The Gridley Gold Fields Diary – The Grandest of All the Mining Towns was Placerville

Daniel Ray / Toni Mann 2.2

PLACERVILLE, California (InEDC) Dec 28, 2022 — [1850, Chapter 2] — The grandest of all the mining towns the Gridleys frequented was Placerville. Located in central El Dorado County on the emigrants road from Carson Pass, it reached a population up to 5000 men. The miners called it Hangtown for one of a series of lynchings that occurred there in the early 1850’s. By the time. John and George began to visit it regularly, so many men had been hung, no one knew exactly which one the town was named for. In 1853 it had 515 structures and along its mile long Main Street were 48 hotels and public house. – the Empire Hotel. the Eagle, the Placer end El Dorado Hotel, and D. Gridley’s Michigan Boarding House. Five blacksmith, two tin and sheet iron shops, three tom shops, two drug stores, two book and stationery stores, two printers, three cigar stores, a brewery, three Joiners, a Methodist church, five jewelers, seven bakeries, four saloons, six restaurants, three dry goods stores, two express offices – Wells Fargo and Co. and Adams Express, eighteen boot and shoe stores, two sawmills, two dairies, two gambling saloons, two liveries and a soda fountain. In its stores they might bump into Norman Stevens from Half Day, or George Fenwick, recovering from the effects of a shipwreck on an attempted trip home. Visiting miners could pick up the latest edition of the Mountain Democrat and make their afternoon plans. Within six months in 1854, the Aeolian Vocalists appeared over at the Union House, and Neptune’s Circus and a panorama of California on canvas played to the Sunday afternoon crowds. “Is there a Bourbon in town?” asked the ad in the empire County Amt. Certainly as the Greyhound Billiard Saloon had whiskey fit for a king.

The gambling houses, of which there were three or four, were of course the largest and most conspicuous buildings; their mirrors, chandeliers and decorations suggesting a style of life totally at variance with the outward indications of everything around them.
The gamblers on Sundays reaped in rich harvest; their tables were thronged with crowdes of miners, betting eagerly, and of course losing their money. Many men came in, Sunday after Sunday, and gambled off all the gold they had dug during the week, having to get credit at a store for their next week’s provisions, and returning to their diggings to work for six days in getting more gold, which would all be transferred the next Sunday to the gamblers, in the vain hope of recovering what had been already lost (Bothrick. 1857).

On Sunday afternoons, admitted another ’49er, the men of camp were all “affectionately drunk in the forenoon, fighting drunk in the afternoon, and dead drunk at night ” (Coy.1929).

Back at the camp in the evening, they reread old newspapers and letters from home. “It is almost impossible to conceive.” they wrote, “with what pleasure a letter from distant home and family is received and read. It makes me feel almost as though we were at home again. We had a letter from Louisa five or six weeks ago, and wrote to her. Joseph commenced to write a letter in 49, finished it in 50. We received it in 51, but as he has a good excuse now. We can’t complain. Charlotte, can you not write a few lines to us? I cant tell how much good your words done us when we first arrived. We had seen so much to blunt our better and finer feelings that we hardly cared or thought of home, but a few kind and gentle words secured us that we were not forgotten. Your kindness and sympathies bring the dewdrops to our eyes. Gold would not be worth keeping if none loved us. Ever since, we have set anxiously when a letter was due. If I could have one to read every Sunday, and some newspaper to read evenings, I do not know but I should forget I am in California 2500 miles from anyplace where a human being ought to live,” (Gridley. various letters).

And always around them was the rolling Gold Country itself, its rounded foothill creased by clear, fast creeks winding their way through a fringe of gray green oaks to the valley below. “We had heavy rains in April.” wrote George. “It is quite warm now and the country looks fine, the wild clover out and the red top knee high: The earth is robed in green and the stock is thriving wall. Cattle look fine. Though warm, it is not as hot here as it frequently is at home, and when it is as cold as it will be at anytime, the weather is about the same as it is in October in Illinois. I like the country and the climate – the grass growing, birds singing. Frogs serenading all winter long.”

