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A Collection of Stories on the History and Achievements of Stanislaus County



Sol P. Elias

Modesto, Cal.







pg. 203




La Grange



Astride the hilltop, and standing like a silent sentinel over the roaring and foaming waters that plunge over the massive walls of the La Grange Dam, and later make their peaceful way through the canals of the irrigation district, and peering pensively over the brink of the precipice on the boulder-bedecked river's bed below, La Grange today is a majestic memory of an interesting past.


Vying with Knight's Ferry in antiquity, sharing with that village early county seat honors, La Grange possesses a story that is replete with exciting episode, that antedates the birth of the county and carries one back to the middle of the last century when the sturdy sons of Gaul settled around the cliff on the bed of the river to mine for gold – the ever attractive lure – and to grow the grape from which they pressed the wine wherein they visioned the sunshine of the valleys and the blue eyes of the fair maidens of sunny France.


The mining excitement of '49 with its fabled story of wealth brought to these shores fortune hunters from every clime in quest of the golden fleece. Many came from France to escape the impending ruin of the monarchy and to establish homes in the new world. Extremely clannish were these Frenchmen for it was their habit to form colonies of their own and many of them had settled at a very early day up and down the Tuolumne river close to the present site of La Grange. When, in 1852, the townsite of La Grange was created on land that had been taken up by Elam Dye as a ranch there were about fifty of these prospecting miners in the vicinity. They were located on the river about a mile south of La Grange. This gave the name of French Bar to the town which it possessed for a number of years, and until superseded by its present title.


pg. 204


Originally a part of Tuolumne county, La Grange was included in Stanislaus county in 1854 when the latter was carved out of the former and became one of the counties of the state. During this and the subsequent year or two La Grange was one of the most active mining camps in the state and witnessed a most phenomenal growth. When the fifty Frenchmen went to prospecting on the Tuolumne river in '52 there was no idea that there was any gold worth digging for on the river but these miners brought the pay dirt to the surface. They then sent for their friends to join them and a large camp was at once created.


A correspondent writing to the Stockton Republican in February, 1854, describes La Grange as follows:


“La Grange, or French Bar, as it has been called, is on the lowest bar of the Tuolumne river. A few months ago it was little thought of but at the present time it is worked more and pays better than any other bar on the river. There are now over 100 buildings on the bar and as soon as the water raises a new saw mill will go into operation.


French Bar has been a mining camp for some year or two but was not of much note until the Americans came in last August. Since then the town has been steadily on the increase in point of mining importance. The population within the last two months has taken a rapid rise. Town plot has been laid off. Substantial frame houses have been erected. Numerous mechanics and store keepers have come to the place and last but not least a fair sprinkling of the fair sex have arrived.


The town now boasts of ten stores, three boarding houses, three butcher shops, four blacksmith shops, a livery stable, two restaurants, a post office, a barber shop, a gunsmith and a billiard saloon. A saw mill has just been completed. Two sluicing companies are preparing to bring water on the lower level for mining purposes, and a steam engine has just been put into operation which is calculated to afford water for eight or ten sluices. The extent of the mining region cannot be less than twenty square miles and within those limits there is more gold than can be taken out in twenty years.


Two miles below the mining camp an agricultural development begins. Fields of grain exhibiting a rich dark green are to be seen for miles in extent. Some farms have seven or eight hundred of acres in wheat with a good crop in prospect and with the advantages of John Talbot's flour mill, which is not yet in operation, the farmers in this neighborhood cannot fail of reaping a rich harvest.”


pg. 205


In the years of 1854-7 La Grange probably enjoyed its greatest prosperity, possessed its largest population and had the appearance of a city of the frontier type – a mining camp of sizable proportions. A directory published in 1857 gives the names of nearly two hundred and fifty male residents and these, together with the women and children and the miners in the diggings, would approximate a population of close to fifteen hundred people. Indeed La Grange in that period of its history was a city. An old print in describing it in the year 1856 give the following account:


“The town of La Grange, situated on the Tuolumne river in the county of Stanislaus, thirty-five miles southwest from Columbia and Sonora, has recently been made the county seat by a handsome majority. From the desirable location and the many advantages she possesses she will in a very brief time be a formidable rival of many of the larger towns in this portion of the state.


