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1840s Through about the 1860s - Building Material & Stone Usage
in the Mother Lode Region of California.

Excerpts from

Geologic Guidebook Along Highway 49
Sierran Gold Belt: The Mother Lode Country

Bulletin 141, Olaf P. Jenkins, Chief, California Division of Mines,
San Francisco, California, 1949.

(Used with permission, California Department of Conservation, California Geological Survey.)

Introduction - History

"California, first seen by Caucasians almost exactly 50 years after the discovery of America, lived for three hundred years as a distant and neglected outpost of Spain and her satellite, Mexico. Of all of the historic events in which California has participated, none has so stirred the imagination or achieved such significance as the discovery of gold by James Wilson Marshall at Coloma on January 24, 1848, and the Gold Rush of 'forty-nine and the 'fifties.Although the word gold is automatically associated with the Mother Lode, this is true largely in a historic sense-the present day is one of different economic interests and exploitation. Lumbering, building stone quarrying, cement kilns, the tourist trade, and farming have replaced gold extraction as a means of livelihood. Of over five hundred towns which developed in the gold region between 1848 and 1860, more than 50 percent have disappeared from the present day maps. Of the other half, most exist as place names, and only a small portion are thriving communities at present (circa 1948). Survival has been possible only through developing local resources other than gold."

Utilization of Fireproof Building Materials

"The stone, brick and adobe architecture of the Mother Lode region arose chiefly in response to the danger and the disaster of fire. The first settlements of the gold seekers were unplanned congested hodgepodges of canvas and frame shelters. Open flame fires were necessary for heat, cooking, and illumination and even a minor accident could initiate a conflagration. A fire, once started, could scarcely ever be checked and the devastation of entire towns occurred time after time. An incomplete list reveals that Sonora was burned in 1849, in 1852, and in 1853; Nevada City in 1851, 1856, 1858, and 1863; San Andreas in 1856 and 1863; and Columbia was partially destroyed by fire in 1854, 1857 and 1861. Disastrous fires also are reported for Grass Valley in 1855, Downieville in 1852, Placerville in 1856, Mokelumne Hill in 1854, Drytown in 1857, Jamestown in 1855, Georgetown in 1852, and Calaveritas and Camp Seco in 1858.

"The miners strove to protect their property in various ways. Every town had its volunteer fire department and some of the larger towns had several fire companies. Elaborate fire fighting equipment was imported (some of the hoses were to serve later in the first hydraulic mining enterprises) and streets were required by ordinance to be wide enough to serve as fire lanes. But the primary danger still lay in the combustibility of building materials and the answer was found in the exploitation of architectural materials which are seldom used in other regions where ample stands of good timber are immediately at hand. Buildings designed for permanence were constructed of stone or brick or occasionally of adobe. Heavy raftered roofs were covered with metal and on top of this a thick layer of sand was deposited. Doors and windows were fitted with distinctive sheet-iron shutters designed so that they could be closed in an emergency to protect the combustible interior furnishings. These efforts were on the whole successful, as indicated by the number of such buildings which have survived the various conflagrations.

Example of sheet-iron shutters on a building
Fig. 54. Tuttletown, DMBS 233-B-8.
(Note the sheet-iron shutters on the building.)

"The necessity for fireproof construction was not the only feature which determined the choice of architectural materials. The varied cultural background of the argonauts was a factor here as well as in styles. Many of the miners from Mexico as well as those Californians who had already been here for a generation were accustomed to building with adobe, sun-dried mud blocks several times larger than conventional bricks. These were laid flat, usually without mortar. Adobe buildings are seen frequently in the centers of Mexican activity (Hornitos and Sonora) but this material was adopted by others. The frugal Chinese, who gleaned from the abandoned workings of other peoples, especially appreciated this most economical building material. Brick was the favored building medium of the Americans. It symbolized for them substance and permanence and its prestige is reflected in the widespread use of brick facades for stone buildings. Some stone structures were also built by Americans for New Englanders. Middlewesterners were accustomed to building dry rock walls with stone cleared from fields; to building frame structures on stone foundations; and to lining cellar walls with mortar-laid stone. The stone masons par excellence were the Italians who came to the gold fields. In the central and southern section of the Mother Lode region a larger proportion of the good stone buildings, especially those of rhyolite tuff, bear Italian names.

