Western Trips

Western Trips

Friday, September 5, 2014

They Called It Hangtown For Good Reason

A town called Hangtown and also Old Dry Diggings is all about the California Gold Rush, the prospectors it attracted from around the world and the colorful and often times questionable characters that followed those prospectors.

old town placerville california
Placerville, California
Hangtown, now the beautiful town of Placerville California, was part of about thirty mining camps that sprung up around Coloma. What made Coloma so important was the fact that it was the site of the sawmill built by James Marshall for John Sutter.

The sawmill was being built on the South Fork of the American River however the events that happened here in 1848 had nothing to do with sawing wood. Marshall noticed several flakes of metal in the water and recognized them to be gold.The story is that Sutter tried to keep the gold discovery a secret but word of course eventually got out and Sutter's life and this branch of the American River would never be the same again.

As a side note, those that visit the town of Coloma today can visit the site of Sutter’s Mill and view an operational replica of the Mill. 

Visit Placerville California

Placerville was named after the placer gold deposits found in it's riverbeds and hills. Located about 47 miles east of Sacramento on historic U.S. Highway 50, Placerville is a must stop if your travels take you to California's Gold Country. Reaching  Placerville is via State Highway 49 and U.S. Highway 50, along one of the most traveled corridors in California. 

historic placerville hotel
The red brick Cary House Hotel
Placerville's Cary House Hotel

During your self guided walking tour of Placerville you'll come across the historic Cary House Hotel. The original hotel was constructed by William Cary in 1847. The first hotel burned down in 1856 and a new one with three floors was built on the same spot of the original hotel. Interestingly enough, fires were not uncommon in gold rush towns of the 1850's. Construction was mostly wood and fire precautions were not a top priority.

It was said that the rich and famous of the 1800's who traveled through the area often added the 77 room Cary House Hotel to their travel plans. Just a few of the notables were Mark Twain who wrote for a period for Placerville's Mountain Democrat newspaper. Another on the list was Ulysses S. Grant. This was considered a luxurious hotel with a bathroom on every floor. The hotel was three stories high with the fourth floor you see today added in the 1900's.

cary house hotel placerville
Today, the Cary House Hotel is an operating hotel with 40 rooms which have their own bathrooms. Sixty percent of the rooms are suites with kitchenettes. This charming, comfortable and historic hotel still has it's  original 1850s woodwork and bricks. For more information and to book a reservation see website www.caryhouse.com

Why Hangtown?

Today's Placerville California picked up the name of Hangtown in 1849. As you can imagine, the name came from the overly large use of that form of justice. Like most stories from the mid 1800's, how the name Hangtown came to be has a few versions.

Gold mining camps everywhere attracted plenty of dubious characters. Gamblers, swindlers and outlaws always follow the money and the money was where the gold was. Trying to take the prospectors gold was an industry in itself. Today's Placerville was in the center of this activity and it was growing fast. With the type of population found in the gold camps it wasn't long before capital punishment was applied, and applied plenty. Hangtown was the place for the hangings.

placerville historic buildings
Masonic Temple Bldg, built in 1893
If you're looking for the most accepted version of how the town became known as Hangtown, here's the story...

A gambler named Lopez won a lot of money at a local saloon. This of course brought him to the attention of the criminal element. After Lopez retired for the evening, several men tried to overpower him. Lopez resisted, and with the help of others, the would be robbers were captured. During their "flogging",three of the robbers were also accused of being wanted for a murder and robbery.  Followed was a 30 minute trial where the men were pronounced guilty. The crowd around the court demanded that the men be hanged and they were in short order. 

A note about the tree that was used for the hanging. Today only the stump remains. This stump from the old tree is now in the cellar of "The Hangman’s Tree" tavern on Historic Main Street. The spot where the tavern is once was the location of  Elstner's Hay Yard where the hangings took place. The address is 305 Main Street.

See these Western Trips articles on the links below... 

 A Visit to Historic Sutter's Fort

 Old Town Truckee California

Two interesting books regarding Hangtown and the California Gold Rush include...Wagons to Hangtown: A Story of the California Goldrush by author Diana M. Johnson and Hangtown Creek: A Tale of the California Gold Rush by author John Putnam.



See Placerville's Bell Tower

placerville bell tower
Historic Placerville Bell Tower
On Placerville's Main Street is the historic Bell Tower. The Bell Tower is a monument to the city’s volunteer firemen. The Bell, placed in the tower in the plaza in 1865, was used as an alarm system to call out the firefighters. 

The Tower served it's purpose  for well over 100 years. In 1911 the Bell Tower was moved to Cannon Hill. One year later due to electrical problems ringing the bell on it's Cannon Hill site the tower was moved back to the plaza. In the meantime the wooden tower was replaced with a steel one. In 1965 a car hit the tower and almost knocked off the bell.

Rather than getting rid of this historic bell tower which some people had desired, it was instead remodeled, relocated,and renovated. Today it proudly stands as a monument to honor Placerville's city's volunteer firemen.

Add Placerville to Your Vacation Planner

If your travels take you to the Sacramento California area and in particular the beautiful Sierra Nevada foothills, you'll enjoy a visit to Placerville, once the hub of Gold Rush activity and old west history. There's a good many historic sites in and around Placerville including a full calendar of fun events for the entire family. 

For a list of Main Street Events in Placerville see website http://www.placerville-downtown.org/Events.html

(Article and photos copyright 2014 Western Trips)

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