The present town is located on the second bench or table land from the river. It is well and regularly laid out. The streets are wide and intersect each other at right angles. The buildings are principally of wood but of good material. Her hotels are second to none in the mountain country. The store houses are numerous, large and well stocked. Restaurants, saloons, express and banking offices and everything required to supply the wants and desires of her people are there.


Some three lines of stages arrive and depart daily for Stockton, via Knight's Ferry, also for Cox's Ranch, Pleasant Valley, Mariposa and Don Pedro's Bar, Montezuma, Chinese Camp, Jamestown, Sonora and Columbia.”


One of the most interesting features of La Grange in its mining days was its large number of Chinese inhabitants. It is estimated that at that period there were no less than fifteen hundred of them there. They pursued almost every occupation and lived by themselves close to the river. La Grange's Chinatown was one of the picturesque spots of the village, vying in excitement and incident with that of San Francisco in its most palmy days. There were several Chinese companies represented. Feuds were numerous. Shooting scrapes were not infrequent and gambling and fan tan the daily practice.




La Grange's Chinatown is a memory among the old timers. There were also a few Indians in the village.


That La Grange was a large and populous village at this period of its life may be gathered from the roster of its mercantile community. Its merchants were Isaac Amsden, George Buck, Goshen Clapp, B. Cohen, Cohen & Co., G. R. Davis, A. H. Davis, W. B. Farwell, R. M. Green, J. W. Geist, G. Goldsmith, Harris & Co., Michael Harris, C. Holineans, A. Jacobs, Vincent L. Koop, George L. Murdock, Uriah Nelson, Pache & Cousins, J. B. Peck, S. J. Simon, Levi Silverman, E. Tichenor, Peter Thobard, Toole & Co., G. W. Ward and John Vongero.


A. Elkins, subsequently the county judge of Stanislaus from 1862 to 1872, was the justice of the peace, while the lawyers were O. H. Allen, S. P. Scaniker, the district attorney then and until 1861, and W. M. Stafford. John J. Willis was also a justice of the peace. E. B. Beard was the county assessor and superintendent of schools and in 1862-3 was the county surveyor, and in the early 80's represented the county in the legislature. After the creation of Modesto he became identified with this city and was one of its most prominent citizen. He was the father of T. K. Beard of Modesto. W. D. Kirk was the sheriff and held the position until his death in 1857, when John Clark, afterwards constable of Modesto during its vigilante days, was appointed sheriff and held the office for one day. The deputy sheriff was W. C. Hanle. The county judge was H. W. Wallis; the clerk of court, recorder and auditor, R. McGarvey; Silas Wilcox, county surveyor, and Heth Williams the coroner. McGarvey subsequently removed to Mendocino county, where he held the position of Superior Court judge for many years.


J. W. Crofforth, who fathered the creation of Stanislaus in the legislature, was the joint senator, while the two assemblymen from the county were C. W. Cook and J. Collbreth.


The medical fraternity was represented by L. M. Bath, G. W. King, Thomas Payne, N. de La Tourett and A. G. White.


The restaurant and hotel keepers were J. W. Carter, Felix Chapery, Samuel Joseph, Mons Munier, W. J. Pinckney, C. N. Savage, J. W. Wilbur, T. M. Woodhead and Mons Vincent.


pg. 207


The stage agent was H. Schemerhorn, while the “daguerrean” was D. H. Woods.


B. B. Garner, who subsequently became one of the active spirits in the early days of Modesto and who was killed in the early 80's by Town Marshal Young on Front street, was the lone wood merchant of the city.


Every known industry and vocation was pursued in La Grange at this period – the heyday of its prosperity.


