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Placerville City

Placerville City Hall is located at 3101 Center Street, Placerville, CA 95667; phone: 530-642-5200.

Beginnings [1]

Just as its prehistory is bound to the natural environment that provided native peoples with spiritual and material needs for thousands of years, the historical development of Placerville is intrinsically tied to the discovery of gold at Coloma in January 1848. Prior to the invasion of white people, Placerville and its surroundings were characterized by dense stands of virgin timber and massive oaks which had stood the test of time for hundreds of years. Within a few years of the white man's arrival, however, the area was almost entirely denuded.

Placerville lies in a narrow canyon bisected by a number of small drainages and gentle ridges. Native peoples belonging to the Southern Maidu (Nisenan) utilized the resources within the canyon for hunting, fishing, and gathering foodstuffs, while encamped on the gentle terraces above present-day Hangtown Creek. The Nisenan, meaning "people," lived between the North Fork of Cosumnes River on the south and the Bear River to the north. Prior to 1847, when James Marshall was enlisted by John Sutter to construct a sawmill alongside the American River, little or no contact had occurred between native people and whites. The Coloma Nisenan worked for Sutter, signing an indenture to their land. Their troubles with the white workers at the sawmill were far outweighed by those they had with the throngs of argonauts who began arriving in the Mother Lode in 1849.

At first the Indians were accepted, but it was not long before they were viewed as competitors and impediments to wealth and Americanization. The native peoples closest to the gold-bearing streams, including those in present-day Placerville, were the hardest hit. By 1850, their patterns of subsistence had been disrupted and diseases never known to them decimated entire villages.

For the Nisenan the Gold Rush was disastrous, but for the many 49ers it was the means to instant wealth. During the first months after the gold discovery at Coloma, mining activity centered around Coloma on the American River and to the south along Weber Creek. By 1849, as more miners poured in and new gold deposits were discovered, one of the earliest of which was along present-day Hangtown Creek. The first discovery of gold at present day Placerville was in the summer of 1848. As the gold discovery became known, other miners settled and a tent community named "Dry Diggings" emerged. Apparently the name "Dry Diggings" did not appeal to its first residents, because in February 1849, after the hanging of two Frenchmen and a Spaniard on a large oak tree, the camp was renamed "Hangtown." The nickname "Hangtown" lasted until 1850 when the newly formed State Legislature legalized the name Placerville, in preference to the suggested name of Ravine City.

By the 1850's, the population of Placerville far outweighed its neighbor Coloma. As a result, the citizens of Placerville requested that the county seat be moved from Coloma to their growing community. It was not until January 1857, after pressure had been exerted on the State Legislature, that the county seat moved to Placerville, where it has since remained.

For several years the population of Placerville rivaled that of San Francisco, having the largest voting population in California. Like many other mining communities within the "Mother Lode," Placerville was settled by multitude of nationalities, including Sonorans from Mexico, Hispanics, Chileans, Jews, Chinese, Italians, French, people from the British Isles, Kanakans, Slavic peoples, Eastern Europeans, Germans, Dutch, Blacks, and Anglo-Americans. By the early 1850's Placerville had become a cosmopolitan city, with many of the trappings of rival cities in the east.

The historical development of Placerville can be divided into five periods. The first began in 1848 with the formation of the town and its transition from a tent community to a frontier boomtown. The second period was characterized by gradual economic decline, which was reflected in a slowdown in gold discovery, lower gold prices, and population decline. The third period began with the discovery of silver ore near Virginia City, Nevada, and was characterized by rapid growth which lasted through the early 1870's. The fourth period began in the early "1870's and lasted into the second decade of the twentieth century. This period was characterized by both population decline and economic diversification. The fifth and last period began in the 1920's and continues to the present. This last period has been characterized by steady growth in the population and major growth in the retail market, agribusiness, and the lumber industry.

During the early boom years, men such as Collis P. Huntington and John Studebaker began compiling their fortunes in Placerville. Most miners, however, were not nearly as successful. Placerville in the mid 1850's was characterized by rustic log and shake-sided commercial buildings, with few frame structures and even fewer stone and brick buildings. This was to drastically change in 1856 when a disastrous fire virtually destroyed the entire commercial district. Instead of building with wood, many businessmen chose to rebuild in stone and brick, giving Placerville a more permanent appearance.

In 1858-59, the population of Placerville had grown to over 6,000 inhabitants. By 1860-61, Placerville had well over 7,000 inhabitants and had become a thriving commercial center tied to the mining industry and the trade that followed the major trans-Sierra wagon roads that went through the town. With growth in population and trade, Placerville's businessmen lobbied for the construction of a railroad through their city. Unfortunately, the route finally chosen went through Auburn and over Donner Summit taking a great deal of business north to Placer County.

Between 1860 and 1880, Placerville faced many of the problems that the nation as a whole experienced: the Civil War, the Panic of 1873, and major decreases in the value of gold and silver. These problems, combined with new gold rushes in British Columbia, Colorado, Nevada, and Montana, steadily drained the population of El Dorado County. By 1880, Placerville's population had declined to 2,000. No longer was gold the epic dream of wealth and prosperity. Placerville had to survive on other industries, including retail services offered by the city's commercial establishments. In addition, the County was being promoted for its virgin stands of timber and rich soils for agriculture.

In 1887, a branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad finally reached Placerville, providing ranchers and farmers with a quick and economical means to transport their products to other markets. Water had always been a crucial resource in the Mother Lode miners needed it for mining, ranchers needed it to water their stock, farmers needed it to water their crops, and the general population needed it to drink. During the 1850's numerous water companies were organized, several of which were later consolidated into what is now the water system operated by the El Dorado Irrigation District and Pacific Gas and Electric.

By the latter part of the 19th century, most of the water being conveyed in the extensive ditch system in the County was sold to ranchers for their orchards. This trend continued well into the 20th century, and the need for, and sometimes lack of, water remains a major issue.

In 1910, Placerville was still a small rural community tied to Sacramento and the foothill communities by narrow, winding, dirt roads. Portions of this antiquated road system gained national importance in 1913 when the Placerville-Lake Tahoe Wagon Road was as a route by the newly organized transcontinental Lincoln Highway Association headquartered in Detroit, Michigan. (An alternate route was also chosen over Donner Pass through Auburn.) Work on the road began in 1913, but it was not asphalted through to Fred's Place, located above Kyburz, until the early 1920's. By the mid-1920's the asphalt surface was in place through to South Lake Tahoe, although the highway seldom remained open during the winter. Coinciding with the construction of the Lincoln Highway was a steady growth in the population of El Dorado County and Placerville. The County's agricultural base was growing and the lumber industry and the newly formed Eldorado National Forest provided jobs to the community. As America urbanized, more people longed for the country and its many recreational opportunities. By the 1930's, Placerville had become the gateway to Lake Tahoe, its businesses catering to the growing trade in tourism. Where horses once trod, automobiles now drove and the birth of the service station had begun—where there were once blacksmiths and stables, gas stations could now be found.

  1. City of Placerville, CA, General Plan, Chapter X, Historic and Cultural Resources, 1989 (revised 2004),, accessed August, 2012.
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