Community Profiles – Camino

Camino Cable system - Carol Mathis

Camino Cable system – Carol Mathis

Development of the Camino area began in the 1860s and involved two Scottish brothers whose names remain famous in the local timber industry, James and John Blair. They are credited with being the first to start a lumber company in the area which, for many years, bore their name. For a while they also maintained the Sportsman’s Hall, that now historical spot which both the drivers of freight wagons to the famous Virginia City mines and the Pony Express used as a stopping place.

The town proper, which is located just a few miles east of Placerville on the ridge between the South Fork of the American River and Weber Creek, did not really develop until sometime around 1895 when the American River Land and Lumber Co. bought out the Blairs. They had timberland and lumbering operations in the Georgetown Divide area, on the other (northern) side of the South Fork of the American River, including an area that would be called Pino Grande. They had nine and a half miles of railway and equipment to transport the logs from the forest to the American River. From there they floated the logs down the river to the first electric driven sawmill in the United States, next to the Folsom Powerhouse. However, the river almost dried up in the summer and because of that and the rocky nature of the canyon, many logs ended up stuck and never made it to the mill.

Their land holdings and the mill were later acquired by T.H. McEwan who organized the El Dorado Lumber Co., moved the mill from Folsom to Pino Grande and established a drying yard in Camino.

It was McEwan who built the famous cable tramway across the canyon of the South Fork of the American River, transporting the lumber from the Pino Grande mill to the end of what is now Cable Road in Camino.

The cable system it was installed in 1901 and operated for nearly half a century, carrying the lumber around a half mile from one side to the other. A narrow gauge railroad took the rough cut lumber from the mill to a tower on the north side where the carriage was loaded, moved across the gorge and unloaded in a tower on the opposite side onto the narrow gauge railroad which took it to the mill in Camino.

During its history the cable tramway also hauled supplies to Pino Grande and sometimes even people. Because of its unique character, it was also used as a location in a few movies, including one featuring an early movie dog named “Strongheart,” after whom a dog food was named.

In the early 1900s McEwan built the railway from the Camino yard to Placerville in order to get his lumber onto the trains of the Southern Pacific, which had arrived there in 1888.

After closing for a short time, in 1915 the mill and holdings were taken over by the C.D. Danaher Pine Co. and later, in 1918, were merged with the lumber interests of John Blodgett. The combined units then began the Michigan California Lumber Co.

Later Michigan California Lumber Co. was acquired by Sierra Pacific Industries. Unfortunately, downturns in the economy and increasing regulations on timber cutting made the mill unprofitable and it closed. The mill still remains as the center of this small foothill town.

Through these successive stages of development the town continued to grow until it became a thriving lumber community. However, lumber, though extremely important in the development and economy of Camino, was not all the activity there was during that time.

When the railroad arrived in Placerville in 1888, fruit growers had the opportunity to expand their market substantially and orchards began to expand in response to that. Because of its excellent, fertile soils and pleasant ridge-top climate, the Camino area became one of the largest pear growing districts in El Dorado County.

Because of the increasing lumber and fruit business, the Camino Post Office was established on June 22, 1904. It is still in operation and was originally listed as being four miles east of Smith’s Flat and two miles west of Fyffe (believed to be Sportsman’s Hall, although the distances are incorrect).  The first postmaster for Camino was Margaret S. Hoff.

With the “pear decline” of a number of decades ago, most of the pear trees were removed and replaced with other trees, like apple and stone fruit, but that was not all.

In the 1970s winegrape vines also began to fill some of the fields and wineries started developing in and around the Camino area. Vineyards were not entirely new to the area, but had been let go during Prohibition.

Now Camino is home to nearly a dozen premium wineries and hundreds of acres of vineyards. These wineries have become “world class” and are successfully competing with the more famous wine producing areas of California and even the world.

In response to the new agricultural production Camino became the geographical center of Apple Hill, a grower created organization promoting direct produce and product sales to the public. Now hundreds of thousands of visitors come to the area in the fall and early winter for fruit, wine, fruit products and Christmas trees.

Because agricultural pursuits have rapidly become the leading industry of the area, the county recently recognized and protected it as an important Agricultural District.

On a drive through town, along Carson Road, one can still see the remnants familiar to a lumber town, like the small houses adjacent to the mill and the nearby shopping area. Within the center of the town are restaurants and stores, and the Camino Hotel.

