A new business in the historic downtown district of Angels Camp takes patrons back to the days when the quiet town bustled with the Gold Rush boom.
Don Gifford, a sixth-generation Californian whose own 49er roots can be traced back to a Monterey-San Francisco trade route, leads Angels Tours in the city center.
On Monday, Gifford led about 40 gathered for the Angels Camp Business Association from the Angels Mercantile down into old Chinatown and back up to the site of the former Calaveras Hotel (now the Calaveras Visitors Bureau).
He came to Angels two years ago to pastor Family Community Church and also plunged deep into reading and listening to the city’s stories. He credits local historian Judith Marvin and county archivist Shannon Van Zant with filling him full of material.
Gifford faced perhaps his toughest audience in the business community with combined dozens of decades of soaking in the rich history of the community.
Nevertheless, his tales of “miner’s justice,” “ladies of the night” and a penniless prospector-author named Samuel Clemens made some good impressions.
“I thought it was a great little tour, a little awakening to what most of us pass and never think about,” said Tad Folendorf, a museum commissioner and former mayor.
Marvin’s recent research has revealed more of the life of George Angel, previously thought to have essentially vanished shortly after he and brother Henry opened a “trading post” in a tent along Angels Creek. Documents have re-established George as joining his brother in a mule train outfit and Stevens’ Brigade of the U.S. Army, Gifford said.
The lack of a paper trail on the “other” Angel had begun to led some to think he may never have existed, Gifford said.
The tour told of a lifetime for Turner’s Wild West even before the venerable Western outfitter became a downtown mainstay.
“Even Turner’s wasn’t here 160 years ago,” chuckled ACBA president Bob Menary in introducing the tour.
Before there was Turner’s, there was a mercantile and a soda fountain at the site. It was also one of several past locations for fellow long-tenured community merchant, Angels Food Market, Gifford said.
In his research, Gifford said he had to separate fact from fiction.
Legend has it 4,000 Chinese resided on modern-day Birds Way.
“I got to the bottom of that rumor,” he said, adding that only about 200 people lived in the community.
Chinatown became a particular passion of his research. Angels Camp was much more hospitable to its Asian immigrants than other Gold Rush towns, he noted, never enacting laws that banished them from sleeping in the city limits.
“From everything I’ve read, the Chinese were respected here,” Gifford said.
Almost every building in town housed a saloon at some point whereas Claussen’s Corner is the only place to wet one’s whistle downtown today, he noted.
However, this winter’s cold wet weather would have been familiar to Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. He spent much of his time indoors playing pool and listening to tall tales to escape the mud that mucked up Main Street, Gifford said.
In addition to its tolerant outlook on the Chinese, the city showed other signs of moderation, he said. The local vigilante mob permitted a murderer in the early days to pen a couple letters before his trip to the hanging tree. A group of miners protesting poor medical care thoughtfully dynamited their own Utica boarding house quarters rather than a supervisor’s.
Still, the message was heard.
“Shortly thereafter, they built a hospital,” he said of the company’s response.
Angels Tours operates from 1211 S. Main St. at Rasberry Lane. This summer, tours will commence at 9 a.m. each weekday, excluding Wednesdays. A 7 p.m. Sunday outing is also planned. Gifford will also conduct tours by appointment. The cost is $10 per person and the tour takes about an hour and a half. Children younger than 12 are free.
To schedule a tour or for more information, call 743-5703.