Merced County Times Newspaper
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A History Of Historic La Grange, 1850 — 2023

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La Grange is a small, local unincorporated community loaded with history.

Nestled in the foothills of the Sierras lies this historic town. This one-time county seat glories in its history of the past and is working hard to preserve it for the present and future. Located in rural Stanislaus County along the Tuolumne River, it has a population of around 300 and sits at an elevation of 249 feet.

The name is French and means “the barn” or “the farm.” French settlers, gold miners, originally established the community of French Bar about 1850. Gold was discovered there on a sand bar in the middle of the river. After flooding in 1851 and 1852, they moved upstream about one mile above the flood plain and established what is now La Grange. The new community was founded in 1852, and in 1856 the name was changed to La Grange and it became the county seat of Stanislaus County in 1856.

This town prospered as both a mining and agriculture community. By 1853, French, Chinese, Mexican, Spanish and Americans were here to mine gold, farm and ranch. The estimate was about 3,000 to 4,000 mostly young men, lived in the area. It was the only area in the 11 western states to have used all 4 types of gold mining. (hydraulic, underground, placer and dredging). During its heyday La Grange boasted of around 10 boarding houses, three butcher shops, two restaurants, four blacksmith shops, numerous bars, livery stables, barber shops, billiard parlors, post office, churches and other businesses. From 1854 to 1858 La Grange enjoyed its greatest prosperity and was the biggest town in the county. There were three stage lines running daily with trips to Stockton, Mariposa, Sonora and other towns.

La Grange lost the county seat to Knights Ferry in 1862, and as the gold mining started to decline, so did the population. La Grange outlived most gold rush towns as a center of hydraulic mining and later dredging.

Without plenty of water, the miners would not be able to obtain the gold. A dam was constructed across the river about a mile above the town and the water was used for irrigation and mining. For hydraulic mining, where heavy pressure is needed, the water was brought from a dam 16 miles above La Grange at Indian Bar. A company was formed in 1871, known as the La Grange Ditch and Hydraulic Mining Company, to complete this project. A large dam was constructed, it was the beginning of the present Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts.

By 1880 mining had ceased with the exception of gold dredgers which continued to operate until the early 1950s. The dredging fields extended westward from the town for nine miles and some areas to the south of town. Attached is an old photograph of the Tuolumne Gold Dredge, also known as the “Gray Goose”. A deal was made in the early 1980s to disassemble and ship the dredger to the Alaska gold fields.

La Grange is now a registered California Historical Landmark, dedicated to preserving its history. The Inmon Trading Post, built in 1850, houses a very interesting little museum. Close by is the 1850 adobe barn and stable, and the little rustic jail of 1856. Above town is the still active, St. Louis Mission Catholic Church and cemetery, 1854, the oldest church in Stanislaus County. Across from the church is the old school house, 1875, (Where Bret Harte taught for a short period) which is located in a county park near the citizens cemetery. Below these on Main Street, Highway 132, is the 1857 IOOF Hall, home for the Odd Fellows and the Rebekahs. Also on Main Street is the 1878 general store and the 1897 saloon and grill. Up river from town is the La Grange Dam and was the tallest overflow dam in the world when built in 1893. Each year on the first Sunday in April, since 1948, the La Grange Rodeo is held, drawing many fans to the area.

We will add something about Louie’s Place Saloon and Grill on Main Street. All of their food is excellent whether it be lunch or dinner. There are several menu choices but are famous for their prime rib. Count on friendly service and reasonable prices. Thursday thru Sunday they have prime rib and on Mondays they serve pizza; closed on Tuesday and Wednesday. There’s a beautiful old bar that came from Hornitos and many dollars stuck on the ceiling — you figure out how they got there. There is even an outdoor venue for entertainment, private parties or weddings when weather permits.

Someday when you have some time and want to take a drive, go to La Grange and absorb some history. The museum is only open on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. but is worth a visit. Enjoy a meal at Louie’s Place Saloon on any day except Tuesday or Wednesday, or just drive around an enjoy the scenery. It’s worth a visit.

Jim Cunningham and Flip Hassett are both retired, but they remain active in Merced County as community advocates, local history buffs and photographers.

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