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Monday, April 16, 2018


Sonora, like so many other gold mining towns in California, found the lure of gold brought hoodlums along with the gold miners to a predominately male population that for the most part disregarded the social controls they had learned at home. It lead to overwhelming law enforcement problems. In 1850 alone, Tuolumne County, with Sonora as its principle community, dealt with 30 murders. Twelve took place within one week.
1866 Downtown Sonora, California
The need of a jail in this largely lawless land became apparent. However, housing was at a premium. The first means of securing prisoners was to chain them to a large oak tree.  Next, the inhabitants constructed a 20' X 50' log building.  Due to the number of escapes from this building, it was deemed not secure enough for a jail.

Bradford Street, Sonora - near Sonora Creek and Jail 
In early 1853, the county purchased a building on the north bank of Sonora Creek. This served as its jail until 1857 when the public demanded something be done to prevent frequent escapes and provide healthier quarters for prisoners.  As a result of the 1856 Grand Jury report, the Board of Supervisors purchased two city lots on which to build a county jail.  B. Stout's bid for $13,300 was accepted and the work began.  Completed in 1857, the final cost of the jail was $20,186.
Jail cell-ctsy Tuolumne Co. Historical Soc.
Inside Jail-ctsy Tuolumne Co. Historical Soc.

On December 20, 1865, the newly built jail was destroyed by a fire set by a prisoner.  Using salvaged material, the present structure was rebuilt by J. D. Patterson for $8,400.  On September 19, 1866, the displaced prisoners were transferred to the new jail by Sheriff Bourland.

The Tuolumne County jail was used continuously from 1857 to 1961.

Side of old Tuolumne County Jail-ctsy of Tuolumne Co. Historical Society
The jail is also an example of city and county cooperation to avoid duplication of public services.  The two cell blocks, one of which was divided into two parts, allowed for the incarceration of women and juveniles and also city prisoners as the occasion arose.  This flexibility accommodated all types of prisoners in a single facility with a minimum of supervisory staff.  This supervision included the sheriff and sometimes his deputy, and later, a jailer.
Criss-crossed Iron Bars used on cell doors and windows- 
Courtesy of Tuolumne County Historical Society
The jail walls were constructed using two thicknesses of red brick.  All of the doors and windows had iron bars and shutters to provide security and air.  From the old Western movies, we think of jail cells having bars. However, typical of jails of the time, the Tuolumne jail had doors and windows with criss-crossed iron strips. The brick walls were set on a foundation of well laid schist rock.

The jail yard, which served as the prisoners' exercise yard, was enclosed by a high brick wall. Family quarters were an important part of the jail. The sheriff and his family lived in a building attached to the jail. Often the sheriff's wife was contracted to provide meals for the inmates. Also, she acted at the matron for female prisoners.

By 1960, the old jail was obsolete and a new jail was constructed one block to the north.  Shortly after use was discontinued, the building became the Tuolumne County Museum.   Used for its original purpose and limited in the number of its alterations for so long, the museum building remains a good example of the jails built to house prisoners during the county's first hundred years. 
Current Tuolumne County Historical Society in old Tuolumne County Jail 
The majority of the information for this post was taken from the Tuolumne Historical Society's website. For more information on the jail in Sonora, California, please visit their site at this link:

Anyone who has not yet read my Eastern Sierra Brides 1884 series which takes place just on the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountains from Columbia and Sonora, you may enjoy my first two books in the Eastern Sierra Brides 1884 series. You may find the first book in the series, Big Meadow Valentine, by CLICKING HERE.

The second book, A Resurrected Heart, is about the April resurrection day in the gold mining town of Lundy, but it has nothing to do with Easter. You may find this book by CLICKING HERE.


  1. Again, a very fascinating post. Of course with my background in criminology, this is right up my alley. Thank you. Doris

  2. This jail intrigues me from the physical design to the way they organized the male, female, and young prisoners' quarters while using minimal guard staff. Someone put on their thinking and planning hats for this jail.

  3. I loved the pictures, especially downtown Sonora. It amazes me how they were able to get these photographs way back then.
    A wonderful article, Zina.