Historic Haunts: Exploring the Utica Mansion

By Bob Holton September 15, 2014 22:15

One of Charles Lane’s relatives, Kathleen Supinger of Angels Camp, in the mansion’s former ballroom

There is a certain indefinable something ‒ a spiritual aura, shall we say ‒ that lingers in old houses. It is particularly evident in the 132-year-old Utica Mansion in Angels Camp.

Its floors creak, its windows rattle and its walls give out inexplicable sounds.

“Sometimes when it’s very quiet, I hear the sound of creaking floorboards coming from down the hallway,” says Tad Folendorf, who has lived in this timeless old haunt for 33 years, “but there’s really no spirit I can allude to.”

Folendorf, clearly, is not a believer.

Just north of downtown next to Utica Park, his house is the town’s only mansion and one of Calaveras County’s most significant historical landmarks. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1984.

The mansion began as a modest home built by Utica Mine owner Robert Leeper in 1882. Two years later, Leeper sold the mine to Charles D. Lane. Lane then bought Leeper’s house in 1888 and, in the early 1890s, undertook an elaborate remodel that doubled its size and transformed it into the mansion we see today.

This imposing edifice was first home to Lane and his family. Later it became the mine superintendent’s office.

Lane, along with two Bay Area investors, became unspeakably rich as owners of the Utica, which at its 1890-1900 zenith employed some 500 subterranean workers and 30 armed guards pulling shifts around the clock. Typical wages were $2 to $3 a day – although Lane himself was reportedly clearing a phenomenal $1,500 daily in 1895.

But I digress. Back at the mansion, there is more than what first meets the eye. Its principal feature is antiquity frozen in time.

Though the mansion is closed to the public, my wife, Barbara, and I have been granted a rare tour. We enter a large room cluttered with vintage knickknacks, bric-a-brac and curious objects. Portraits of Lane, his wife Anna and their infant child remain in the house, as do some original furnishings and desks from the mine office.

To the right of the entry hall is a huge ballroom where festive dinner parties for 50 or more were once held.

Here we are met by Folendorf, a lifelong Angels Camp resident, longtime city council member, former mayor, past president of the Calaveras County Historical Society and an Angels Museum director. His love of history and desire to bring some lost glory back to the mansion prompted his early 1980s purchase.

Scanning our surroundings carefully, we notice the walls of this grand stone fortress are 18 to 20 inches thick. All 11 rooms have tall ceilings and original brass light fixtures. At every turn we see Victorian furniture, some of which came with the mansion when Folendorf bought it.

Ascending one of two spectral staircases leading to the second floor, we find ourselves in an extended, dimly lit passageway lined with intricate woodwork, ornate wallpaper and tapestries.

In one of the upstairs chambers is an enormous hand-carved bed (circa 1870) that, we are told, belonged to Judge Anson A.H. Tuttle – for whom the tiny Tuolumne County settlement of Tuttletown is named.

The windows are long and hung with delicate lace curtains. There are five fireplaces in all. A narrow, phantasmagorical third stairway leads to the attic, where we shall not go.

As one might suppose, there is more to this place than staircases, meandering hallways and room after room filled with relics of the past. There has also been sorrow, laughter, human pride and the mourning of loved ones here.


Superimposed spirits were part of 1903 photo of Charles Lane

Charles Lane, it turns out, was deeply involved in spiritualism. After he bought the Utica Mine, many thought he had been swindled. The seller, it was said, had “salted” a dry hole and passed it off as the real thing. Undaunted by rumor, however, Lane continued to work the mine with slim rewards.

He might have given up had it not been for an Oakland fortune-teller who repeatedly told him to keep digging. “Someday,” she would say, peering into her crystal ball, “the Utica Mine will make you a wealthy man.”

Having decided upon his plan, Lane pressed on for several long years, tunneling thousands of feet beneath the earth’s surface until he finally hit one of the richest ore bodies in the southern mines. From this fabulous find, according to family legend, his all-knowing medium received a handsome finder’s fee of $80,000. Meanwhile, Lane and his partners joined the ranks of California’s most celebrated and moneyed mining men, and he quickly began expanding the mansion.

Despite its financial success, the Utica Mine was fraught with disaster and human tragedy. One particularly horrifying episode occurred in December 1889, when 17 men were entombed and cremated at the 300-foot level. It took 12 years to recover the last two victims’ remains in what still ranks as Calaveras County’s deadliest mining accident.

This unfortunate mishap was just one in a series of ongoing cave-ins, underground fires, explosions and equipment failures at the Utica that took the lives of numerous victims. So common were its accidents that a two-story, 16-bed hospital was constructed for the sole purpose of treating those injured at the mine.

Based on today’s astronomically inflated precious metals market, the Utica Mine is estimated to have produced over $1 billion dollars in yellow wealth – a national record.

It closed in 1910, but its hoist house and head frame remained for several more decades. They were finally hauled away, and the mine’s shafts allowed to fill with water to their 60-foot-levels, which happened in 1954. The site is now a city park.

The mansion itself remained Utica Mining Co. property until it was sold in 1952. Through the decades of ownership, it served as a center for major social events in the community. But by the 1940s, the Utica Mansion was vacant and unused, referred to by locals as “the haunted house.”

But that was then. Now a private residence, it serves with its neighbor, Utica Park, as a lasting tribute to California’s golden era and to the brave men who once worked and died in the Mother Lode’s dangerous quartz mines.


Copyright © 2014 Friends and Neighbors Magazine
By Bob Holton September 15, 2014 22:15
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1 Comment

  1. Jules January 28, 14:02

    This was awesome to read. I am the last living decendent of Robert Leeper, and love reading anything on the Utica Mansion and Mine. My grandfather was Robert’s youngest son, Arthur Ford Leeper and I believe was born in the house before it was sold to Charles Lane and turned into a mansion.

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