Archaeology on Main Street

Jun 18, 2013 by

Archaeology on Main Street

While landscaping for the Mary Wilborn History Garden, a pair of stone foundations nearly forty feet long inspired an archaeological study.  Uncovered in the then vacant lot south of the Library/Archives building, Ron Pitner of “The Greenery, Landscape & Design” recognized that the rows of rhyolite stones were clearly old and part of Mokelumne Hill’s history.  The archaeological study was carried out on 9 June 2009, by local archaeologist Julia Costello, assisted by Howard Little, Bill Villegas, and Paula Leitzell.  Mike Dell’Orto supplied memories of the site as a boy and during demolition of the building in the early 1960s.  Holes were excavated between the two foundations and next to the stone wall on the north to see the history of construction and dirt was sifted for artifacts.  Two classes of children from the Summer Arts program were given tours of the work in progress and shown the artifacts we were finding.

The story of the lot and its foundations begins during the Gold Rush era when Mokelumne Hill was a boom town.  This Main-Street location was in the heart of the community’s commercial center and during the 1850s a stone (rhyolite) building was constructed on the site.  Remains of this early building include wall ruins paralleling the south wall of the library/archives and by a retaining-wall foundation fronting Main Street – the latter now mostly buried under an earthen slope.  By 1890 this lot was vacant, as were many other former business locations in the now much smaller and quieter Mokelumne Hill.

Between 1899 and 1912, a wooden livery stable was constructed on the site. Measuring some 100 feet long and 40 feet wide, it filled the space now open on the south side of present library/archives building. The concrete foundation seen running eastward along the north side of this lot marks the rear extent of the main building.  Mike Dell’Orto reports that a second story with a dance hall was said to have once been present, but was destroyed by a fire.  By 1912, however, the building was only one story high and the floor – level with Main Street – was massively constructed of three layers of 2×12 lumber measuring 40 feet in length.  We believe that the rhyolite foundations were built at this time.  Archaeology showed that during construction, the livery lot was leveled down to bedrock (decomposing granite) and the footings were centered in the middle of the building.  Mounted with heavy timber posts, they strengthened the livery floor to support heavy wagons and other vehicles. The cut rhyolite stones were likely salvaged from ruins of other buildings around the town, a common practice then and in the decades to follow.  The space under the livery floor was about 8 feet high and at ground level with Cottonwood Street (now China Gulch) to the east.

As the horse was replaced by the automobile, so livery stables were replaced by garages and by 1930 the lot’s building was catering to this new mode of transportation.  The 1930 Sanborn fire insurance map identifies the building has having a capacity for 25 cars on its wooden floor.  By the 1950s, Roggenthein’s Garage” was operated by Mr. and Mrs. Roggenthein who lived in a small house to the rear, converted from its earlier use as a stable.  Another fire brought down the front of the garage and by 1960 only the floor itself remained.  This remnant was torn down by 1964.

Artifacts found on the site during the archaeological study included items dating from as early as the Gold Rush to recent times.  There was a clay pipe stem from a miners’ tobacco pipe, pieces of a Chinese storage jar, and electrical fittings from the 1920s. Also found were numerous olive-green fragments from square bottles that once were embossed with “J.T. Daly Club House” gin, and “Udolpho Wolfe’s Aromatic Schanpps, Schiedam.” Small white buttons came from men’s shirts while a fancy shell button was once on a woman’s dress.  The dominance of bottle fragments and lack of ceramic table wares indicates that drinking, not eating, were the primary pastimes of this neighborhood.

This Main Street lot which supported Gold Rush business and later a livery and garage, will now become the location of a small garden dedicated to town benefactor, Mary Wilborn. The old rhyolite foundations remain exposed as part of the new landscaping and their role in the town’s history is preserved.  Everyone who peers down from Main Street, or sits on the garden’s benches, can enjoy this glimpse into Mokelumne Hill’s past.

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