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Madera’s birthplace has history of fires

Madera County Historical Society

By 1890, Mace’s Yosemite Hotel had regained its place of prominence on the corner of Yosemite Avenue and E Street.


The fire that struck Madera on Monday hit the very heart of our town. That building on the corner of Yosemite Avenue and E Street was where we were born. It is the true anchor to our 142-year-old past.

It was on Oct. 11, 1876, that an adventurer by the name of Capt. Russel Perry Mace bought a lot from the California Lumber Company. He planned to build a hotel on it. In doing so, he was the first to purchase property in what was to become the town of Madera, and the two-story frame structure that he built was the first building in Madera.

Within a year and a half, Madera had 25 buildings, all radiating out from Capt. Mace’s building, which he called the Yosemite Hotel. Within a decade, the town was up and running. Stage coaches hauled tourists from the Yosemite Hotel, up Yosemite Avenue to see the wonders of Yosemite Valley.

President Rutherford B. Hayes took one of those stages. President Ulysses Grant had breakfast in the Yosemite Hotel and then caught a stage to the mountains. Presidential hopeful William Jennings Bryan addressed a huge crowd in front of Mace’s hotel. Life could not have been more promising; then it hit. Fire brought Mace’s Yosemite Hotel to the ground.

The conflagration broke out on June 15, 1886. It began in the old wooden train depot across the street at 10:30 P.M. No one ever found out how the fire started, but more than a ton of gunpowder lay on the depot platform and simply burned like sawdust. Miraculously it did not explode.

The fire spread from the depot to Mace’s Hotel and then up east Yosemite Avenue. By morning most of the north side of main street was in ruins.

The loss of Mace’s Hotel was a severe blow to the local economy. The tourist season was at its peak, and Madera could ill afford to lose the revenue. Madera’s plight elicited strong expressions of encouragement from surrounding communities, especially Fresno.

On July 20, 1886, a reporter from the Expositor wrote, “The people of Madera who were sufferers of the recent fire should not feel discouraged but should build again in a more substantial style. Madera is bound to be a town of prominence as it is surrounded by as fine a body of land was there is in the state. Madera has seen its worst days, and a bright future awaits it.”

Naturally the entire town was elated to learn of Captain Mace’s intent to take the Expositor’s advice and rebuild but not with lumber — this time it would be bricks.

Coincidentally, among her other business operations, Madera had a brick factory operated by Chinese workers. It was located on the south side of town, near the 6th Street lumber mill, and the Captain took full advantage of its proximity by ordering enough bricks to build a new hotel two stories high and 54 feet by 100 feet. That same brick building on the northeast corner of Yosemite Avenue and E Street is the one that was devastated by Monday’s fire.

The official rebuilding of Madera after the fire of 1886 was initiated on Nov. 22, 1886, when Captain Mace hired Joseph L. Smith to prepare plans and specifications for his new hotel. It was to be an L-shaped building with a kitchen, dining room, 39 bedrooms, bar, office, parlor, and halls, etc. In December, the contracts for building the hotel were awarded. Smith and Poor got the job of completing the woodwork, and T.T. Barret won the contract to do the mason work and plastering. Construction was performed at a breakneck speed, and the new “Yosemite Hotel” was opened to the public on April 10, 1887.

Over the years, notables by the dozens spent the night in Mace’s Yosemite Hotel. The old hotel register carries the signatures of the likes of John C. Fremont, Ulysses Grant, and Tom Hildreth, who added beside his name, “drunk as hell.”

After the 1886 rebuilding, Mace turned the operation of the hotel over to his sons William and Russel while the old Captain sat in his rocker in the lobby smoking his cigar and spinning tales.

By 1894, his 350 pounds had taken its toll. His heart gave out. They took him from the hotel to Arbor Vitae, and that is where he is today.

Over the years, downtown Madera changed, and other uses were found for the hotel, which served the town for 83 years before closing in 1968. The first floor went through a succession of businesses including McMahan’s Furniture and others, but the upstairs held onto its true identity. In 1990, the numbered rooms were still there, but the only occupants were pigeons.

So now, what will become of Madera’s birthplace? Perhaps the Clampers will mark the spot.

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