A Brief History of Groveland and Pine Mountain Lake

By Marc Fossum

Aerial View of Pine Mountain Lake, California

An Agent-Owned Company

The Groveland/Big Oak Flat and Pine Mountain Lake area is locally referred to as “South of the River”, “Up the Hill” or “Southern Tuolumne County” (we also have over half of Yosemite National Park in our portion of the county). Any and all of the above are acceptable when referring to our community. Our community has a very unique and proud history.

Prior to 1849, Native Americans (Mi Wuk Indians) inhabited the area for over 10,000 years. Grinding stones, known as bed rock mortars or “BRMs” can be found throughout the area as evidence of their residency.

In 1849, James Savage discovered the Big Oak Flat and its wealth of placer gold. He, along with his numerous Indian wives mined gold and established a trading post in Big Oak Flat (known at that time as Savage’s Diggings.) The trading post was reported to be located at the site of the current stone building known as the Gamble Building. Before the end of 1849 Savage was forced to leave Big Oak Flat because of friction between his Indian wives and the numerous miners that had arrived. Savage went on to the Merced River Canyon, just downstream of Yosemite, and established another trading post.

What had earlier been referred to as Savage’s Diggings became known as Big Oak Flat, due to the fantastic oak tree that stood at the center of the mining settlement. The diameter of the oak tree was reported to measure 13 feet at the base and 11 feet at a man’s height.

Over the “Divide” to the east of Big Oak Flat two additional mining camps sprang up. The camps were referred to as First Garrote and Second Garrote. The word “garrote” is a French word meaning death by strangulation or hanging. Both towns were named for the quick justice delivered by their inhabitants to thieves and murderers. First Garrote was later re-named Groveland, as some of the residents did not like the stigma of Garrote associated with their fair town.

Gold production was so great in Big Oak Flat that a mining settlement was established and permanent buildings began to pop up. The large stone structure known as the Gamble Building was completed in 1852. Big Oak Flat’s great weakness was the lack of a permanent water source. By June of each year the seasonal creek that ran through Big Oak Flat, Rattlesnake Creek, would dry up. The nearest water was the Tuolumne River, five miles away and over 2,000 feet down the Priest Grade. The miners would leave town and not return until the rains would arrive the following year. The stone buildings would be shuttered up with their steel doors and the town would be empty for six months.

In 1854, the miners began building a “ditch” to bring water from the South Fork of the Tuolumne River to Big Oak Flat in order to provide a reliable year-round source of water. The ditch was 40 miles long and delivered its first drop of water in March, 1860. With water available year-round the mining camp flourished. The camp incorporated and the population of Big Oak Flat and its surrounding area was reported to reach 6,000 souls. As with most gold rush towns the population was very diverse, with a large China Town community, Mexicans, Bolivians, Hawaiians (known as Kanakas) and representation from around the world. In the early 1860s Big Oak Flat flourished as a rambunctious city producing great wealth and was even competing with Sonora to be the County Seat. The town featured the finest hotels, saloons, fandango houses, joss houses and every other conceivable means of entertainment for the miners.

All the tremendous growth and prosperity came to an abrupt halt in October, 1863 when the entire town went up in flames. All that remained were the few stone buildings still standing today. With most of the easy-pickings surface gold all panned-out, the residents chose to abandon Big Oak Flat and not rebuild. The population plummeted to a handful of stalwarts and the town was dis-incorporated in 1864.

Big Oak Flat was nearly non-existent for 10 years until the construction of the first road into Yosemite Park commenced in 1874. The construction and subsequent tourism traffic brought new economic viability to Big Oak Flat, Groveland and the sleepy community of Second Garrote. During this time the advent of hard rock mining was taking hold in all the old mining districts. Big Oak Flat and Groveland were both host to many prosperous hard rock mines and supported populations of workers employed by those mines. Hard rock mining continued to be a strong economic base for Big Oak Flat and Groveland until the 1930s.

In 1913 the U.S. Congress passed the Raker Act, giving the City and County of San Francisco the right to dam the Tuolumne River at the Hetch Hetchy Valley. The Raker Act also permitted construction of dam at Lake Eleanor and Cherry Creek to divert water to San Francisco and the Bay Area. The projects required that a railroad be built right through Big Oak Flat and Groveland. Groveland was chosen as “Mountain Headquarters” for the project. For the next 30 years the communities of Southern Tuolumne County enjoyed the prosperity that comes with hosting a major construction project. Many of the employees of the Hetch Hetchy Water and Power continue to live in the Big Oak Flat / Groveland communities. With the completion of the Hetch Hetchy project and the removal of the railroad line the local towns returned to a sleepy existence. Gold mining operations were nonexistent. Tourism, recreation, forestry activities and minor agricultural industry were all that supported the communities.

In 1969, Boise Cascade Real Estate Development “came to town” and broke ground for the Pine Mountain Lake planned community development located just outside of Groveland. The development included a lake, championship golf course, airstrip and thousands of residential development lots. Groveland and Big Oak Flat now boast a permanent population of a few thousand residents and swells to upward of 10,000 people during the summer tourism / vacation season. Visitors passing to and from Yosemite National Park stream over 3 million people through Groveland and Big Oak Flat every year.

In the late summer of 2013 the largest forest fire ever recorded in the Sierra Nevada raged for two months in southern Tuolumne County. The Rim Fire consumed over 400 square miles of forest.  The communities of southern Tuolumne County were spared from the fire and are actively working to help the forest recover.