"The large number of ruins of stone, brick and adobe buildings may be partly accounted for by the fact that the Sierra lies outside the earthquake region. If this area were subject to earth tremors the number of standing walls would surely be much reduced.

"Rhyolite tuff, known locally as 'lava' is one of the few stone materials which was quarried and transported beyond its local occurrence for use as a building material. The reasons for its popularity can easily be recognized. It is as durable as any material which was available in the Gold Rush days but more important, is soft enough that it can easily be dressed with the stone mason's adze. This workability permits the cutting of long narrow blocks to serve as lintels over doors and windows; the dressing of all six faces of a stone so that it can be squarely fitted with a minimum of mortar; the dressing of thin blocks for facing over a rubble core; and the use of the keystone. There are old rhyolite tuff quarries near Fiddletown, Altaville and Mokleumne Hill and the high knoll which provided Altaville with its first building stone is still be quarried.

Wall of old print shop at Mokelumne Hill
Fig. 1. Wall of old print shop at Mokelumne Hill showing
details of hand-chipped blocks of rhyolite tuff.

"Wherever it is immediately available, rhyolite tuff is used in the construction of all four walls of buildings and occasionally for such ordinary purposes as stone retaining-walls and fences. Beyond the limits of its natural occurrence, it has been transported to such towns as Murphys, San Andreas, Placerville, and Coloma, where it is employed to construct decorative facades for buildings the other walls of which are made of various local field rocks.

"A very similar stone as far as gross appearance and quality of workability are concerned is tuffaceous sandstone derived from the Valley Springs formation. There is an old quarry of tuffaceous sandstones at Littlehales and buildings made from it are there and at Jenny Lind. Several buildings in Campo Seco utilize tuffaceous sandstone for an ornamental façade.

"Meta-andesite agglomerates, commonly called greenstones, occur in a band of varying width along the entire western border of the Mother Lode. In the immediate locale of its occurrence meta-andesite is employed for most building purposes. Unlike the schists, it has no well defined planes of cleavage, and unlike rhyolite tuff and sandstone, it is too hard to be easily squared and dressed. In consequence these irregular blocks cannot be set in a wall without the use of heavy mortar, such as mud, which was occasionally used, or lime, which was commonly used. Greenstone was seldom obtained from special quarries and it appears that surface fieldstone (float) was the usual source. When it is used as a structural materials in towns, the building facades are of materials regarded as more ornamental, such as brick or rhyolite tuff.

"Schists of the Calaveras, Cosumnes, and Mariposa series as well as some similar formations of earlier age are extensively used as building material. Their especial virtue lies in the fact that they usually have well defined horizontal planes of cleavage which permit the detachment of large, even surfaced slabs which can be used with very little dressing or shaping (cf. Figs. 13, 26). When used for fences or retaining walls, they are often dry-laid (cf. Figs. 25, 168), but in buildings they are usually set in mortar of mud or lime. When the vertical plane of cleavage is definite, it is set toward the exterior. The rough, vari-colored appearance f schist walls was not always appreciated by the early builders and most schist buildings have facades of brick, (Fig. 42) or of dressed blocks of ornamental stone (mostly rhyolite tuff) and the other walls are heavily coated with lime stucco. That the use of schist as a structural material is confined to those towns where it is available in the immediate locale, indicates that it was employed because of convenience rather than preference. Representative schist buildings are illustrated in Figs. 12, 33, 46, and 126.

Hornitos Post Office
(pg. 98) Fig. 12. Post Office (former dance hall), Hornitos, DMBS Mrp-Ht.

Schist Quarry in Hornitos
(pg. 99) Fig. 13. Schist quarry in Hornitos, DMBS Mrp-H6.

Schist retaining wall, French Mills
(pg. 102) Fig. 25. Schist retaining wall, French Mills, DMBS Mrp-H18.

Schist quarry, French Mills
(pg. 103) Fig. 26. Schist quarry, French Mills, DMBS Mrp-H19.

