Town of Placerville turns 150 years old
PLACERVILLE – The Ravine City, Old Dry Diggings, Old Hangtown – under many names its history goes back almost to the very start of the California Gold Rush.
And, like only a few of those early towns, it has weathered the winds of time and stands today as a historical commercial center, serving not only the local residents, but the many who visit to enjoy this living piece of California history.
Today the town of Placerville, El Dorado’s county seat, celebrates its 150th birthday.
The honor of “discovering” Placerville is usually given to three ranchers who resided along the Cosumnes River near Sacramento – William Daylor, Jared Sheldon and Perry McCoon. This is in spite of the fact that James Wilson Marshall himself also claimed to be the first to mine along the banks of what is now Hangtown Creek, just a short time after his discovery of gold at Coloma in January of 1848.
In the summer of 1848, Daylor, Sheldon and McCoon stopped in a ravine along the banks of what would be Hangtown Creek several hundred yards below where Highway 49 crosses it today. There, in the streambed, they found gold in good quantities. One day, an American Indian in their employ, while searching upstream, located gold-laden dirt on the hillside above the creek and reported his find back to them. Shortly thereafter this location became known as “Old Dry Diggings.” Unfortunately, this name only lasted until January 1849 when the town became known through the Mother Lode as “Old Hangtown” or just “Hangtown.”
There are many accounts relating to why the name of this town was unofficially changed to Hangtown – all true, we are told. Fortunately, they all have one common thread – three criminals were hanged from an oak tree in front of Elstner’s hay yard (Hangman’s Tree Historic Spot) and buried on the bank of Hangtown Creek, where a monument has been erected in their memory.
As a result, Old Dry Diggings immediately became known as Hangtown – a place dispensing rapid justice to all of those who dared to ply their criminal trade.
On Sept. 9, 1850, California officially became a state. A few years later, on May 13, 1854, the city of Placerville was incorporated by an act of the California Legislature. Feeling that Hangtown was an inappropriate name for a community, the Legislature pondered naming it either Ravine City or Placerville, the latter winning out. As a result of these changes in the status of California, things began to settle down and become more organized in the city of Placerville.
During its first 50 years, much would happen in Placerville. In 1856 the city would be struck by devastating fire – at least twice. A fire department would be formed, a belltower constructed and the city would be rebuilt. But, a few years later mining would decline and much of the population would move elsewhere in their quest to “strike it rich,” leaving the city deserted. Then, gold and silver would be found at Virginia City, and Placerville would become a major stop along the only freight route over the Sierra Nevada.
With a strong economy once again, the city committed to purchase bonds to extend the railroad line from Shingle Springs. Unfortunately, things did not work out as planned and the city defaulted on its commitment.
Faced with bankruptcy, on Feb. 1, 1873 the Common Council of the city of Placerville all resigned, leaving Placerville without much of a government until the 20th century.
In spite of this problem, by 1888 the railroad had arrived and Placerville again became a shipping center, this time for the lumber produced by its many mills and the fruit growing in the orchards.
Following the turmoil of its early years, Placerville would become and remain a quiet, rural county seat way into the middle of the 20th century. That is until the winding, historical section of the Lincoln Highway, known as Highway 50, was replaced by a freeway in the 1960s.
With the freeway constructed, it was just a short time until the people working in the Sacramento Valley discovered that it had become an easy commute from El Dorado County to Sacramento. The area in and around Placerville, being above the fog, below the snow and an easy drive from the Lake Tahoe area, rapidly became a bedroom community for the valley.
But this prosperity brought Placerville new problems, large shopping centers springing up in the old and new communities outside of the city.
Placerville, which for a century had been the commercial center for most of El Dorado County, began to lose its businesses. For a while, it looked like it might again fade into history as the number of empty storefronts increased. But some of the businesses refused to quit, among those its pharmacy and historical hardware store and newsstand. To these businesses were soon added new ones now directed toward the thousands that were discovering the Gold Rush town that refused to quit.
Today Placerville, at 150 years old and in the midst of a revitalization, it is obvious to all that the entrepreneurial spirit of the early business people who started here – individuals with names like Studebaker, Armour and Crocker – lives on in the residents and business people of Placerville.