Still, sleeping on the ground under a tent in the rainy California winter left something to be desired, even if it was as warm as Illinois in October. And, if town was the place for a miner on Sunday, wasn’t it better to be there already and to profit from the pandemonium than to sell your hard-earned gold where someone else made the percentage. The arguments most have been strong to John and George. because in the fall of 1851 they left Charles Clingman at Dry Creek, and after working a claim on Carson Creek, purchased the Mountain Home, a boarding house and store between Shingle Springs and El Dorado on the Sacramento to Hangtown Road, with Georges’ partner, Tucker. According to an advertisement run in the Placerville Herald by a subsequent owner, the inn included bar fixtures, beds and bedding, cooking utensils, a good well of water, a splendid barn, a quarter section of land, farming utensils, wagons and harness.. They kept 25 to 40 boarders, charging them eight dollars a week. The harness and wagon were used to haul freight between Sacramento and the store. But when the mines failed for lack of water, they sold out and moved to Clarksville, a small town on Carson Creek where George had mined the previous fall. There the three partners bought the American House, another inn and small store. They continued to take in boarders and haul goods on the Sacramento to Hangtown Road which ran past the house. For a short time in 1852, George worked for Cal Rose at the Railroad House down the road. The life of a Cold Country inn keeper and store clerk must have been new to a 21 year old farm boy from Illinois like John.

The stores were curious places. There wee no specialty about them – everything was to be found in them which it could be supposed that any one could possibly want. excepting fresh beef (there was a butcher who monopolised the sale of that article). On entering a store, one would find the storekeeper in such the ease style of costume as the miners, very probably sitting on an empty keg at a rickety little table, playing ‘seven up’ for ‘the liquor’ with one of his customers. The counter served also the purpose of a bar, and behind it was the usual array of bottles and decanters. while on shelves above them was an ornamental display of boxes of sardines, and brightly-colored tins of preserved meats and vegetables with showy labels, interspersed with bottles of champagne and strangely-shaped bottles of exceedingly green pickles, the whole being arranged with some degree of taste. Goods and provisions of every description were stowed away promiscuously all round the store, in the middle of which was invariably a small table with a bench, or some empty boxes and barrels for the miners to sit on while they played cards, and spent their money in brandy and oysters (lothrick.1857)

Another miner turned storekeeper told of the kind of events the Gridleys may have witnessed.

One night. just as I was going to bed a fellow came in and wanted a pair of shoes, price four dollars, and proposed to play cards for them. Rather reluctantly I sat down, fortune favored me and I beat him out of a dozen pair of shoes. He refused to quit, I got sleepy, and the result was that at daylight we quit even, when he bought his shoes and went home (Cardin…1970).

A major source of profit were the purchase of gold dust, In some weeks they bought up to 90 ounces of gold dust, and the three to five per cent extra they got when it was assayed in Sacramento was an important part of the store’s earnings. In most stores that dealt in gold dust, reported mother miner, “much was scattered and lost, but in come of the saloons ingenious barkeeper” put cloths or metal sheets below their scale. and panned out their floor sweepings for an extra 200 to 300 dollars a month (Haskins.I890). John Gridley was probably no exception. When the American House burned to the ground in 1857, he washed the ashes in a rocker and panned out fifteen dollars in gold.

“If miners have but few of life’s luxuries,” John wrote to his father. “we have but few of its cares.” George agreed. “If I was able.” he wrote, “I should go to mining in preference to any other business. It is so free of care” (Gridley. varlou. letters).

Prolog: – The Miners

Chapter 1, Part 1: – Gone to See the Elephant!

Chapter 1, Part 2: – The 40-Mile Desert, a Barrier Without Water

Chapter 2, Part 1: – “A Miner’s Life

Chapter 2, Part 2: – Cooking, Washing, Mending and “Whiskey Everywhere”

Chapter 2, Part 3: – The Grandest of all the Mining Towns was Placerville