I.O.O.F. Hall, Big Oak Flat
(pg. 105) Fig. 33. I.O.O.F. Hall, Big Oak Flat, HABS 1578.

Schist building, Sonora
(pg. 109) Fig. 46. Schist building opposite Purity Store, Stewart S., Sonora, DMBS Tuo-H9.

Building at 803 Stewart St., Sonora
(pg. 110) Fig. 42. Building at 803 Stewart St., Sonora, DMBS Tuo-H-5.

Wilcox Warehouse, Placerville
(pg. 145) Fig. 126. Wilcox Warehouse, Placerville, DMBS Eld-H9

Dry-laid schist wall, Downieville
(pg. 163) Fig. 168. Dry-laid schist wall, Downieville, DMBS Sie-H2.


"Granite, superb building material that it is, is seldom used in construction on the Mother Lode. Perhaps it was regarded as a too pretentious material for the essentially functional architecture of the mining camps. San Francisco's first fireproof building the three-story Parrott Block, was made of granite. It was 'pre-fabricated,' the blocks were cut and fitted in China, marked with Chinese characters, and shipped to California to be erected by Chinese labor in 1852. Local granite, quarried at Quincy, was advertised for sale in San Francisco, by Coit and Beals at the Sign of the Granite Obelisk, 94 Battery St. in a Jan. 1, 1854 advertisement in the Alta California. The granite quarries at Folsom were opened in 1856 and operated by convict labor. The Penryn granite quarry was opened by G. Griffith in 1864.

"Rough quarried granite blocks used in early structures may be seen at the old winery two miles east of Rescue (Fig. 130), at Lotus, and at several places on Highway 49 between Lotus and Pilot Hill. Dressed granite blocks are to be seen in Mariposa, the source being Mormon Bar immediately to the south, and at Coloma (Fig. 133).

Winery ruins, 2 miles west of Rescue
(pg. 146) Fig. 130. Winery ruins, 2 miles west of Rescue, DMBS Eld-H13

Granite Jail, Coloma
(pg. 147) Fig. 133. Granite jail, Coloma,
DMBS Eld-H16.

Jail, Mariposa
(pg. 97) Fig. 7. Jail, Mariposa, DMBS Mrp-H3. ("The jail (Fig 7)
which sits on the hill at the southern end of town
is made of dressed granite blocks from Mormon Bar
two miles south of Mariposa.")


"Serpentine resembles meta-andesite agglomerate as far as its qualities as a building material are concerned. Field stones of serpentine of irregular sizes and shapes were occasionally used for structural purposes in the immediate locale of their natural occurrence but no intensively worked quarries were seen nor was there any evidence that the serpentine was transported more than few hundred yards.

"Talc schist, or soapstone as it is called in the Mother Lode, was occasionally employed in its rough form in rubble walls of buildings (for example the Butterfly Grocery in Mariposa) or in carefully sawed blocks used as an ornamental facing material as it is in the Coulter Hotel in Coulterville and the window arches of the Cory Building in Auburn (Fig. 130). It is surprising that a stone which is so easily worked and so resistant to heat and weathering was not used more extensively.

"Limestone (including marble) is of very local occurrence, good exposures being noted at Columbia, Murphys, Volcano, and Cool. Limestone buildings can be seen in Douglas Flat and in Murphys and the buildings in Volcano are almost completely constructed of this material. Curiously, the limestone seems never to have been used for structural purposes in the vicinity of Columbia although some fine marble was quarried here in 1852 and shipped to San Francisco. E. R. Roberts of Stockton established a marble yard at Columbia in 1857, and in that year a block of Columbia marble was sent to the national capital to be put in the Washington Monument, but whether it arrived does not appear to be recorded in the account printed in the Alta Californian, Dec. 3, 1852. The stone for the Broderick Monument in San Francisco came from the Columbia quarry.

"One of the most important structural materials in use in the Mother Lode region was brick. It was used throughout the area in the chimneys and fireplaces of wooden buildings, and to frame the doorways and windows of buildings whose walls were of rough stone. A few towns, located where good brickmaking lateritic clays were available, were the centers of the brick industry. In particular, Columbia, Grass Valley, Georgetown, and North San Juan are noteworthy as places in which brick is virtually the only fireproof building material employed."

