GOLD RUSH HEADQUARTERS
Elevation: 1,860 feet
WHAT TO DO IN PLACERVILLE
Some Favorites From Our Expeditions
Get a look at Gold Rush-era commerce at Placerville Hardware. See if you can find the slot in the counter that used to collect gold dust for payment.
Dine in an actual mine shaft at the Cozmic Cafe.
Stop in at the El Dorado County Historical Museum to see Snowshoe Thompson’s skis and marvel over the Sierra postal carrier who managed a route across a giant mountain range.
Eat a Hangtown Fry.
Have an interest in Indian burial grounds? Make a side trip to Diamond Springs. Fair warning: you won’t find any exhibits indicating it as such, but if you’re interested in the pre-Gold Rush Sierra natives, this is a sacred spot.
The Original Boomtown
Placerville was one of the first mining settlements to spring up after gold was discovered in nearby Coloma in 1848. It was first known as Dry Diggins — the technique to mine from dry land versus river beds. (Without a nearby water source, soil would have to be carried to a stream so that the gold could be exposed as the dirt washed away.) As the Gold Rush kicked into high gear, Placerville quickly became its hub and the third-largest city in California (after San Francisco and Sacramento).
The lively town soon earned a new name as Gold Rush excitement also gave way to disagreements and violence: Hangtown. It stemmed from what became the favored punishment for the worst crimes in a vigilante sort of justice system. The oak where the noose hung was in the center of town, and though it no longer stands, the Hanging Tree is a state historical landmark. A sign marks its spot and claims the stump is located beneath what was a nearby tavern called the Hangman’s Noose. The bar closed in 2008, though is now being restored. For years, it featured another Placerville conversation piece — a dummy in Gold Rush dress that hung from a rope attached to its sign.
Hangtown quickly caught on as the town’s name, but as more conservative residents eventually joined the outlaws, they lobbied for a less gruesome moniker. In 1854, they succeeded in having it changed to Placerville, which gave a nod to the deposits of placer gold in the surrounding riverbeds and hills. (A placer is one of two types of gold deposits, the other being a lode. A placer is found in erosion material like sand, gravel, and river or stream beds, while a lode deposit is still embedded in hard rock. Placer mining is essentially “panning for gold,” while lode mining is the much more difficult hard rock mining that requires drills or explosives.)
Wild West Fire Alarm
Placerville had established a position as the epicenter of Gold Country. Though it wouldn’t replace Coloma as the county seat until 1857, it had nearly 2,000 residents by 1854. But in 1856, the thriving boomtown nearly met its end with three major fires in less than one year. So that people could be summoned quickly to fight future blazes, a bell was ordered from England and installed in a tower at the center of town, where it still stands.
A Pause in the Action
1856 was also the year that Placerville’s fortunes dwindled in another way: the gold production that was its lifeblood had leveled off. But the lull was short-lived. Once the Comstock Lode was discovered east of the Sierra, Placerville was again serving as the major point of supply for mining operations.
The Living Past
Like several other Gold Rush towns, Placerville has some very well-preserved buildings from its early days that provide a sense of what life was like in the 1800s. If you want to go back in time, try here:
Placerville Soda Works
Originally called Pearson’s Soda Works, this two-level stone building is distinctive-looking, but perhaps most interesting because it was built around the entrance to an abandoned mine. When Pearson’s opened, its business was selling ice. The mine made a perfect underground storage area for it, and the one-story building around it was constructed with very thick walls to also help keep things cool. When the operation later expanded into soda water, the second level was added as the space for bottling. Pearson’s would become a Coca-Cola bottling franchise in the 1930s and today is a restaurant (Cosmic Cafe) where the mine tunnels remain very much a part of the interior. Tables situated inside the shaft are prime locations on hot days.
Cary House Hotel
Since opening in 1857, the Cary House Hotel has played host to a diverse collection of guests that include Mark Twain, Buffalo Bill, Ulysses S. Grant, Horace Greeley, Bette Davis and Elvis Presley. It was always known as an elegant lodging choice, and one of its early amenities was a bathtub on every floor. Inside is an old-fashioned elevator with gate, a piano dating back to the 1800s and four large stained glass windows depicting early Gold Country through the seasons.
Placerville is also home to the oldest continuously operating hardware store west of the Mississippi. Placerville Hardware goes all the way back to 1852 when it specialized in mining supplies. The wooden floors are original and studded with brass tacks that were used to measure rope, and one of the counters still has the slot that collected the gold dust that was once accepted as payment. Mining gear is still available, but the merchandise has expanded to truly offer something for most anyone. There’s traditional hardware goods, kitchenware, Christmas ornaments, handbag hangers, a vast selection of birdhouses and teapots, old-fashioned oil lamps, Wonder Woman nightlights, walking sticks, coonskin caps, poison ivy soap and even beer steins with Norm from Cheers.
