Monday, April 12, 2021

Tuolumne County Courthouse by Zina Abbott


On February 18, 1850 the California legislature established Tuolumne County as one of California’s original 27 counties, and on May 1, 1851 incorporated the city of Sonora. Sonora remains the County Seat and is the only incorporated city in the County.

Built in 1853

The first Tuolumne County Courthouse was constructed of wood in 1853. It was a two-story structure that faced Green Street between Jackson Street and Yaney Avenue. It was on the same lot occupied by the present courthouse. 

Yaney business, left, on N. Washington Street, Sonora

Sonora's downtown business owners wanted the building erected in that section, but uptown brothers and merchants Israel P. Yaney and John Yaney pushed to have it built farther north. Together with William G. Heslep and Peter O. Bertine, they made five lots and a portion of two additional lots available to the county on such reasonable terms that the matter was settled. However, until then, a bitter battle raged in the various newspapers in circulation at the time in Tuolumne County about where the location of the new courthouse should be built.

Water to this building was furnished through one single faucet from which containers were filled for use in the various courthouse offices. On court days a bucket of fresh water was placed by the courtroom door with a long-handled dipper hanging conveniently nearby for community use. Other “amenities” included spittoons for the interior rooms and outside privies. Electric lights were not installed until 1892 when the City of Sonora was electrified.

First courthouse built 1853

The first courthouse remained occupied until 1898, By then, an economic resurgence occurred due to the “Second Gold Rush” which began in the early 1890's as hard rock mining developed. It soon became evident that the old building was no longer adequate for the county's needs. Not only was there a need for new county government facilities, but also the tax base needed to be increased to finance the improvements.

Last day at the old Tuolumne County courthouse

On August 14, 1897, the Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution that the old courthouse was "…in a dilapidated and unsafe condition, its vaults in which the records of the county are kept are wholly inadequate for the necessities and demands of the county." The resolution directed the Board's clerk to advertise for the submission of detailed plans and specifications for a brick and stone courthouse "to be erected at a cost not to exceed forty thousand dollars on the present courthouse site in the City of Sonora."

After several days of examining plans and specifications submitted by ten architects, two deadlock ballots, and an extended session, on January 6, 1898, the Board of Supervisors selected the San Francisco firm of William Mooser & Son by a 3-2 vote.

In 1898 the county tore down the old courthouse. The new courthouse was built on the same site. The difference was, the building no longer faced Green Street like the original courthouse. It was originally designed to face east towards Washington Street, Sonora's main thoroughfare. Pressure was brought upon the County Board of Supervisors by one of the county's most affluent citizens, lumber baron, Samuel S. Bradford, who resided across from the site on Yaney Avenue to the north. He did not want to look outside of his windows and see the side of the courthouse. He succeeded in having the plans altered so the structure faced his home. Instead, the side of the courthouse is seen from Washington Street, the main road through Sonora. Bradford’s home is no longer there, but the courthouse still faces north instead of North Washington Street.

A Union Democrat article published on January 15, 1898, reported, "The plan of the first floor is that the main entrance shall face to the north, with another place of ingress and egress on the south. All architects concur with Mr. Mooser that this is the true position for the main entrance, as it then comes to a street level and the surrounding view thereby afforded includes some of the handsomest buildings in town. . .".

The final plans from William Mooser & Son were officially adopted on April 5, 1898, with the understanding that the courthouse would be a fireproof building, with fire hoses on each floor.

Courthouse workers, courtesy of the City of Sonora

On May 21, 1898, the courthouse construction contract was awarded to the low bidder, Charles F. McCarthy. The contract called for the old courthouse to be removed and the site ready for the contractor to begin work by July 20, 1898. The various county officers, their records, and furnishings were located throughout the downtown area.

In mid-June, the old courthouse was auctioned off in three sections. Only about 50 people attended. The northern addition erected in 1891 was sold for $26.00, and the older addition on the south went for only $5.00. The original courthouse had been purchased by the contractor for $50.00.

Some sources claim the new courthouse was built in the Romanesque style. Others call it Spanish Revival style resembling the old missions of California.