Outside of town, generally towards the north, the countryside is filled with orchards, Christmas tree plantations and vineyards. Scattered among these are the wineries, a micro brewery and many owner operated fruit stands, bakeries, gift shops and restaurants where you can purchase freshly picked fruit, wine, and, during the season, a cut-to-order Christmas tree. Most of the orchards and tree farms have picnic areas and some even have train rides or fishing ponds to entertain the child in all of us.

Born from lumber and nurtured by agriculture, Camino has become one of the loveliest areas in beautiful El Dorado County.

Sources for this story include: “Transactions of the California State Agricultural Society during the Year 1894.” California State Printing office (1895); “History of El Dorado County”, by Paolo Sioli (1883), reprinted and indexed by the El Dorado Friends of the Library (1998); the archives of the Mountain Democrat (1854-Present); and the wonderful people at the reference desk of the El Dorado County Main Library.

For more information on Pino Grande, see: “Pino Grande: Logging Railroads of the Michigan-California Lumber Co.,” by R.S. Polkinghorn, which was originally published in 1966 with later revisions and printings.

  4 comments for “Community Profiles – Camino

  1. Lee Rogers
    January 16, 2016 at 1:36 pm

    Some of Your info is a Little off ….
    The Blair Brother’s Did not sell out their Timber Rights to Michigan Cal, until around 1958 …
    I was Born and Raised and Grew up at Blair’s Mill, North of Pacific House. The Blair Bridge was Part of the Original Cut off Road to Carson City .. The Pollock Pines Epic, which is Free online Covers their History … This is a copy:
    8-The Blair Family
    One cannot speak of the history of Pollock Pines and the surrounding area without mentioning the Blair family. The Blair family can be distinguished as continuously contributing to the development of the area from the beginnings of the gold rush up to the present time, first as innkeepers, but also as lumbermen, and ranchers.

    About 1850 the four Blair brothers migrated from Scotland, settling in Ohio. John had come first with the rest to follow. The news of the gold discovery sparked their interest and again John was the first to come west, this time to El Dorado County. The brothers would follow when enough money could be raised. James was the next to come to El Dorado County with Matthew, the oldest, and Robert coming after him. John had preempted 160 acres of land on the ridgetop 11 miles east of Placerville on the emigrant road to Carson Valley. He then purchased the adjoining 160 acres which included Sportsman’s Hall. When James arrived, John was already in the hotel business and together they became involved in operating one of the most important and most popular stops for stages, freight wagons, and riders on the road. It was also a home station for the Pony Express. Robert later joined them in the hotel business.

    The Blairs diversified their interests by going into the lumber business. There was great demand for virgin Douglas fir lagging to shore up the mines. These timbers were 4 feet long, split in bolts 3 to 4 inches thick and 7 inches wide. Lumber was also needed for buildings for the hastily increasing mining towns.

    The original Blair’s Mill operated by John and James Blair was located near Five Mile House in 1856. It was a steam powered mill and could cut between eight and ten thousand feet of lumber per day. The second mill, called Elkhorn Mill, was set up at the head of Iowa Canyon in 1860. Iowa Canyon starts just after crossing the narrow bridge across the ditch going northeast on Blair Road. A tram for transporting lumber ran from this mill to drying decks across the road from Sportsman’s Hall. The track bed, though overgrown, can still be found.

    Matthew had taken over operation of this mill. One Sunday in 1867, he was cleaning out the tail of the mill. The water had washed a channel in the sawdust 15 feet deep. The sides of the channel caved in, suffocating him. He was found under the sawdust the next morning with his dog lying nearby. He died at the age of 41. His son Matthew had spent many hours at the mill playing with the indian children of the area. He often told the story of the indians stripping back the bark on a dead log and popping the white grubs into their mouths. The grease would run down their chins. Blair Harris, grandson of Matthew the younger, said there are many indian grinding rocks in the area. He also related the story of Deadman’s Springs. One hot summer day in the mid 1860’s several loggers were driving ox teams from the logging site near what is now Forebay Lake, to Elkhorn Mill. They stopped at a spring just northeast of the mill on Blair Road to get a drink of the clear icy cold water. By the time they reached the mill, some of the men had died from the extremes of the heat of the day and the cold water.

