La Grange, which began as an encampment along the Tuolumne River, today rests on a hill overlooking the river. Originally called French Bar for the French settlers who mined gold and established a ferry there in the early 1850s, the town was relocated after the settlers experienced devastating floods.
Like most California foothill towns that started life during the Gold Rush, La Grange today is quiet, with one store, a bar, a charter school and a population of around 400. A road off the main street serves as access to two swimming holes and an old bridge. On the day I was there recently, I parked my car by the bridge and encountered a young man sitting on a cooler by the road, not engaged in any particular activity.
"I'm just resting," he said when I asked him why he was there. "It's a long walk down to the water."
"Really?" I asked. "How long?"
"Well, you can probably get there in about three minutes, but I've got a bad back so I take my time."
When I left, he was still sitting on his cooler next to the road.
"'Bye," I said. "Take it easy."
"I will," he answered, and I knew he meant it.
Though people in La Grange move at a slow pace today, while the gold lasted it was a hub of activity, a place where people went to make their dreams come true. Three stagecoaches went through town every day. Placer mining gave way to tunnel mining, which later was replaced by hydraulic mining. Gold mining near La Grange continued into the middle of the 20th century, when dredges sucked the last gold from the river's bedrock.
California's first conservationist, John Muir, tended sheep near La Grange in 1868. Around the same time, C.C. Wright, the assemblyman who in 1887 would create the irrigation districts that forever altered California's landscape, taught at the schoolhouse next to the La Grange Cemetery. Bret Harte also taught there, probably sometime in the mid-1850s. The first Catholic church in Stanislaus County, St. Louis Catholic Church, was built across from the schoolhouse in 1854. And the ubiquitous Joaquin Murrieta seems to have turned up in La Grange, too, where he might have buried his treasure under a corner of an old hotel, washed away long ago in a flood.
There are still reminders of the old feverish Gold Rush days in La Grange. History buffs can visit the 19th-century buildings, restored and tended to by other history buffs. There is the La Grange Cemetery, which, if cemeteries can be said to be beautiful, is one of the most lovely foothill cemeteries I've ever seen. But the most important remnants of those days can be seen during a casual walk along the river, where the rocks tell the story of devastation wrought by mining.
On my way to La Grange, I always stop to look at the old dredge on La Grange Road, located on private property off the west side of the highway, just across from the off-road vehicle park. During my last visit, I pulled over to read the historical monument erected to inform passersby about the dredge. The information is stunning in light of the fact that so many of these dredges operated on the Merced and Tuolumne rivers.
The dredge off Old La Grange Road drilled 70 feet into the earth. It weighed 2,500 tons and was built at a cost of $543,000 at a time when that would have been a substantial investment for any company, even one specializing in mining. But dredges produced results. More than $8 million in gold was drawn from the earth during the last successful dredging near La Grange.
Gold made some people very wealthy. It provided employment for many others. Towns were born and prospered because of it. But there is no way to know if gold brought lasting comfort or pleasure to anyone. Certainly the elation it brought was often short-lived. What we have left from that time are stories, many of them no more than myths created to make a harsh time seem glamorous, and a landscape that has still not, after more than a century, recovered.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.