The total cost of the new courthouse, including electrical work, painting, heating, ventilating, vaults, and new matching furnishings came to $100,843.00. While this sum was over budget, it is significantly less than the cost for such a structure today.

The cornerstone of the courthouse was dedicated on September 28, 1898, with approximately 500 spectators present in the midst of a drenching rainstorm. The formal dedication ceremonies were conducted by the Tuolumne Lodge No. 8, F. & A. M., and orator of the day, attorney Frank D. Nicol.

photo courtesy of California State Library

During the following year, a three-story building was erected of steel, concrete, and brick. The foundation of the courthouse required 500 barrels of cement, 300 wagon loads of gravel, and 150 loads of sand. It was estimated that 800,000 common red bricks were used during construction. They were made by the San Joaquin Brick Company, which erected a manufacturing plant where suitable clay had been found on the Charles Brusie ranch in Sonora. The hallways were laid with imported tile, the interior walls faced with fine local Columbia marble, and the open staircases were built with ornate iron railings. The exterior was finished off with eighty-five thousand yellow Roman pressed brick and sandstone from Colusa County.

Mosaic tile was laid in the grand entry, and in the hallway of the second floor. It is the same tile you see today. These were said to have come from Holland, although research casts some doubt on that. The marble wainscoting and steps that you see in the halls of the courthouse was quarried near Columbia.

This new courthouse featured several modern conveniences of the turn of the century. (I wonder if that means the bucket of drinking water and handy communal dipper were upgraded at that time.) It was designed to have an elevator, but the elevator was never installed. Instead, people must climb forty-eight steps to reach the third floor.

The Seth Thomas clock was installed in June, 1899. The bell weighs 1000 pounds and the weights attached to the bell weigh 1300 pounds. The remainder of the clock works was proportionately heavy. The clock was started to keep time at 5:00 p.m. on June 22, 1899. The Union Democrat reported that the bell could be heard at a considerable distance. Throughout the years, the accuracy of the clock has been a topic among residents in the downtown area, and remains so today. In the early 1930's, the weights and crank were replaced with electricity.

The lower floor of the courthouse originally housed the Sheriff's Office, Superintendent of Schools, and the boiler room that originally housed a steam boiler. The second and third floors of the courthouse originally housed the Offices of the Treasurer, Clerk, Assessor, District Attorney, Judge's chambers, law library, the Superior Courtroom, and the County Supervisors' Chambers.

A large room at the southeast corner of the lower level was not designated for any immediate purpose, and patent steel roller shutters were installed upon its four windows for protection. When the Tuolumne County High School District was formed in 1902, the first classes were held in that room for four years until they were moved to the newly constructed high school on Shaws Flat Road in 1906.

In the evening on Thanksgiving, November 30, 1899, all of the 232 electric lights in the courthouse were turned on at once, and many local residents came to witness the event.

The contractor and Board of Supervisors declared the courthouse to be fully completed and the work was accepted on July 23, 1900.

On January 1, 1981, the courthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Accordingly, regulations must be strictly adhered to in order to preserve the historic value of the building when considering repairs or improvements. The courthouse remains in use.

I was fortunate in that my last day trip before the Covid-19 pandemic hit was one to Sonora. I took several photos and was able to learn  more about this county's history. As for my recent book, this courthouse plays a role in both Cole which is part of the Cupids and Cowboys series, and A Lawyer for Linton which will be released later this month. Because both stories are set before 1898, the courthouse referred to would have been the old one.

Most of Cole is set in Stanislaus County to the west of Tuolumne County. However, after he buys ranch land in Tuolumne County, this is the courthouse where he would have recorded his deed and registered his cattle brand. To find this book's description and purchase link, please CLICK HERE.


In A Lawyer for Linton, After graduating from law school, Samantha travels to Sonora in 1885 to apply for a law partnership offer. The old courthouse is where she'll get her first courtroom experience. This book is still on preorder. To find the story description and link, please CLICK HERE.


(The information in this source was taken from two articles written by County Historian, Carlo M. De Ferrari, in Vol. 39, No. 1, July-Sept., 1999, and Vol. 39, No. 2, Oct.-Dec., 1999 of CHIPSA, the Quarterly of the Tuolumne County Historical Society. )

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