The first miners in the Georgetown area were a party of Oregonians led by a Mr. Hudson. They arrived in June of 1849 and, although they found deposits of gold at both “Hudson’s Gulch” and “Oregon Canyon,” for some reason they soon moved on.
By August of 1849 several hundred miners that had come from Coloma in search of the golden deposits had located their claims at the north side of the head of Empire Canyon.
Because they found rich deposits, more miners soon arrived and a town was established on the slope downhill from today’s location. First it was named George’s Town and then Georgetown after the first miner to pitch a tent at that location, a sailor named George Phipps (there is controversy about this, since some report that it was named after another 49er, George Ehrenhart). However, for many years the miners continued to call the place Growlersburg after the sound made by the large gold nuggets that “growled” in their pans.
The first log house in young George’s Town was erected about September 20th of 1849. From there the town grew rapidly – it would soon have dozens of stores built of logs, shakes and canvas – as it spread north and east.
With the completion of the “Georgetown Cut-Off” road, travel thorough the town increased and there were added several hotels, the Missouri, Illinois and Alabama, and The Round Tent, a gambling saloon near to the apparently “notorious” Bee House.
Georgetown would not have a post office until October 17, 1851, when William T. Gibbs was appointed postmaster (Mr. Gibbs and his bride Mrs. Cynthia A. Turner were married before a crowd of nearly five hundred people on November 10, 1851, at the first wedding ceremony in Georgetown).
Prior to the establishment of the post office, a enterprising Mr. Grammar, who also ran a store in town in partnership with a Mr. Cushing, operated a private mail and express route, travelling to San Francisco and intermediate points, delivering mail for $1 to $2 a letter.
On July 14, 1852 a spirit lamp ignited as a photographer was taking a picture of a deceased man to send back to his family in Maine. The fire started in the Round Tent Saloon, and the owner of the saloon, Pete Valery, was barely able to save himself and the corpse from cremation. When the fire was finally extinguished, only two buildings of the town remained – Francis Graham’s store at the west end of town and J. W. Slette’s store at the far east end. But Georgetown would rise again.
A meeting of citizens from Georgetown, Mameluke and Jones’ Hills, Georgia Slide and Oregon and South canyons was held and it was decided to rebuild Georgetown more on top of the ridge and to properly lay out the town with wide streets, including one a full hundred feet wide.
The old residents were given first choice to draw for the lots, which they received without charge, providing they rebuilt immediately.
After clearing the land the miners immediately set to rebuilding the town, starting with the post office. The ridge on which the town was rebuilt is now called the “Georgetown Divide,” as it is the ridge dividing the watersheds of the South and Middle forks of the American River.
Within two years the town was again flourishing with clothing and dry goods, books and stationery, drug, grocery and general merchandise stores, blacksmith shops, saddle and harness makers, a public school, churches, a theater and many saloons.
The first newspaper, the Georgetown “News,” politically aligned with the Whig party, began publication on October 12, 1854, with J. Wing Oliver its proprietor and editor. Since Georgetown always had been a stronghold of the Whig party and afterwards of the Republican party, it was very popular, but after passing through several owners, the newspaper died around 1856.
By that time the town had a thriving population of several thousand inhabitants. A large town hall and several theaters had been erected and the residents were often treated to performances by prominent entertainers of the era.
Methodists of the community soon started the construction of a church on Church Street. However, they were financially unable to complete it so it was sold to Jack Lewis, a saloon keeper who converted it into a theater for travelling lecturers and shows. It was sold to the citizens of Georgetown in 1861 and until 1889, when it was torn down, served as a Union Church. It was rebuilt as a jail, which later became a branch high school and then a community hall.
To be continued…