Back road to history in Hornitos ghost town


The Gold Rush town of Hornitos is a bit off the beaten path and offers a glimpse of California's Gold Rush days.

Hornitos is located between Merced and Mariposa, off Highway 140. Hornitos is known as one of the best preserved "ghost towns" in the West but it is not dead.

First settled by Spanish and Mexican miners in the 1840's the town exploded during the Gold Rush of the 1850's. Some of the colorful past remains standing, like the Masonic Lodge, built in 1856.

Other buildings like the Ghiradelli General Store are in ruins. The Ghirardelli's took the money they made selling goods to miners in Hornitos and moved to San Francisco. There they set up the still thriving chocolate business.

But back in the 1850's business was brisk In Hornitos.

"It was a thriving metropolis if you will some people say 15,000 I think it's a little less than that," Eric Erickson said.

The town population now numbers a lot less, at around 60.

Eric Erickson is a lifelong resident the retired rancher and former Mariposa County Supervisor was one of the last students at the old Hornitos school.

"That's a picture of the Plaza Bar, George Reebs Butcher Shop," Erickson said.

The butcher shop turned bar is still in business and run by Richard Ortiz.

Reporter: "So you grew up, your parents ran this bar."

Ortiz : "Yeah, I grew up right here in back. Born and raised here."

Today most of the business comes from bikers and there is always a bottle of Hornitos Tequila behind the bar. Back in the day, anyone getting too much tequila might end up in the Hornito's Jail.

Honitos Jail was built to last and meant to be escape proof. Once free those who had gone astray could seek redemption up the hill at Saint Catherines Catholic Church. Still part of the Fresno Diocese it is opened for special occasions like the annual day of the dead candlelight procession and the old cemetery is a favorite s for sightseers passing through town.

"People like to take the back roads you know going to Yosemite or from Yosemite," Ruth Latona said.

Ruth Latona caters to some of the back road visitors in her gift shop. It is an old general store that had been shut down for 40 years before she and her husband opened it 8-years-ago. She is in love with the town, and its history.

"You walk through and feel how it could be then, you know 150 years ago when you see the old building in your mind you make your own stories how it could have been," Latona said.

There are many stories, real or imagined about Hornitos. In the basement of what was Rosie's Fandango Saloon, a tunnel connected the saloon to the building across the street. There is a story that the notorious Mexican bandit Joaquin Murrieta managed to scurry through the tunnel one night to escape the law.

Most days Hornitos is a quiet place to "get away." Dorothy Bauer is the town's oldest resident. She is 97 and has lived in Hornitos for 70 years.

"When there were more people there was more activity. But quiet is nice too, when you get old," Bauer said.

There are some busy times, the annual enchilada dinner in March draws hundreds it is one of the community fundraisers. The townsfolk use the money raised to help preserve this small piece of California history. For anyone who feels like taking a back road trip through time, the annual Hornitos flea market takes place Sunday, October 6.

The event draws vendors and visitors from across the state and proceeds go to preserve the town's history.

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