop for travelers to nearby Yosemite National Park. It is now a picturesque town of ruins of 75 inhabitants with few amenities for travelers but a community working to preserve the town’s remains and it’s history.
*note* – There are dozens of sites about Hornitos. I have had a hard time finding primary sources for a lot of this information. Most of it seems to be the same repeated stories, but there are several contradictory versions. I’ve tried to note both pieces of information when available. If you can shed any light on either side, please comment below.
California History Marker #333 describes the town: “Hornitos, ‘little ovens,’ derived its name from the presence of many old Mexican stone graves or tombs built in the shape of little square bake ovens and set on top of the ground. The town seemed to have been settled by an undesirable element driven out of the adjoining town of Quartzburg, but as the placers at Quartzburg gave out, many of its other citizens came to Hornitos. It became the first and the only incorporated town in Mariposa County.”
This oft repeated story, while likely true, seems to not only also have had a racist component, but one of greed. Most of these expelled people were Mexican emigrants from the state of Sonora Mexico who had claims to rich gold mines that were taken over by white miners when they left. Unfortunately for both parties, the area of Hornitos proved be even richer in gold and most if not all the miners from Quartzburg moved to Hornitos over the next several years.
Either way, Hornitos was soon known as a rowdy and lawless town in it’s own right attracting such personalities as Joaquin Murrieta, a well known Mexican Bandit/Robin Hood Figure who was the inspiration for the fictional character of “Zorro.” Like many before him, Murrieta was abused by white miners in the area, and it is speculated that his wife was either raped or killed by them. At a minimum she was definitely molested somehow, and Murrieta, described by friends as a cripple, thrown down a well during the event. He got out with some difficulty (and no doubt help,) and pretty much vowed revenge.
In 1855, another famous personality came to Hornitos. Domenico Ghirardelli set up a store in 1856 to sell goods to miners in the area who were striking it rich. Among the goods he sold were his chocolate recipes. He ran the store for three years before moving to San Francisco to concentrate on his chocolate business full time. He sold the building which became an Odd Fellows hall upstairs, and an amusement hall/saloon downstairs. Oddly, his time in Hornitos is not mentioned in the companies’ history, despite the fact that they again own the ruins of the store and even posted a history sign there.
The 1860 Census shows a population of 241 people, although some sites claim up to 6000 people at that time. These numbers are significantly different enough that even a huge Chinese population can’t explain the difference, although it is possible that the census only hit the town proper and didn’t county miners in the nearby area. If you have insight into these confusing numbers, please comment below.
It was also the site of the brutal murder of a Chinese Miner named China John in the 1860s. He had been tormented by local boys and shot past them to scare them away. The bullet ricocheted off some rocks and grazed one of the boys in the leg, frightening them away, but white miners grabbed him and only relented from hanging him right then and there because town officials promised a trial then next day. Unfortunately China Jim was murdered that night by someone who lured him to the jail window, slipped a noose around his head, and repeatedly slammed his head against the walls of the jail.
Interestingly, at least one prominent citizen of Hornitos at this time was Black, and a well respected member of the community. This was Moses Rodgers, a former slave, turned mining engineer. The following excerpt is from the book, The Negro Trail-Blazers of California: A Compilation of Records from the California Archives in the Bancroft Library: (from The Merced Star. “A carload of machinery arrived at the depot last Friday, consigned to the Mount Gains Mine, Mariposa County. Moses Rodgers, of Hornitos, than whom there is no better mining man in the State, has been engaged as its superintendent. The standing and known energy of the men backing the enterprise are a guarantee that the mine will be carefully handled and worked on a paying basis. The Mount Gaines mine is well known among mining men to be a good mining property, and the new arrangement and its undoubted success will mean a great deal for mining in the vicinity of Hornitos.”
The first post office in the area was opened in 1856, but it wasn’t until 1877 that the name was changed to Hornitos. I have no record of what the first post office name was – if you know, please post below! To confuse matters more, another source says that the post office was opened as Hornitos on June 18th, 1856.
By 1890 the population had dropped to a mere 267 people according to the census. Yet reports say there were up to 15,000 people in town – no doubt another miscount of the census. By 1916, Sunset Magazine labeled the town a ghost town – giving us an idea of how quickly the population disappeared.The “Pioneers” of Hornitos. It is unclear if all these men were founders of the town, or if they just happened to have still been living in Hornitos at the time of this picture. From Left to Right they are R. Bancroft, C. B. Cavagnaro, Joe Barcroft, Nick Solari, Joe Branson, F. A. Cavagnaro, and Joe Heacox.
The Ghirardelli company purchased the ruins of Ghirardelli’s old general store in 1929 and erected a historical marker there. They didn’t rebuild, but the site is the only one surrounded by a barrier of sorts.
One of Ansel Adams most famous works was taken in Hornitos. It is a picture of the church, framed by a wooden picket fence. The photo was taken on his way to Yosemite in 1946, proving that people have been loving those backroads for decades.
Hornitos Patrons Club website – a non-profit dedicated to preserving Hornitos