By Antoinette May Herndon
Everyone knows that Mokelumne Hill’s Hotel Leger (pronounced “luh zhay”) has always been the hub of town activity. Beginning in 1851, a hotel has existed on the corner of Lafayette and Main. Until 1866, the building included the county courthouse, complete with a handy downstairs dungeon and convenient hanging tree out back.
Since “the Hill” was the biggest, baddest, most important mining camp in Calaveras County (according to the records, 17 people killed there in 17 weeks, then five more shot the following weekend), it scarcely seems surprising that such a riotous history would inspire a legion of restless ghosts
At least that’s one theory.
Very little is known for certain about the hotel’s founder. George Leger, born in Germany, but claiming French descent, came to Mokelumne Hill in 1851. Catering to the town’s large French population, already ensconced on Lafayette Street, he erected his “Lafayette Inn”— probably a tent—fronting on Center Street.
A fire destroyed the hotel in 1854 but left the stone courthouse still in tact. Within a year the forty-year-old bon vivvant was not only back in business but had acquired a wife, Louisa Wilkin, age 23. The story goes that Louisa died in childbirth. Does that explain the eerie sounds of a woman crying that hotel guests have reported so often over the years? Some think so.
Leger added a stone annex to his hotel and changed the name to the Hotel de Europa, then to the Grand Hotel. He could call it anything he pleased, but for townspeople it was “Leger’s place.”
In late August of 1874 George embellished his hotel with a new bar. It was said to be a gorgeous creation of black walnut, maple and laurel. The Calaveras Chronicle raved: “All the hotel lacks to make it equal to any house in our rival city of San Francisco is an elevator.” Wow!
Unfortunately, the building was gutted a week later in the Sept. 4 fire that raged through Mokelumne Hill. His loss was estimated at $50,000. But on April 26, 1875 Leger celebrated his phoenix-like rise with a grand ball. More than 100 carriages pulled up in front of the hotel conveying couples from every town in Calaveras and Amador counties.
Today the hotel looks
exactly as it did then—including original stones dating from 1851 and the 1862 annex addition.
Now let’s fast forward more than 150 years to new owners with their own stories to tell Doralee Rees and Dave Albert are far more interested in a different kind of spirits. “We dispense only the best from our bar,” Dave says. “We want our customers to leave smiling, come back soon and bring their friends.”
Doralee and Dave are transplants from southern California where they worked as martial arts instructors. “I loved that,” Doralee says, “but after awhile my knees started giving me trouble. I knew it was time for a career change. We had always wanted to run a B & B. Finally it seemed like the time had come.”
The couple traveled around the state looking at possibilities and, of course, they searched the internet. One evening Dave spotted an interesting ad and went off to check it out. “I’ve found the perfect place,” he informed Doralee upon his return. He was eager for her to see it.
“Dave this is NOT a B & B,” she informed him as they pulled up before the Leger. No question that innkeepers have lots of challenges that B & B keepers manage to avoid. Fortunately, Doralee soon fell under the spell of the historic hotel and its Gold Rush setting.
Since buying the business on June 5, the couple has experienced a baptism of—not fire—let’s say fun. It began with the Great Gatsby benefit and has included a monster birthday bash, a Lions Club initiation, and three days of CHP intervention training—all on the Leger premises.
Undaunted, Doralee and Dave have lot of plans for the hotel’s future. They’ve already added weekend lunches and look forward to serving lunch and eventually breakfast every day.
“This hotel is full of history and that’s why we love it,” Dave says. “The creaks aren’t going to go away but we intend to be a full service hotel operating daily.
Plans for fishing packages, golf packages, gold panning and caving expeditions are in the offing, also retreats for photographers, artists and writers.
The hotel dining room recently morphed into the White Water Grill & Saloon. “It’s a kind of a homage to the Mokelumne River that’s so essential to the growth of the area. The grill has a constantly expanding menu.
Luncheon fare includes a salmon pesto wrap ($9.95) and an artichoke chipotle burger ($9.95), in addition to more traditional burgers, sandwiches and salads. I recently ordered a Tzatziki shrimp salad ($10.95) which consisted of pesto shrimp n a bed of lettuce drizzled with lemon cucumber dressing garnished with Feta cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions and croutons. I loved it!
On a recent evening, I enjoyed salmon Marsala ($16.95). Charles opted for artichoke chicken Ravioli ($15.95), grilled chicken breast served over spinach and cheese ravioli with a creamy artichoke sauce. He was well pleased.
Future menus will feature wild game specials such as elk, venison and moose along with upgraded traditional miners’ favorites. The grill’s signature dish is bread pudding and believe me this is NOT the way your mother fixed it when you were a kid. The owners are not sharing the recipe, but I detect more than a taste of brandy. The bread pudding is truly scrumptious.
I’m happy to say that chef Chuck Swisher remains at the helm and is most excited at the prospect of future developments. Three pretty and efficient newcomers are servers, Jessica Bolin, Asjia Haaaland and Chianna Griffith. Richard Dominguez tends bar and knows how to make a martini just right.
“Our aim is to offer outstanding food and service in a down home atmosphere,” Doralee promises. “People have been coming here for fun and excitement for more than 150 years and its only going to get better.”
As for the ghosts . . . well, we’ll see about that.
VITALS: The Leger is located 8304 Main St., Mokelumne Hill. Phone: 286 -1401. The White Water Bar & Grill is open Thursday through Sunday. Reservations advised. The popular Martini Night is held on Thursday beginning around 4. First come, first served.
Here’s to the ladies who lunch: left to right, Jennifer Hoffman, Genevive Beltran, Lucy Sanna, Sally Kaplin and Kirsten Byrne gather at the newly opened White Water Bar and Grill in Mokelumne Hill’s Hotel Leger.
An August wedding at the Hotel Leger in Mokelumne Hill is planned by Adrienne Menzies and Mark Vradenburg with an assist from new owner Doralee Rees.
Doralee Rees and Dave Albert, new owners of Mokelumne Hill’s Hotel Leger, check their latest menu innovations.