New life for aging town?

Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat

Members of the public will have a chance this spring to see the massive cleanup effort under way to prepare for major renovations in historic Chinese Camp's downtown.

Those involved with the multi-building development to turn the near-ghost town into a thriving tourist attraction have been working for almost a year on initial site cleanup.

The cleanup work has been no easy task, both inside and outside of the dilapidated buildings. But Frank Stanley, a Modesto developer who is moving forward on what he considers a 20-year plan, said the project is actually coming along as expected.

"It's extremely exciting, it really is," Stanley said last week.

A handful of public attendees saw the progress during a walk-through on Friday. And on April 30, the developers involved will hold an event on-site for any visitors to view for themselves.

Most of the cleanup so far has involved clearing out overgrown vegetation and trash and debris that buries the inside of some of the buildings literally multiple feet deep.

"You couldn't even walk through here when we first came in," said Ralph Souza as he went through a former boarding house that planners say will eventually become a hostel for travelers.

"We had to go right through the middle of it," said Souza, owner of R&S Metals in Sonora, who is also planning to open a restaurant as part of the project in Chinese Camp.

Crews had also cleaned out the first floor of the former home of Daniel Edgar Stratton, a 6,000-square-foot building that is expected to be the centerpiece of the multi-building project. The home was used as a Masonic hall but has been uninhabitable for years.

Though most of the first floor was completely cleared of debris, a trip upstairs revealed the extent of the work ahead of those involved in the project. Walking from room to room was almost impossible, with piles of clothes, books, utensils, broken furniture and other items piled waist high in many instances.

While they have plenty of work to do, Stanley, Souza and others involved envision a revitalized 700 acres in the town center that includes a bed and breakfast, hostel, restaurant, shops, wine tasting and other attractions meant to draw visitors heading to Yosemite or seeking a day trip from nearby cities.

According to Stanley, the project would also include hundreds of acres of rural farmland that would be used for grape vines, olive orchards, trails and other activities.

The developers involved have estimated the project will take $10 million and as many as 10 years to get off the ground. That so far has also included some back-breaking work.

Even before they got into the buildings to clear the trash, Souza and Stanley described working their way through the thick shrubs, weeds and trees that were overgrown from years of neglect. Along with the growth, the premises was surrounded by neglected wells and other hazards that made it difficult to work in haste.

Early on, crews walked slowly with whistles, in case they came across one of those hazards.

"We couldn't even access the porches before we took some of that stuff down," Stanley said. "But because we've done so much investigating (as to the extend of the cleanup), we've found all our surprises we're going to encounter at this point."

The Union Democrat
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