A Mining Town on the Edge: Hornitos, California

By Darryl Musick

Few blades of grass grow on this hilltop. The dirt is as hard as a New York City sidewalk. The little Catholic church standing here is raised off of this sun-baked patch of land. It’s hard to kick even a few granules loose.

The Mexican residents here back in the Gold Rush found these same conditions. Still, the rest of the ground around here proved too valuable to set aside for the burial ground this would become. The bodies of their dead were interred above ground in mounds resembling the ovens locals used for baking. Known in Spanish as “hornitos,” the small, oven shaped graves forever named the town…Hornitos, California.

Below this wind swept cemetery, past the local landfill, lies what’s left of Hornitos. Is it a ghost town?

It’s listed in several collections of ghost towns but there are still about 65 residents here in this sleepy hamlet. A bar, gift shop, and a U.S. Post Office are still open for business here but the post office is on the list for closure. It’s a mystery how the gift shop stays in business.

In the bar, only the bartender and one customer sit by the unused pool table. The bartender is the son of Manuela Ortiz…a true living link to the town’s past…who used to man the bar with her ever present shot of brandy. Behind the bar, her son laments her current condition, living in a Merced assistive care facility.

More than $8 million worth of gold was mined from the Gold Rush era through the early 20th century before the last mine shut down in the 1930’s. Like many towns of that era, it attracted its share of rough characters.

Ruins sprinkled around town speak of more prosperous and rowdier days.  A Wells Fargo building stands with imposing iron doors and the sturdy jail looks like it could still hold an outlaw. The walls of saloons sit on top of underground brothels which are connected to other parts of town by a system of tunnels so “respectable” citizens could visit sight unseen. The café, closed since the sixties, looks like it could still be opened as long as a few mops and dusters are employed first.

Stagg Hall in the center of town is still used for banquets and celebrations. Early each March, the town comes alive as thousands of visitors come in for the annual enchilada festival held at the hall. The one state-of-the-art handicapped parking spot is there separating it from another set of ruins…the original location of the Ghiradelli Chocolate Company, which is still owned by them.

Locals say that they can still find gold in Burns Creek that runs just to the west of town but the gift shop owner says that the chunks of quartz laced with gold veins he sells come from elsewhere in the Motherlode.

On this warm, late winter day, a bit of exploration reveals some of the town’s history. What looks like a pile of old boards and rubble appear on a lump in the hillside just beyond the Ghiradelli ruins. Actually, this is a barrier of sorts to keep people out of the tunnel behind it. Yes, this is one of the legendary Hornitos brothel tunnels.

Continuing on, there’s another hole in the ground with a tree growing out of it. Following the lay of the land, we can see that this collapsed tunnel leads to the building across the street which also held a saloon atop a house of ill repute.

An old horse barn at the north end of town sits next to a field where the only piece of the building that used to occupy it is a lone iron door framed in adobe.

A flock of wild turkeys guard the road heading up the hill to the white, wooden Catholic church that has been the spiritual sentinel of this town since 1862. Someone since then must have been able to access modern earthmoving equipment…the above ground graves that gave the town its name are nowhere to be found.

Dates going back to the Gold Rush on up to the modern era tell the tale of a still working pioneer cemetery. Some wooden markers have been sitting in the weather here so long that there is no trace of an inscription on them anymore, the marker emphasizing the mystery of just who these bones belong to.

Hanging on to its spirit with all its might, Hornitos may not yet be a ghost town, but this little berg in the rolling green hills of western Mariposa is right on the edge.

Hornitos is a scenic, 35 mile drive from the Central Valley town of Merced via highway 140 east to Cathey’s Valley. Hornitos Road will take you from Cathey’s Valley into the town.


About the Author

Born into a family of travelers, Darryl Musick carried on this tradition when he got married and started his own family. He evolved into a travel writer when he could not find any reliable information about wheelchair accessible travel…a necessity since his son uses one. Darryl has been writing since 1995 about travel in general and wheelchair travel in particular.

He also produces a blog, The World on Wheels, documenting his family’s adventures. Along with Vagabundo Magazine, he has been published in Emerging Horizons, Bootsnall.com, Uptake.com, and Disabled Dealer Magazine. A Southern California native, Darryl lives with his wife and son in the San Gabriel Valley, just east of Los Angeles. You can learn more about them at their blog at http://wheelstraveler.blogspot.com .

Author: WillPeach

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  1. I was pleasantly surprised to see an article about Hornitos in Vagabundo. I grew up in a little town outside Merced, so we learned plenty about this old gold-mining town and even went on a school field trip there once. Thank you for sharing these poignant pictures.

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  2. Grew up in California and it’s always very comforting to read stories about it. Thank you for the introduction to this little town!
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  3. I had the pleasure of meeting Manuela Ortiz on one of my random drives…. I saw her at the cemetary…she shared stories about her town, her husband Carlos and of her bar…she even opened it up so we could look and had a beer… A true gem…

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A Mining Town on the Edge: Hornitos, California