    In the early logging days it was easier to move the mill to the logging area than to bring the logs a long distance to the mill. Sometimes horses but more often a 12 bull ox team was used to pull a heavy, steel rimmed, wooden wheeled logging wagon. When the logging operation was close to the mill, logs could be skidded down the hill in a wooden chute or track or pulled uphill by cables attached to a steam donkey engine. There was not enough water for ponds so the logs were dry decked. The area surrounding a mill would be logged off in about 10 years, consequently, the Blairs moved their mill sites about every 10 years. Other major Blair Mill sites were: 1870 to 1880 – South Long Canyon, 1880 to 1890 – North Long Canyon, 1890 to 1908 – Sly Park Mill, 1908 to 1910 – Plum Creek Mill, 1911 to 1912 – Fresh Pond Mill, 1913 to 1925 – Long Canyon out Old Blair Mill Road, 1927 to 1948 – across the canyon from Pacific House.
    TYPO…. 1958 Is When Blair’s Sold out to Michigan Cal ….

    J. and J. Blair operated the mills prior to 1890. Sioli states in his book on El Dorado County that the Blairs in 1883 had three mills: Elkhorn Mill, Sportsman’s Hall Mill, and Cedar Rock Mill, as well as a lumberyard at Placerville. He also states that they had box factories connected with their mills that manufactured large amounts of rough cut box lumber for the fruit trade.

    James B. Blair, son of James, operated the Sly Park Mill in the meadow now inundated by Jenkinson Lake. This was a large operation and according to the Mountain Democrat of May 14, 1904, “J. & J. Blair have just installed a 160-horse power Dolbeer patent logging engine at their mills at Sly Park. Another boiler has also been put into their saw mill at that place, as this season promises to be very busy.”

    In 1901 and 1902 Matthew E. Blair Sr., son of the older Matthew, cut lumber for the El Dorado Deep Gravel Mining Company at Ditch Camp Mill at Silver Fork. Lumber from this mill was transported by flume approximately fourteen miles to the present day Pollock Pines area.

    Fresh Pond Mill was run by Blair brothers, Walter and Arthur J., and they were joined at Long Canyon by Matthew E. Blair Jr. and Albert Blair. These four partners also operated the mill at Pacific House. The Blair Brothers had timber holdings across the canyon from Pacific House and it was necessary to build a bridge across the South Fork of the American River to get to the timber and build the mill there. These timber holdings were sold to the Michigan-California Lumber Company in 1958, and the Blair Brothers Lumber Company then concentrated their efforts in the retail lumber business in Placerville until it sold it 1985. The end of the Blair Brothers Lumber business had come, but many landmarks still carry the Blair name. Many of the Blair descendents are still actively engaged in business in the area. The Combellacks of Placerville and Bert and Blair Harris, who own and operate Harris Christmas Tree Farm on Blair Road in Pollock Pines are some of these descendents. Bert and Blair are descendents of Matthew, the oldest of the four Blair brothers from Scotland. They own and operate the Christmas tree farm and Apple Hill orchard on the site of the original Elkhorn Mill where their great grandfather died. The Harrises continue to contribute to our local economy as did their ancestors before them.

    • Doug Noble
      January 16, 2016 at 3:57 pm

      Thank you… I am always looking for more information. I have more information about the Blairs in the Pollock Pines community profile.

      Doug Noble

    • Jeanette White Eyes
      July 17, 2016 at 7:09 pm

      Hello, my name is Jeanette White Eyes. My family, and I lived on Elkhorn Mill Road for a while in an A-Frame house. The first School in the area was on Elkhorn Mill Road, and the first Post Office was located in the house across from where we lived. Blair Road is a very special place. I have never seen in my life such huge Wood Peckers. There is a photo that belongs to the Blairs of a team of Elk pulling logs, hence the name Eklhorn Mill. I believe the Harris’s have it now, so much history there. My husband and I were married there back in 2009…..and oh my husband saw a ghost outside our home in the snow…….as it walked away, it disapeared…….it was wearing old type of clothes of long ago, and left no footprints in the snow! Too much history to post!

      • Doug Noble
        July 17, 2016 at 8:00 pm

        The more history we tell, the more everyone knows…including ghosts. There is a history of the Camino Post Office that was prepared for its 100 anniversary a few years ago. I have it somewhere.

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