There was present every element of commercial activity, from butchers to bakers and barbers, from saloon keepers to billiard parlor managers, from carpenters to blacksmiths and wheelwrights, teamsters, contractors, traders, miners, rancheros and lumbermen – all were there. In itself, though an inland community and reached only by long and laborious journey over tedious and uncertain roads, La Grange was an all sufficient village. Nor was it without its manufacturing establishments. John Talbot on the Tuolumne river below La Grange owned the flouring mill. Mons Bremaird was a manufacturer of syrups and Mons Villard brewed the beer for the thirsty denizens. La Grange in 1854-6 was a busy city.


In 1855-6-7 Stanislaus county was sparsely peopled. There were but few settlements in the county other than at La Grange and none of them approached the proportions of that city in size. The total vote for governor in 1855 in the county was 524. Later in the year in the county seat election La Grange received 558 votes to 139 for Empire. The light vote for Empire indicates the relative importance of the foothill country around La Grange to that of the plains and shows where the population of the county existed. It was in or around La Grange.


Most of the industrial activity of the county in 1854-6 was located at La Grange or in its tributary surrounding country. The chief occupation was mining. There was some grazing, and the county, as an early writer calls it, was a “cow country.” Agricultural was third in importance. A chronicler of the time, in writing of La Grange in 1856, makes the following notes of the activities of the place:


“Mr. Pine, a very enterprising citizen, projected a plan for introducing water to the table lands from the river.


pg. 208


A company was organized under his direction, a survey made and the work commenced. They take the water from the river some two miles above the village and convey it in a large flume to the miners in and around La Grange. The point where the canal taps the river is in a deep canyon and in order to get it the required height they had to construct a substantial dam 23 feet high. This superstructure is built of logs bolted together and firmly fixed to the bottom and sides of the canyon.


There is also another ditch enterprise in contemplation which is to bring the waters of the Tuolumne river from a distance of some twenty-five or thirty miles above and sufficiently high to be taken to the mineral lands embraced in the district between the Tuolumne and Merced rivers. These lands are known to contain rich deposits of gold but cannot be made available until water is introduced by artificial means.


Independent of the mineral resources which La Grange enjoys, she has still another and a very important one – agricultural. At this point commences the rich bottom lands of the Tuolumne well known for their productiveness. Mr. J. D. Morley, who resides three miles below the village, has within the last three years, by ditching and fencing, enclosed 700 acres of these rich agricultural lands. Last season his ranch produced 7000 bushels of wheat, 900 bushels of barley and sixty tons of hay, a quantity of stock and 500 fowls, for all of which he finds a ready market almost at his door. A flouring mill has been erected on the river near his premises by John Talbot & Co., which being a good mill and in a very desirable location is a great convenience to the ranchers and a source of profit to the proprietors.”


The importance of mining in La Grange in the 50's may be gathered from the mining laws of the district. At a meeting of the miners of that vicinity held on July 8, 1855, the following articles were unanimously adopted for the government of “these diggings.”


Article 1. That the following be the limits and boundary lines of the mining district of La Grange, otherwise known as French Bar, viz.: Commencing at Geist's store and running from thence four miles up and four miles down the Tuolumne river, including the present channel of the river, with all the gulches and tributaries emptying into said river upon its south side.


pg. 209


Art. 2. That each river claim to each persons be one hundred and fifty feet, to be secured by two notices, one upon each end of the claim.


Art. 3. That upon bars, along the side of the river, each person be allowed to hold one hundred and fifty feet long, and one hundred and fifty feet wide, and no bar shall extend over one hundred and fifty feet in width, and each man shall secure his claim by four stakes and notices.


Art. 4. Flat claims shall be one hundred and fifty feet wide and two hundred and fifty feet long, the same to be secured by a boundary ditch and notices or by four corner stakes and a notice upon each stake.


