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Stories from the valley

Copperopolis: A Hidden Historic Gem

Contributed by Keli Gwyn

The small town of Copperopolis, located a short distance from our Valley on Highway 4 about seventeen miles southwest of Angels Camp, played a big role in our country’s history. Three men are given credit for the discovery of copper in the area, two miners and a merchant. Although the accounts vary, the result was the founding of Copper Valley in 1860, as it was known until the following year.

The great need for copper to produce shell casings and ammunition during the Civil War led to rapid growth of this mining community, which became the second largest copper-producing area in the nation. According to the US Bureau of Mines, over 72 million pounds of copper were taken from Copperopolis mines between 1861 and 1946. Mounds of tailings and a mineshaft opening can still be seen behind the Old Corner Saloon, the oldest frame-construction building in town, having survived two major fires.

Copperopolis mine

Although the town boasted a population of over 10,000 during its heyday, the end of the Civil War significantly dropped copper prices. That, followed by the 1867 fire that destroyed many of the buildings, reduced the size considerably. Many of the structures were never rebuilt. However, some survived and can be seen today.

Copperopolis is divided into three sections. The Town Square at Copper Valley, located on Highway 4, is a modern, master-planned plaza with a hotel and several dining options. However, the historic and commercial districts are found on Main Street, with the first just off the highway a short distance to the east and the latter roughly three miles to the south.

Copperopolis town square

The historic district is what beckoned me. My husband and I parked and began our exploration on foot. A trio of brick buildings on the east side of the street, all listed in the National Register of Historic Places, caught my eye. The white Honigsberger Store sold dry goods, the two-story Reed Building was home to the Copper Consolidated Mining Company offices, and the red Armory served as headquarters for the Copperopolis Blues, a group of volunteer miners and ranchers who protected the valuable copper mines.

Located a short distance away, the red brick building on a hill, now the Copperopolis Community Center, began its life as the Congregational Church. It was reputed to have the most authentic Gothic windows in the state. We also checked out the Nelson Store building on the east side of Main and the Civil War cannon displayed in front of the elementary school.

old abandoned metal building at Copperopolis mine

Copperopolis history isn’t limited to the red-brown metal and some period buildings. After 28 holdups, legendary stagecoach robber Black Bart was caught when the silk handkerchief he dropped led to his arrest after his final heist back where the first took place, just four miles east of town. And it’s possible Mark Twain penned his famous Jumping Frog of Calaveras County in Copperopolis. I recommend a visit to this historic gem, where we found the people living there today to be friendly and welcoming.