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Old Hangtown

05/31/2008 05:00PM, Published by Super Admin, Categories: In Print




Wooden wheels creak and groan. A horse-drawn wagon kicks up a cloud of dust as it trundles down a rutted, well-traveled dirt road cutting through the middle of town. The town is called Dry Diggins, but, on account of a botched robbery that lead to the hanging of several men from an oak tree not far from town central, it has earned itself the nickname “Hangtown.” People go about their daily business, along the wood-plank walkways, in and out of the local saloons, general goods stores and provisioners. Each one has a different reason for being here in Hangtown. Most are miners and gold prospectors hoping to make it rich off of James Marshall’s discovery at Sutter’s Mill. Others are people who simply want to start someplace new, and seek their destiny out in California. Whatever the case, the California Gold Rush is in full swing, and these people want a piece of the action to call their own.

Over a century has passed (154 years to be exact) since Hangtown was renamed to the more familiar “Placerville.” The residents of that time, as their town grew, eventually desired a name that was more appropriate, friendly, and reflective of the spirit of the Gold Rush, and needless to say, less reflective of the town’s riotous and disorderly past. The most common type of mining for gold during that time was placer mining and since the area contained many placer deposits, the name Placerville was coined.

Today, there are many historic buildings left over from that period of California’s history. Some can be found along the stretch of Historic Main Street; new stores inhabit the old buildings, while a few serve as historic sites and exhibits. Some of the old landmarks have buildings built over them. The stump of the original hanging tree can be found in the basement of The Hangman’s Tree Tavern. Moving further up into the various ravines and canyons that surround the area, one can find the remnants of mines, surviving buildings, and the occasional ruble that belonged to prospectors and enterprisers. Some of these sites are overgrown with weeds, while others have been meticulously maintained and preserved. Placerville is a town steeped not only in history, but also historical figures. Some of these figures ran shops in Placerville at the time of the Gold Rush, hoping to make it rich not from gold, but from enterprising. People like John Studebaker, Levi Strauss and Philip Armour set up their own respective shops in Hangtown to profit from the miners and townspeople who had need for their services. The familiarity of those names should be an indicator of just how successful they were. Even after gold-ore became scarce, many shopkeepers, miners and regular people decided to make Placerville their permanent home, growing to love and appreciate the beautiful countryside where they had sought to stake their fortunes.

Walking down Historic Main Street today, it’s difficult to imagine the way Placerville looked back in 1849. The dirt roads have been replaced with black asphalt. Instead of wood planking to serve as walkways, there are now concrete sidewalks. Where once stood general stores and saloons, now there are a congregation of hardware, antique, food and furniture stores. Still, with the right amount of imagination, one can still envision the way things were back in the days of the Gold Rush, back in the days of Old Hangtown. And in honor of the founding of this great city, the Placerville Downtown Association hosts Founders’ Day. This year, the festivities will be held on Saturday, June 7 on Main Street. For details, call 530-672-3436.•

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