Art. 5. Hill claims allowable to each persons be one hundred feet square, to be secured as specified in article four., and all hill claims over ten feet deep shall not be considered workable in the rainy season.


Art. 6. Gulch claims, to each person, shall be one hundred and fifty feet up and down the gulch, and fifty feet wide, to be secured as specified in article four.


Art. 7. That tunneling claims, to each person, shall be one hundred and fifty feet front, and running back eight hundred feet, to be secured as in article four.


Art. 8. That each person be limited to hold by location only three claims but shall not be allowed to hold more than one claim of the same kind – and all claims shall be worked within six days after being workable – if not the person or persons having located them shall forfeit them (unless sickness prevents them) and in this case be subject to be located by any person else.


Art. 9. That all cases of dispute about mining claims be settled by an arbitration of four miners. Each disputing party shall choose two, and in the event of their not agreeing, then said arbitrators shall agree upon a fifth man to act as umpire, whose decision shall be final. But in the event of any of the disputing parties not acknowledging such decision, then the miners of this district will assemble and compel said party to recognize the umpire's decision.



R. J. KEMGH, Secretary.


pg. 210


From the nature of its industry, from its extremely cosmopolitan population, from the character of the surrounding country, from the free and easy life of the community, and from the traditions of its early days as transmitted by the old timers who participated in its activities at that period, one can visualize the La Grange of the 50's. It was one of the liveliest and most active mining camps of the state. And it possessed that reputation throughout the state and in the press of that period.


The one main street that traversed the town was lined on both sides with business establishments. Here was where the saloons, the hotels, the stores and the stables were all situated. This street followed the highway leading into the town, ran through the city and at its end turned off into the road that traveled to Sonora. The residence district was to the right of the main street up on the hill, and scattered over considerable territory. Due to the enterprise of the merchants, this main street was always kept in a strictly metropolitan condition in the summer. The court house and jail were located in the lower end of the town as one enters it. The county offices were scattered through the town.


The rich placer mines, the ranges in the vicinity and the tilled ranches all poured their wealth into La Grange in the 50's and combined to make it a most prosperous village of the 49' type. Fandago houses and saloons flourished. It was a wide open town. Gambling was unmolested. The bright lights were never dimmed, and when the miner or the rancher came to town with his wallet filled with gold dust, he found boon companions of every variety to satiate his thirst for joy and to help him beguile idle moments.


There was a rough and ready justice among those old miners and frequently the orderly processes of the law were ignored and swift and perhaps more condign punishment meted out to the malefactor. Shooting scrapes were frequent. The old wooden jail confined many a horse thief, murderer and mine jumper whom the vigilantes took from the clutches of the law and hanged to the nearest tree. Cattle thieves were summarily dealt with. In 1858 Frank Lane, the son of Major Lane, of Mountain Brow, was killed by one of a band of cattle thieves who had escaped to the mountains, but the murderer was captured, placed in the ramshackle jail and subsequently taken from it and hanged.


pg. 211


In 1856 several of the litigants in a law suit involving title to land were shot to death after the submission of the case and as they were leaving the court room. During the early time the French miners resisted the officers in their effort to collect the foreign miner's license, and after the power of the county was invoked against them, they were hailed before Justices of the Peace Salter and Morley and heavily fined for resisting the officers.


In these early days there were many pistol duels on the streets of La Grange. Bud Ellis killed a Frenchman below La Grange in the early 60's. A drunken Frenchman had insulted the wife of Ellis during the husband's absence. Upon learning the fact, Ellis sought vengeance and murdered the first Frenchman whom he met. Members of the French colony sought reprisal and gathered at the jail to hang Ellis, but the jail delivery was prevented by Sheriff G. W. Branch.


During this period a man named Keough killed Dr. King, the leading physician and druggist, on account of family difficulties. The unwritten law was invoked and the killing was held to be a justifiable homicide. A man named Burden shot and killed on Bullard, a son-in-law of H. B. Davis, a prominent rancher on the Tuolumne, in the 60's, on the streets of La Grange. Owing to the prominence of the parties, this case created considerable excitement. Burden was tried in the district court at Knight's Ferry.


