Gold, guns and presidents: Tour the Wild West ghost town of Grub Gulch

Other than the occasional truck slowing for the big curve, you’re met with silence. It’s hard to imagine there had been civilization along what is now Road 600 in Madera County.

But it’s here, beginning in the 1880s, that Grub Gulch staked its claim in Wild West lore as a place where dreams were born and died.

A pickup truck passes the site of the once-booming town of Grub Gulch on Road 600, about five miles south of Ahwahnee. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Located on an old stage road north of Raymond, the site of Grub Gulch is about five miles south of Ahwahnee and 10 miles west of Oakhurst.

It was born out of the Gold Rush, as gold fever swept south through Central California. Rich quartz veins were discovered in the early 1850s in the southern end of the Mother Lode, along the Fresno River in eastern Madera County. Settlements popped up – Texas Flat (Coarsegold), Fresno Flats (Oakhurst), Fine Gold Gulch and Hildreth.

Most early miners worked streams rich in gold deposits through the 1870s. Hard-rock ledge miners followed.

The Madera County town of Grub Gulch on the old stage road (Road 600), south of Ahwahnee, as it looked in the 1890s. At left is Thomas Hotel, where President Theodore Roosevelt stopped in 1903. At right is Abe Taylor’s general store and Charlie Lyons’ saloon. Madera County Historical Society

In 1880, a nugget the size of a man’s thumb was found, leading to the discovery of a quartz vein 8 inches across and spawning the Gambetta mine (aka the Arkansas Traveler). On its heels came other mines that followed the golden trail: the Josephine (Surprise), the Mammoth, Savannah, the Rex, the Caledonia, the Crystal Springs.

Hard-rock mining and stamp mills used to pulverize the quartz and extract the gold were set up. Men were needed to dig, drill and blast the treasure from the earth. They came in droves.

As early as 1851, Chinese miners worked the Fresno River at a spot 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 played out in the river and streams, and 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.

Its name came from frontier optimism and humor: In hard times, the miners could always pan (grub) enough gold from the gulch (river) to grubstake themselves into better times, or at least purchase enough food to get by.

‘A very lively mining town’

A pair of two-story hotels were built, one on each side of the road. There were five saloons, a general store, a post office and a boarding house. A school was built on a hill, away from trouble. There was no church.

Water was an early problem at Grub Gulch because the depths of nearby mineshafts drew away the supply. Water had to be hauled in from Crystal Spring. Two water storage tanks were later placed above the town.

The last vestige of Grub Gulch was the post office, shown in this picture postcard from 1915, shortly before its closure. FRESNO BEE FILE

Walter Mills, who lived in Grub Gulch as a boy, said in a letter it was “a very lively mining town, plenty of money and freely spent. Gambling games running day and night.” Mills’ letter is kept in the Madera County Museum archive.

Lindsay Wright, another former resident, recalled in a 1967 Fresno Bee story that Grub Gulch lived up to its reputation as a Wild West town: “Working, drinking, fighting and pleasuring, were ever the daily routine.”

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 were held at any excuse and at any time.

At this point, the mining town had a new industry: Yosemite tourism. Passenger trains connected at Berenda (north of Madera) for a journey to Raymond and then, by stage, to Yosemite, which was made a national park in 1890. Only the wealthy could afford the $45 round-trip fare.

Often seen on the road through Grub Gulch were detachments of the U.S. Cavalry going to and from Yosemite, as the park was maintained by the Army. So narrow was the rocky, dust-laden road that mule and horse teams had bells on their harnesses to serve as warnings on blind curves.

A presidential visit

The rich and famous stopped at Grub Gulch. But in May 1903, the town was in a particularly frenzied state.

Flags and patriotic bunting decorated the two-story Thomas and Morrison hotels. Townfolk in their best clothes packed the verandas and the boardwalk that fronted Abe Taylor’s store. Along the curved road that was the town’s main street, families crowded together, craning their necks for a better view. Customers lined the windows in Charlie Lyon’s saloon.

Soon came the rumble of an 11-passenger stagecoach and the pounding of horse’s hooves. In a cloud of dust, the coach stopped in front of the Thomas. A stocky man with a mustache and a wide, toothy grin stepped down to a great roar of welcome.

This picture shows the opening of Thomas Hotel in Grub Gulch in 1891. This is where President Theodore Roosevelt stopped in 1903 on his way to Yosemite. Note the large rose bush at left; descendants of the bush live on in Murphys and Oakhurst. MADERA COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY

He stood on the veranda, shook hands and spoke briefly. After accepting rounds of hurrahs, whistling and shouts, he climbed back into the stagecoach and, with a crack of the whip, the most distinguished visitor to Grub Gulch was gone, continuing his journey to Yosemite Valley.

President Theodore Roosevelt 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 Mariposa Grove. Roosevelt didn’t need much persuasion after seeing first-hand the wonders of Yosemite. In 1906, Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias became part of Yosemite National 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.

Gunplay and an audacious bandit

This was not a sleepy town.

Once, a lynching was averted. The guilty party was saved from the business end of frontier justice by a rowdy incident at the saloon. 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.” He fired, hitting Smith in the neck. Averill was knocked to the floor by others.

A rope was procured from the general store and, in no time, the affair “noised around town,” according to Walter Mills. However, Averill’s wife “rushed down in time to save her husband and the others from committing a rash act,” Mills wrote. Smith recovered.

Stagecoach robberies were common. The most audacious happened on the morning of June 2, 1900. Two miles below Grub Gulch, an armed bandit, his face and hands blackened with theatrical makeup, terrorized traffic for two hours. He robbed three stages, one freight wagon, one lumber wagon and an officer and a soldier of the U.S. Cavalry.

His take was about $280 from 34 men and five women. The robber handed the first stage driver a card that read: The Black Kid.

The E Clampus Vitus marker dedicated to the ghost town of Grub Gulch, on Road 600 about five miles south of Ahwahnee. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Going silent

Grub Gulch was declining rapidly by 1900 as the mighty mines began to play out. Madera County boasted production of $1.35 million in gold between 1880 and 1892. Nearly $1 million of that came from Grub Gulch mines. The Gambetta mine extracted $490,000 in gold ore before it closed in 1904. The last saloon was boarded up in 1910. Cattle ranching allowed the Gulch to hang on for a few years.

Other factors in its decline were a new railroad to Yosemite, ending the era of stage travel, along with the age of the automobile with shorter, better roads. Some buildings were moved, such as the Morrison Hotel to a ranch in 1913. Others were torn down. Some went up in flames.

All that remains is the town’s cemetery behind a corral on private property above the townsite. A historical marker where the Morrison Hotel once stood marks the remains of Grub Gulch.

Bob Hunting tends to a Grub Gulch Rose at Oakhurst Community Center. The bush is a descendant of roses planted in Grub Gulch in the 1880s. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

But against all odds, the town’s spirit lives in one of two rose bushes planted in the 1880s. Remember, Grub Gulch had no water, so the roses struggled to survive for nearly 100 years. In the early 1970s, rose fanciers with an appreciation of history took rootings from one bush.

Two descendants of those rootings live on at Oakhurst Community Center and at Murphys Old Timers Museum in Murphys. Each are marked by monuments by E Clampus Vitus, Grub Gulch Chapter 41-49, which adopted the Grub Gulch Rose as its emblem and talisman.

John Walker: 559-441-6197