Brick never became cheap enough to use for retaining walls, corrals, or farm fences. It appears always to have been a structural material which carried considerable prestige, since it was used for the facades of stone structures in many towns. The stucco covering of stone and adobe buildings was frequently grooved and painted to simulate brick (ef. Fig. 30). Building in stone and brick gave rise to one quarrying activity, for brick must be set in lime mortar. Early lime kilns in which limestone was burned were situated at Shaws Flat, Ione, and Cool. Most of the stone buildings seen on our survey were built with mud mortar, or a mixture of mud and lime. Lime must have been scarce and expensive, and when available was used to plaster the outside and interior walls of rough stone or adobe buildings. Information on the early utilization of concrete is difficult to obtain. Columbia had, in 1855, a brick reservoir lined with cement, and in 1856 Columbia had a building which was then unusual, if not unique in the Mother Lode, made of aggregate (concrete and gravel). It was destroyed in the 'sixties in order to mine the gravels on which it stood. In Couterville a large concrete foundation may be seen which is surely very old, but we were unable to obtain information on when it was built.

Bruschi Building, Coulterville
(pg. 104) Fig. 30. Bruschi Building, Coulterville, HABS 1531.

"Adobe construction was first introduced to California from Mexico by the Spanish in the late eighteenth century during the Mission period. It was in general use throughout the occupied areas of California at the time of the gold discovery in 1848, and the impulse to build with adobe bricks in the Mother Lode almost certainly derives from Americans and Mexicans living in California before 1848, who went to the gold regions of the Sierra. Adobe buildings are of two functional forms; those with walls of sun-dried bricks laid up dry or with mud mortar (cf. Figs. 14, 80), and those with walls formed by ramming or pounding stiff earth or clay between molds similar to the molds we now use for pouring concrete. Both methods are common in Spanish countries and the latter is referred to as pisé or tapia. Only three examples of the pisé technique were noted by us; two at Virginia town (Fig. 125), and one at Fiddletown (Fig. 114). Adobe brick structures occur at Mormon Bar, Mt. Bullion, Bear Valley, Hornitos, near Bagby, Coulterville, Quartzburg, Sonora, Knights Ferry, San Andreas, Calaveritas, Jenny Lind, La Grange, Drytown, Fiddletown, and Mokelumne Hill. Others are reported from Salt Springs Valley, Old Gulch, and Mountain Ranch (Calaveras Co.), Shawmut and Jamestown (Tuolumne Co.), Dutch Flat (Placer Co.), and Frenchtown (Yuba Co.).

Rhyolite tuff building, Diamond Springs
(pg. 144) Fig. 125. Rhyolite tuff building, west edge of Diamond Springs, DMBS Eld-H8.

Rammed-earth building, Fiddletown
(pg. 140) Fig. 114. Rammed-earth building, Fiddletown DMBS Ama-H11.


In general, adobe buildings occur frequently along the western margin of the gold belt, and are most concentrated in the south. Less rainfall along the low-altitude western foothills may have encouraged mud-brick architecture, and in the south the greater Mexican-Spanish influence was doubtless largely responsible for the large numbers of adobe structures. Adobe buildings are often ascribed to Chinese builders, but it would be incorrect to so attribute all such structures. The Chinese were frugal people, and lumber and brick were expensive. The lateritic clays of the western Sierra slopes bind well, and offered an inexpensive and relatively durable building material. Therefore, adobe buildings may reflect, as for example at Hornitos, either a common pre-1848 California architecture technique which was practiced by Mexicans through traditional preference, or they may have been built by underprivileged minority groups such as the Chinese for reasons of economy because they were cheap and easy to erect.

"The usual practice was to coat the exterior walls with a lime plaster about one-half inch thick. This was then whitewashed. So long as the overhanging eaves and roof kept in good condition, the plastered adobe would last indefinitely, but access to the walls by rain water would cause their rapid dissolution, since the bricks were composed only of sun-dried earth. In one instance (the Bruschi Warehouse in Coulterville), the large adobe bricks were fired."

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