So well-preserved that the entire town has been designated a state historic landmark, this little town of about a hundred people at the junction of highways 49 and 132 north of Mariposa was founded by storekeeper George W. Coulter in 1850. His merchant rival, George Maxwell, got the short straw when they drew to determine who the town would be named after.

At the town's peak, there were dozens of general stores, 10 hotels and 25 saloons, all serving the 5,000 or so miners who toiled here. Three fires—in 1859, 1879 and 1899—decimated the town. A mini Gold Rush of sorts occurred during the last conflagration, when rubble from a burned stone and adobe building was used to patch the streets. Apparently the walls of the old building had been a hiding place for gold coins, and after the first rain, the coins appeared in the streets. Soon local residents turned out with picks and shovels, digging up the streets in a search for the coins.

Nelson Cody, brother of Buffalo Bill Cody, managed a trading post here in the 1870s and also served as postmaster. Ralph Waldo Emerson and President Theodore Roosevelt stayed at the Jeffrey Hotel, built in 1851 and still in operation. In spite of the several fires that roared through the town, many buildings survive, among them the I.O.O.F. and Knights of Pythias halls, and the Sun Sun Wo Store (now an antique store). The Jeffrey Hotel, built in 1851, dominates the view of the town center at the intersection of state highways 49 and 132. Notables such as Carrie Nation, John D. Rockefeller and John Muir once slept here.

Later, the town became an important waystation for tourists en route to Yosemite.

Today, the Northern Mariposa County History Center offers two buildings stuffed with early-day memorabilia. Admission is free. Nearby is the small Whistling Billy steam engine, used to haul ore from the Mary Harrison Mine along a four-mile-stretch called the world's crookedest railroad track.

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