During the Civil War political feeling ran high in La Grange. Most of the settlers had emigrated from the south and their sympathies were with the Confederacy. It was difficult for a northern speaker to get a respectful hearing. There were a few loyal citizens, however, in La Grange – one in particular. Andy Anderson, who kept a hotel and who alone hoisted the American flag and shot the salute whenever the Federal forces were victorious. A volunteer company was raised in La Grange which went to Salt Lake in General Connor's regiment. Thirty years ago, after the wounds of the war had been healed by time, the staunch loyalty and the patriotic exploits of Anderson were recounted by the men who were at La Grange in war time, and joined in reviling him. It has also been said that during the county seat contest in 1862 when Knight's Ferry won the honor from La Grange, the latter town was a walking arsenal, so strong was the feeling on this matter.


pg. 212


Though La Grange, famous in the palmy times of “an ounce a day,” witnessed a mushroom growth, its decline was equally rapid, the Frazier river excitement giving it the finishing stroke as a mining center and causing it to become almost deserted. The removal of the county seat in 1860 added to its loss of prestige. In 1870 there was a revival of mining activities which continued for some time but not in the same degree as formerly. The celebrity of La Grange had permanently departed. Thereafter it became known as the seat of the county's sheep industry and as a farming locality, many fertile ranches still existing in this locality. The low foothills gave excellent feed for grazing purposes. Since that period hydraulic mining has been carried on for many years, but the main support of the town has been its agricultural resources. Nearly all the river bottom has been dredged for gold and a company is still engaged in this work.


The Wheaton dam and ditches near La Grange were constructed in the early 50's for mining purposes. Mr. Wheaton was one of the pioneers of the irrigation movement in the Modesto district, for he was among the first to advocate the purchase of his dam and water rights by the land owners on the plains for irrigation purposes. After the organization of the irrigation districts his rights and property passed to the Modesto and Turlock districts and the La Grange dam constructed.


A traveler in passing through La Grange in the fall of 1871 wrote as follows of this historic town:


“The climate of La Grange is soft and attractive; and last evening, as on horseback we approached the place and cast our eyes over the clear, gentle foot-hills, sprinkled with the weeping post oak, and rolling away in the distance until lost in the bases of the lofty Sierras, amid the shadowy light of the sinking sun, we thought nature presented to us a landscape of dreamy beauty such as we had never looked upon before.


The little valleys about La Grange are fertile and beautiful. Just between the bluff on which the town is situated and the margin of the Tuolumne river, there is a most fruitful garden, and in it are two fig trees, thirteen years old, of remarkable thrift and beauty.


pg. 213


They are about eight feet apart, rise forty feet into the air, mingle their redundant branches as one tree, and either of them will measure seven and a half feet in circumference.


A ditch taken out of the Tuolumne river, seventeen miles long, eight feet broad at the top, six at the bottom, and four feet deep, is being brought into La Grange, and will be completed in two or three months. There are now fifteen hundred men at work upon it, six hundred of whom are Chinamen, and the remainder are composed of French, Italians, Portuguese, Irish and native Americans.


This ditch is being well constructed – has a capacity of four thousand inches of water, commands a fall of about one hundred seventy-five feet, and will cost in the neighborhood of $200,000.


Chinamen receive one dollar and fifty cents per day and board themselves, and white men two dollars per day and board themselves.


Chinamen live on about two and a half dollars per week, and white men on five.


The gravel range about La Grange is about two hundred feet in depth, and, so far as is known, covers an area of about twenty square miles. The “dirt” is immensely rich, paying from top to bottom, while a stratum fifteen feet in thickness next overlying the bed-rock pays three dollars and a half to the carload. From a scanty supply of water two men have washed out at this place over three thousand dollars. We, ourselves, have procured more than one hundred dollars eight feet above the bed-rock. In a short time La Grange will send down to San Francisco as perennial a stream of gold as Smartsville and Timbuctoo.


