Jeff Jardine

Coulterville’s historic Jeffery Hotel badly damaged by fire, but owner confident it will rise once more

Fire destroyed parts of the Jeffery Hotel and damaged others early Wednesday morning. The hotel, built in 1851, counted Teddy Roosevelt and Queen Elizabeth II as its visitors and has been the heart and soul of the tiny foothills town for the past 163 years. The bar remained relatively unscathed, and owner Sara Zahn hopes to reopen that portion of the hotel soon and rebuild the rest.
Fire destroyed parts of the Jeffery Hotel and damaged others early Wednesday morning. The hotel, built in 1851, counted Teddy Roosevelt and Queen Elizabeth II as its visitors and has been the heart and soul of the tiny foothills town for the past 163 years. The bar remained relatively unscathed, and owner Sara Zahn hopes to reopen that portion of the hotel soon and rebuild the rest. jjardine@modbee.com

When flames ripped through the back corner of Coulterville’s 163-year-old Jeffery Hotel early Wednesday morning, it felt like a stomach punch to every resident of the small foothills community.

The Jeffery should survive this one, too, just as it did fires in 1859, 1879 and 1899. A tough old bird, indeed. No matter. It still left the townsfolk in tears.

“It’s the heart and soul of this town,” said 28-year-old Mandalynn Sudberry, who once managed the hotel and held her wedding reception there in May. “Everybody rallies around this place. Without it, there’s nothing here.”

MaryAnn Huff works in the town’s visitors bureau that, until Wednesday, operated out of the hotel.

“This is our history,” she said, moments before breaking into tears. “Our bones.”

History, indeed. Built of 30-inch-thick rock and clay walls by Mexicans as a store with a fandango hall upstairs in the 1840s, it became the Jeffery after George Jeffery bought the building and transformed it into a hotel in 1851.

President Theodore Roosevelt stayed there before going on to Yosemite for his famed 1903 tour with John Muir, who also stayed at the Jeffery. So, at another time, did Mark Twain. Queen Elizabeth II stopped by on her way to Yosemite in 1983 – a trip marred by the deaths of three Secret Service agents killed when their vehicle collided with a sheriff’s patrol car.

Located at the corner of State Routes 49 and 132, the Jeffery became the hotel of choice for other Yosemite visitors and area tourists as well. As time passed, it became much, much more to the town. When the Jeffery is open and prospers, the town’s other businesses do, too, Huff said.

“When tourists come through, this is the monument they see,” she said. “It’s the most photographed building around.”

Word of the fire spread quickly along Highway 132. In La Grange, Louie’s Place posted that it will donate its Thanksgiving feast proceeds to help the Jeffery up the road rebound. The Yosemite/Mariposa County Tourism Bureau is also looking to help.

Mike DiTore, who moved to Coulterville 25 years ago, said the Jeffery is the community’s lifeline.

“It’s the most important building in town,” he said. “Without the hotel and bar, there’s not much reason to stop by Coulterville. On weekends, we’ll get a couple of hundred bikers who have a great time and spend money. It’s the social hub of this town.”

Sudberry was tending bar in the hotel’s Magnolia Saloon the night she met her future husband, Justen Sudberry. They were married in the spring, reciting their vows outdoors before the event moved to the hotel for the reception. She invited 150 guests.

“And about 200 more who just showed up,” said DiTore, her father.

The couple spent their wedding night upstairs.

Even in those times when the hotel was closed, tourists wanted a peek inside.

“People would still want to see it, so I’d walk them through the hotel,” Sudberry said.

It had been closed for roughly three years before Sara Zahn bought the Jeffery four years ago, moving up from quirky Venice Beach and falling in love with the place.

“This old hotel has so much character,” she said, her eyes moist.

Zahn received a serious wake-up call from her alarm company shortly after the fire broke out about 1 a.m. She evacuated the hotel’s only guest, went into the kitchen and saw flames outside engulfing the northeast corner of the building.

“I got the hose and tried to put it out,” she said. “But there was no water pressure.”

Firefighters arrived quickly and limited the blaze primarily to that corner. Still, it destroyed five guest rooms and all of the bathrooms. The Teddy Roosevelt suite survived. The Magnolia – billed as California’s oldest operating saloon – incurred some water damage, but not as much as the dining room and the kitchen, the latter being closest to where the fire began.

Unless an arson investigator finds otherwise, Zahn and the others believe some kind of electrical problem started the blaze. She hopes to reopen the bar soon, then get started on rebuilding the damaged or destroyed rooms.

“As long as the insurance company behaves itself,” she said.

Indeed, the Jeffery will come back to life once again. Three other fires couldn’t finish the old place off.

Neither will this one, Zahn promises.

“It survived. It’s always surviving,” she said. “It’s the fourth time this hotel’s burned since 1851.”

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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