Though not as historic, another longstanding local business specializing in Placerville treasures is Hangtown Originals where the goods include Pony Express maps, turquoise jewelry and authentic Native American crafts, including dreamcatchers, leather medicine pouches and moccasins.
Freemasons, Odd Fellows & Druids: Fraternal Orders of Mystery
Longstanding fraternal organizations still maintain a presence in many Gold Country towns. Freemason lodges and the International Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) Halls are fairly common sights. They’re recognizable by the groups’ symbols: two overlapping inverted Vs with a G in the center for the Masons and a chain of three links for the Odd Fellows.
Placerville’s Odd Fellows Hall is One-of-a-Kind
Placerville’s Odd Fellows Hall had one very special feature: a spring-loaded hardwood dance floor that was added as part of a post-fire revamp in 1913. Said to be one of the last that remains in the United States, today the floor is still in use, providing bounce at a dance club called Ecstatic Dance that occupies the former Odd Fellows space.
A Benevolent Organization with Spooky Props
The IOOF started in England in the 1700s and expanded to this country in the early 1800s. Like so many others, the Odd Fellows came to California during the Gold Rush. From the start, the main motivation for the group (which has included both men and women since 1851) has been an altruistic pledge to help the less fortunate. One of its early guiding principle was to “Visit the sick, relieve the distress, bury the dead and educate the orphans.” The focus on caring for its members in times of need was highly appealing in the days before government programs like social security, unemployment and welfare were available, and the IOOF developed a sizable following.
But as is often the case, membership declined over the years as times changed. With Odd Fellows Halls around the country closing, some of the group’s secrets have been revealed. One of the more macabre is that skeletons are apparently part of some sort of ritual (seemingly acquired from scientific supply companies). Several — both fake and the real deal — have been found in former Odd Fellows buildings. The role they play remains confidential among members, but nothing sinister has ever been suspected. Odd Fellows remain highly regarded for their good works, and the skeletons were likely purchased from a special supplier. Those specializing in scientific research could be one source, but in the Odd Fellows’ earlier days there were also catalogs from which groups could buy their ceremonial items, including — apparently — skeletons.
Where to Pay Homage to Druids in Placerville
Another fraternal order has also lent an air of mystery to Placerville. The Druids erected a granite monument here in 1926 to honor the man who brought the group to California. Frederick Seig founded the first California Druid Grove in 1859, and the tall marker still stands in the middle of town.
Putting a Stamp on Breakfast: The Hangtown Fry
Another way Placerville shaped history is with its own culinary creation: the Hangtown Fry. Some say the mix of eggs, bacon and oysters originated when a miner who had struck it rich wanted to splurge with a celebratory meal in which money was no object. Another popular theory contends that a condemned man chose it as his last meal because the time it would take to procure the oysters would delay his hanging. Either way, the ingredients were considered high-end delicacies at the time.
Regardless of who ordered it first, many agree that the cook who concocted it worked at the El Dorado Hotel, which is now the Cary House. The fancy omelet would go on to become a Placerville staple and one of the earliest representations of “California Cuisine.”
The Original Wine Country
Placerville also contributes another hallmark of California’s culinary scene. While wine country immediately brings to mind Napa or Sonoma, El Dorado County is one of the state’s oldest wine regions. California wine-making actually began with the Gold Rush. Remember, miners came from all over the world in search of gold, and the Europeans have always been wine-lovers; some of them clearly wanted to be able to enjoy a taste of home.
The vineyards in the foothills faded after the gold played out, but re-emerged in the 1970s when the foothills became a recognized American Viticultural Area. Apple Hill on the outskirts of Placerville has a number of wineries. (Calaveras and Amador Counties are also key areas in the Sierra foothills wine scene, which is known for Zinfandel, Barbera, Syrah, Cabernet, Sangiovese and Pinot Grigio to name a few.)
Native Sons & Daughters
Placerville has had some illustrious residents, and they gained fame in very diverse industries. One early example went on to be a baron in the automobile industry. Before he and his brothers would get into cars, John Studebaker lived in Placerville, making wheelbarrows for miners.
In more recent times, Thomas Kinkade grew up in Placerville before going on to become known as the “Painter of Light.” He was also often described as America’s most collected artist for his broadly appealing depictions of cozy cottages, picturesque landscapes, sporting events and Disney characters, sold at the numerous galleries bearing his name.
Psychic-to-the-stars Nancy Bradley has called Placerville home for several years and continues to hold psychic readings and classes there.
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