Community Profiles – Cold Spring

Letter with both Cold Spring and Placerville postmarks. Forwarded to St, Louis - 1852

Letter from Placerville (10 cents), forwarded to St. Louis (5 cents more)

Cold Spring (often Cold Springs) was a short-lived mining community about six miles north of Placerville, upstream from where Cold Springs creek now crosses Cold Springs Road. Its name was derived from a spring of good, cold water located near the edge of Cold Spring creek, in the upper end of the town.

Gold was first discovered at this location in 1849 and soon a road to both Coloma, to the north, and Placerville, to the south, was constructed. This road, that still bears the name of Cold Springs Road, soon became the main travelled road between those two places, with Cold Spring being at the half-way point.

By the summer of 1850 some 600 to 700 miners pitched their tents or built cabins on the flat below the town, each working a 15 foot square claim on the bed of the creek. The stream bed was so rich with gold that the possibility of the camp becoming permanent led to the almost immediate construction of a business district to serve the miners and the numerous travellers along the road.

The first store was opened by Norton & Montgomery in connection with a boarding house. A second store was opened by a Mr. Duncan, a third by Sudson & Goodenough and then a bakery by John Dewitt. Dewitt also became a partner in another store kept by Dewitt & Taylor.

The construction of the first hotel in Cold Spring is attributed to David Miller, while Nelson Van Tassel, the Public Administrator of El Dorado County in 1854, ran the first boarding house. The Blue Tent Saloon was owned and operated by James Debow, a man, we’re told, of education and very gentleman-like manners. The school district was established in 1851, with church services being held in the school house on Sundays.

In 1858 a schoolhouse was constructed and used until 1956, when the property went back into private ownership and the building torn down.

The post office at Cold Spring was established sometime before November 24, 1851, although January 21, 1852 is the date when the appointment of John M. Geotschins as Post Master was confirmed in Washington D.C. (between the bureaucracy and the time it took to get letters back and forth between California and the east coast, there were always significant delays between government actions and confirmations). The Cold Spring post office would be discontinued on June 11, 1874 when it was moved a few north and its name changed to Granite Hill.

The early settlers in Cold Spring included: E. P. Jones, a lawyer, then mining, who was generally know as “Cold Water Jones,” and who later became president of the Cold Spring Division No. 22, Sons of Temperance, instituted on February 22, 1853; Daniel Webster (William?) Gelwicks, who mined here in the early days of the Gold Rush, would become one of the founders of first, the Coloma “Miners’ Advocate” in the Summer of 1852, then the Coloma“Empire County Argus” in November of 1853 and later be one of the founders of the “Mountain Democrat” in Placerville in February of 1854 and Sylvester Ballou, often called by the name of Wed Ballou, who started here as a miner and later became a member of the Assembly and a State Senator from Plumas County. Ballou was the founder of a society know as the Cold Spring Franklin Lyceum.

Although Cold Spring was considered to be a very quiet and peaceful camp, more inclined to society than excitement, it had its share of rascals. William H. Lipsey was found guilty of the murder of one Mr. Powelson and hung at Coloma on November 3, 1854. A gambler known as “Crowbar” swindled a number of miners out of their money in 1852 and then tried to quietly get out of town with his booty, causing great excitement in the camp. Some members of the “gambling fraternity” from Hangtown quietly settled things and a few of the miners received their money back. A man who had been a Mason of the higher grades disappeared one day in a house of ill-fame. Spots of blood that were felt to be connected with his disappearance turned out to be from the local butcher shop. However, the cleverest scheme originating in Cold Spring involved two men, a store keeper named Moffatt and an old steamship engineer named Darling.

These two men were able to accomplish what all alchemists since Merlin had tried to do, turn lead into gold, in their own way. The two were somehow able to fabricate gold dust out of lead, by coating small particles of it with gold through some kind of a galvanizing process. They apparently produced quite of a bit of “gold dust,” which Moffatt spent most of in Sacramento and some in the local stores.

When the “dust” was melted into bars, the crime was immediately discovered. Moffatt was caught and made to pay for his misdoings, but his partner, Darling, escaped on a steamer for Central America and was never seen or heard from again. To add to everyone’s frustration, for years after, samples of their work continued to show up amongst the real gold in banks and assay offices.

Note: A story in the August 15, 1851 edition of the “Daily Sacramento Union” states that a person from Cold Spring was arrested in Sacramento passing this fake gold, which was in small, circular lumps, all about the same size, and mixed with real gold dust. One merchant was taken for about $6,000 before having the person arrested. The story also states that the man was known as “Dock,” but later identified as one Dr. Holloman. Whether “Dock” and Moffatt are the same person, is unknown.

To supply the mines of Cold Spring with adequate water, in 1851 three gentlemen named Moody, Davis and Wittenburg formed a company to bring water from Hangtown creek, above the falls where it emptied into Weber creek. When, with the help of this water, significant deposits of gold were discovered on the banks of Weber creek, at a place called Red Bank, they filed the first claims. The second ditch system was built a few years later by a dozen men. They took the water from Hangtown Creek, below the previous ditch and carried it by tunnel, between Hangtown and Cold Springs creeks, under the Placerville to Coloma Road.

In the early times of the “golden era” Cold Spring was one of the liveliest mining camps in the country, with a population of some 2,000 souls with daily stage connections to Sacramento, Placerville and Coloma. As the gold began to run out, no new deposits were found and soon the miners drifted off to richer diggings. The stores soon shut down, the stages took another route and Cold Spring, after just a few years of glory, became just an isolated little village along a rarely travelled road.

Sources for this story include: “California Gold Camps,” by Erwin Gudde (1975); “California Place Names,” by Erwin Gudde, 3rd Edition (1974); “Mother Lode of Learning — One Room Schools of El Dorado County” by Retired Teachers Association of El Dorado County (1990); “I Remember…, Stories and pictures of El Dorado County pioneer families,” researched and written by Betty Yohalem (1977); “Mines and Mineral Resources of El Dorado County, California,” California Division of Mines (1956); “History of El Dorado County,” by Paolo Sioli (1883), reprinted and indexed by the El Dorado Friends of the Library (1998); the El Dorado County Historical Museum; the archives of the Mountain Democrat (1854-Present); and the wonderful people at the reference desk of the El Dorado County Main Library.

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