Is it Diamond Spring or Diamond Springs? And, is it named for the crystal clear springs where the immigrants watered their livestock or for the diamond-like quartz crystals that were found nearby?
The first question has an easy answer. The name of the townsite was written both as Diamond Spring and Diamond Springs until July 1, 1950 when the “s” was officially added by the U.S. Post Office Department, making it from that day forward Diamond Springs.
The crystal springs answer to the second question is the reference that shows up in a large majority of the early histories of El Dorado County, so we can probably go with that one, although the quartz crystal option is somewhat more interesting.
We do know that the group of springs in the middle of this Gold Rush community were a favorite stopping and camping place for the immigrants who reached here by way of the old immigrant road (Carson trail) that followed the course of the Carson River up over the Sierra Nevada and then down towards this spot passing Silver Lake, Sly Park and Pleasant Valley along the way.
It was an ideal location to stop since it was at this point that the immigrants had to make a choice, either take the road to the north, towards Hangtown, Coloma, Georgetown and the northern mining camps, continue west for about two miles and and then turn south to Jackson, Sonora and the southern mining camps or just stay on the road going west to Sacramento and what was commonly known as the “plains.”
Although the Diamond Springs area would later prove to be quite rich in gold, no one realized it at first and there was no real settlement here – save one log cabin – until late in the summer of 1850. Prior to that time most who arrived stayed only long enough to rest, water and feed their stock and then continue their trip. But, as we will see, not everybody moved on.
One day a party of immigrants from the State of Missouri, numbering about two hundred and under the leadership of one gentleman named McPike, decided to stop here for several days.
Noting the beauty of the area, along with the clear spring water and good pasture for their livestock, they set about trying a little mining and found that it too was very good and, better yet, quite profitable. Satisfied that it would make a fine permanent camp, they built clap-board and canvas houses and became the “founders” of Diamond Springs. However, that didn’t mean that they were the first to gather there.
To the local Indians, Diamond Springs was the consecrated ground on which they paid the last funeral rites to their deceased.
According to Paolo Sioli, in “Souvenir of El Dorado County” (1883), “For hundreds of miles around were the dead transported on litters to this sacred spot, where it was supposed that the spirits of the departed, in the flames of the pine fagots, took their departure to the happy hunting ground beyond the sky.”
At an 1852 cremation of a chief brought down from the Georgetown area, the gathered curious included many notable El Dorado County residents and visitors, like Bob Carson (Kit’s brother), Cary of the Cary House , Cockeyed Johnson of Johnson’s Pass fame, Dan Gelwicks (the future publisher of the soon-to-be Mountain Democrat) and Chauncey N. Noteware (on October 17, 1853 he would become first postmaster of Diamond Springs).
In 1854, “when the star of Coloma began to go downward”, as Sioli put it, Diamond Springs was rapidly growing in population and becoming a worthy rival of its nearest neighbor to the north, Placerville.
One of the County’s first newspapers, The Miner’s Advocate, had moved from Coloma, first to Placerville and then to this town, and the many stores were doing a flush business. It appeared that it would soon become the largest town in the county and probably the county seat.
In 1854 the citizens of the newly incorporated City of Placerville agitated for an election to decide the County seat and when the votes were counted, Diamond Springs came in a very respectable third, behind Coloma and Placerville. Unfortunately, the voting district for Diamond Springs was very limited by being close to two other candidates, Mud Springs (El Dorado) and Placerville. Otherwise it would have made even a better showing and possibly won.
As the town continued to grow, it ultimately reached a population of 8000 with 14 hotels, three restaurants and four newspapers. It boasted three Masonic Lodges and the first Odd Fellows Lodge in the State, Diamond Lodge No. 9. Fortunately, the two story, Odd Fellows Temple is still used and proudly stands on Odd Fellows Road, north of Main Street.
On August 5, 1856, Diamond Springs became the third El Dorado County town – in about a month – to be destroyed by fire, the other two being Placerville and Georgetown.
The origin of this suspicious fire was the Howard House in the heart of town. From there, fanned by strong breezes, it spread outward, sweeping everything before it. When it was extinguished only two buildings remained on Main Street: Scott’s brick house and the office of Wells, Fargo & Co. The total loss was estimated at over a million and a half in 1856 dollars. Only three years later, a much smaller fire destroyed a portion of the middle of town with a loss estimated at $60,000.
In the twentieth century, the economy of Diamond Springs would again rely on what could be taken from the ground, this time limestone.
In 1927 Diamond Springs Limestone Company built a state of the art limestone processing plant in the northern part of town (now the waste transfer station and surrounding property).
The plant obtained its raw material by way of a unique (and reportedly quite noisy) aerial tramway from the quarry, which was three miles east on Quarry Road. The tramway was discontinued in 1954 and they began to bring in limestone from the Cool area by truck. For numerous reasons, including the acquisition of the limestone quarry land for the Auburn Dam project, the plant would be forced to close in the late 1970s.
With the loss of many local jobs, many of the businesses in town would suffer economically.
Diamond Springs has obviously played an important part in the settlement and development of El Dorado County. Its narrow streets and many old buildings still retain the history and flavor of the Gold Rush and early El Dorado County.
Sources for this story include: “History of California”, by Theodore Hittell (1897); “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); “Narrow Gauge Nostalgia” by George Turner (1965); “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.