The vicinity of La Grange is, likewise, the seat of another enterprise still more colossal. A company has been engaged for more than a month in building a cob-dam across the Tuolumne river, two miles above La Grange.


The dam, when completed, will be about forty-five feet in height. The season has been most favorable to such an operation, and through pumps solid bearings for the timbers have been obtained throughout. The dam is situated at the foot of a caρon, cutting hard green stone, seven miles long, one hundred and thirty feet wide, and four hundred feet deep. The dam is being built with great strength. It is composed of eighteen layers of foot square timbers, and, when completed, will contain more than 700,000 feet of lumber.


pg. 214


Through water power obtained from this dam five hundred inches of water are to raised for mining purposes, and two large ditches twenty-five feet in width, are to be taken out on either side of the Tuolumne river, to irrigate the land upon its shores, as well as a portion of San Joaquin Valley.


These ditches will reclaim between three and four hundred thousand acres of rich land, now little better than a desert, for the want of water, and create landed estate from fifteen to twenty millions of dollars. As the water will not come to this region from the clouds, it must be taken captive in the floods of the mountain water-shed and led to the fat and willing earth wherever it may be desired. Amid these thirsty scenes, the symbolical and forcible language of Egypt comes handsomely to our aid. What verdant – what magnificent homes will the valleys of the Tuolumne and San Joaquin supply when the water – Osiris – shall be married to the Earth – Isis!


What a progeny of fecund wealth will be the issue!


All are now hopeful and confident of the certain commanding future. With water, this vast body of rich land will produce forty bushels of wheat per acre; depending upon the rains alone, not more than five can be expected. In truth, the testimony of the oldest settlers is, that there have been but two good crop years in the region proposed to be irrigated, in the fifteen last past.


The value of irrigation is scarcely begun to be understood in the United States, and particularly in California. This is, probably, the best watered state in the Union. With us it is only a question of distribution. Irrigation in this country renders agriculture a positive pursuit; for the mountain streams never fail at the time they are wanted. Two-thirds of Italy is irrigated, though the rainfall on the plains is far greater than in California.


Only last year an irrigating canal two hundred miles long, taking out the waters of the Po, was constructed at an expense of 40,000,000 francs – equaling twenty millions of dollars in this country.”


In the not distant future the gravel beds around La Grange will, with the advent of proper transportation facilities, become of immense value.


pg. 215


Until quite recently La Grange still possessed some of its early day flavor – characters that were reminiscent of the old days of gold. In the minds of the old timer the town is probably more picturesque than any other village in the county, both because of its origin and its varied career. Up until a very late period it was the connecting link between the new and the old era in the county. La Grange has almost become embalmed in fable.


Judge Stephens was one of the most typical characters of the old town in its later day. He occupied the position of justice of the peace, and La Grange was not without the necessity of frequently holding the police court. On one of these days on which this court was in session there were present several visitors from Modesto. During the course of the proceedings, one of the visitors whispered to the judge if he would adjourn court he would treat. Court was almost instantly adjourned and the whole crowd, including the defendants and the venire, repaired to the nearest refectory and indulged in the joy of the flowing bowl.


On another occasion the case had been submitted to the jury. The defendant's attorney suggested to the judge that they take a walk up the street. Before the two had proceeded any great distance and had not yet reached a saloon, a courier overtook them and informed the judge that the jury had agreed upon a verdict. They returned to the courtroom, the verdict was received and the prisoner discharged. The foreman of the jury then informed the judge and the attorney that they were ready to join them in a drink which they had previously undertaken to procure. It is unnecessary to say that the judge, the attorney and the jury, together with the court bystanders all had a drink.





Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.

Source: Elias, Sol P., Stories of Stanislaus – A Collection of Stories on the History & Achievements of Stanislaus County.  Modesto, CA. 1924.

© 2012 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.



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