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Now & Then: The story of Priest’s Station


Photo courtesy of Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society

This historic building photo was Priest’s Hotel taken in 1904. Priest’s Station was founded in 1853 by Alexander and Margaret Kirkwood as a stagecoach stop for travelers from the all points west to Yosemite. It was located at the crossroads of Old Priest Grade, Priest-Coulterville Road, and Highway 120 in Big Oak Flat.

Before the Kirkwoods arrived from Scotland and bought the business at the top of Rattlesnake Creek Canyon, it was a small trading post known as the Rattlesnake Store. Alexander and Margaret added more rooms to accommodate weary travelers looking for lodging and the famous Station was founded.

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This historic building photo was Priest’s Hotel taken in 1904. Priest’s Station was founded in 1853 by Alexander and Margaret Kirkwood as a stagecoach stop for travelers from the all points west to Yosemite. It was located at the crossroads of Old Priest Grade, Priest-Coulterville Road, and Highway 120 in Big Oak Flat.

Before the Kirkwoods arrived from Scotland and bought the business at the top of Rattlesnake Creek Canyon, it was a small trading post known as the Rattlesnake Store. Alexander and Margaret added more rooms to accommodate weary travelers looking for lodging and the famous Station was founded.

In 1870, Alexander died from a fever contracted while crossing Panama years before. Margaret then married a mining engineer from Kentucky named William Priest in 1871. Other buildings added through the years included a second hotel, carriage house, livery stable, barns, sheds, some 22 in all. John Ferretti recalled, “It was a high-class establishment and well known from one end of the state to the other, the cuisine was excellent.”

In 1900, William died and Margaret followed five years later. Her niece, Jessie Carlaw Corcoran and husband Daniel continued to run the business until tragedy struck in 1926. An explosion down in the gulch below blew burning embers to the top of the hill and fire consumed all 22 buildings.

Daniel Corcoran rebuilt a small motel and store on the property and maintained the friendly service and hospitality that Priest’s was noted for. Following Daniel’s death in 1936, the family continued to operate the Station until selling it in 1969.

After being out of the family for 38 years, Helga and Wally Anker, the great-grandson of Margaret Priest purchased the site and in 2009 opened Priest Station Café. With breathtaking views of the historic canyon below, the restaurant continues to operate under family ownership today, serving delicious meals with personal service.

— Frank Perry is director of the Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society