Hiram Hughes was fed up with the Silver Rush. Leaving the mines of Nevada’s Comstock Lode, he returned to Calaveras County in 1860 and began prospecting for gold along Gopher Ridge. Noticing a resemblance in the rock formations here to those of the Washoe region in Nevada, he staked a claim on Quail Hill that May. Hiram worked the claim, turning up small amounts of gold and silver, and a lot of reddish colored ore referred to by the local miners as “iron rust.”
Later that year, Hiram’s ten year old son, William Napoleon Bonaparte Hughes, discovered vast amounts of the iron rust ore on nearby Hog Hill. Curious to determine what the stuff was, Hiram sent a sample to San Francisco to be assayed, where the ore was found to contain a high copper content worth $120 per ton. Father and son immediately claimed as much of Hog Hill as possible and named the claim the Napoleon, after the boy. When word of the discovery became known, speculators, miners, and merchants headed for Grasshopper City, later called Telegraph City, and the copper rush was on.
Copperopolis, originally known as Copper Canyon during its first year of existence, was also founded in 1860, at the site of the second big discovery of copper ore in the region. William K. Reed, Dr. Allen Blatchly, and Thomas McCarty discovered and located a rich claim they called the Union. It was situated about five miles northeast of the Napoleon claim and within a year was producing vast amounts of copper ore. Before long, several other claims had been established, including the Keystone, Consolidated, Empire, Webster, Kentucky, and the Calaveras. Located in the famous Copper Canyon District, the claims, the men they employed, and the businesses needed to provide what the miners needed, are what formed Copperopolis. With such a great influx of miners into the region, it wasn’t long before a mining district was formed and a set of mining laws adopted for the area. This took place on August 3 of 1860, and the laws allowed each miner to file one claim by location on a lead or vein of 150 feet in length and 300 feet in width. A miner discovering a new vein was entitled by the right of discovery to an extra claim of the same extent.
The town grew rapidly, enjoying immense prosperity from 1860 to 1867. The center of town, known as “The Plaza,” was located across from the Armory. From there, Main Street runs about one and a quarter miles northwest to the end of town, paralleling the rich copper lead. During the copper boom, this road was lined solid with buildings of all shapes and sizes, offering the population anything they might desire. Many of the brick buildings were constructed from bricks hauled in from Columbia, where the buildings were being torn down so the miners could mine the ground underneath.
Copperopolis owed much of its prosperity to the Civil War, as tremendous amounts of copper were needed for shells and bullets. But getting the copper to the Union forces was in itself a tremendous task. In 1863, William Reed built a toll road over which ox teams hauled $1.6 million in copper ore that first year. The ore was then taken to Stockton, shipped downriver to San Francisco, loaded onto sailing ships, taken around Cape Horn, to finally arrive at smelters in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. The copper was then available for use by the Union Army. The war also brought a lot of publicity to Calaveras County as the region (which included Copperopolis, Telegraph City, and Campo Seco) became the second largest copper producing district under northern control during the Civil War. Due to this publicity, mining shares of the principal claims skyrocketed. In 1863, shares in the Union Mine sold for $25,000 or $170 a foot. By 1864, the Union Mine was valued at $2 million. When the war finally ended; however, and the price of copper fell from 55 cents per pound to 19 cents, the mine’s future didn’t look so bright. To make matters even worse, mining costs and shipping expenses were increasing, and by 1867 the copper mines lay idle. It was just too expensive to mine.
By 1870, only 170 persons were living in Copperopolis. During the 1880’s; however, the population increased somewhat as the Union and Keystone mines became active once again after being purchased by a Boston conglomerate. Work was done on the shafts and a one hundred-ton furnace was erected. The mines of Copperopolis continued to produce over the years, with boom periods occurring during the two World Wars. The U. S. Bureau of Mines credits the mines of Copperopolis with 72,598,883 pounds of copper from 1861 to 1946. That’s over $12 million worth of copper.
Copperopolis may not have been a gold town, but it was a mining town. The mines, tailing piles, tracks, old buildings, and cemeteries here are extremely interesting to wander about in. There are also several ruins in the area, small stone structures in varying stages of rubble, which give rise to speculation about the purpose they once served. Home, saloon, mercantile, outlaw roost, mine office, storehouse. Who knows, but it’s fun to guess. Luckily for visitors today, several of the town’s historic structures have undergone restoration, enabling us to catch a glimpse backwards in time of old Copperopolis.