Community Profiles – Kelsey

Ben Kelsey

Ben Kelsey

Kelsey was not only the name of an early El Dorado County town, but also an entire mining district. Because of this, the history written about Kelsey may include things that occurred in nearby mining communities, places with wonderfully descriptive names like Rich Flat, Louisville, Spanish Flat, American Flat, Columbia Flat (a.k.a. St. Lawrence), Sailor Flat, Chicken Flat, Irish Creek, Dutch Flat, Flea Town, Elizaville, Yankee Flat and Union Flat.

The town and the mining district were named for two brothers, Benjamin and Andrew Kelsey, who came to California with the Bartelson-Bidwell party, which left Independence, Missouri on May 8, 1841.

Their reason for coming was a “glowing” report on the area from Dr. John Marsh, an very early resident of California who had a ranch in what is now Contra Costa County, near the base of Mt. Diablo. Later, Benjamin’s 18 year old wife, Nancy, and baby daughter, Martha Ann, would join him and be the first white women to enter California by the overland route.

After the discovery of gold by James Marshall in early 1848, the Kelsey brothers prospected from the South Fork of the American River up Dutch Creek to a point about five miles east of Coloma and seven miles north of Placerville. Stopping at a plateau, they settled down and established the town that now bears their name.

In the short but flush times of placer mining, Kelsey was the business center for the mines that were located nearby on numerous creeks, ravines, gulches and flats. At one time the town supported twelve stores, a couple of dozen saloons and gambling houses, half a dozen hotels, hay yards, cattle corrals, meat markets and much, much more.

Another early pioneer, Samuel Smith, who arrived in California from Baltimore in 1843, owned the first store and the first hotel belonged to a Mr. Paul. The first school was built east of John Poor’s place and was taught by Mr. Pease (Peake?), who was succeeded by Miss Slater (Mrs. Shankland). In later years, Charles Edwin Markham, the dean of American poets would teach at this school.

The business section of Kelsey was struck by its first fierce fire in 1853. Worse yet, on New Year’s Day in 1856, a year that would see Placerville, Georgetown and Diamond Springs almost burn to the ground, a fire that started in a deserted shanty almost totally destroyed Kelsey.

The town was rebuilt and, with the population continuing to grow, a post office was opened on March 3, 1856 with John P. White as the first postmaster. On January 15, 1872 the post office was closed and then reopened on February 1, 1875. On October 2, 1895 it was moved one-half mile to the west, then on November 16, 1896 one-half mile to the southeast. On March 3, 1903 it was again moved, this time one and one-half miles to the southwest and renamed Slatington, because of the valuable deposits of slate in the area. On August 23, 1920 it was moved back and renamed Kelsey (the mail to Kelsey is now delivered through the Placerville Post Office).

The placer mines around Kelsey produced gold that was in large, rough pieces with small fragments of quartz attached. This led the miners to believe that they were close to the quartz ledge from which the gold had been washed into the creeks and rivers.

Although most of the early miners soon moved on, preferring to work placer claims elsewhere, within a few years, some miners began to follow the exposed quartz veins looking for gold in what had become known as “Kelsey’s Dry Diggings.” Their luck was good, since in several of these mines were found large pockets filled with gold. But, the largest single find was not underground but near a stream in a quartz boulder that took two men to turn it over. Taken into town, it was weighed and found to be worth $6000, at a time when gold was worth around $16 an ounce.

By 1872, gold mining was in decline, so the Thomas Brothers started mining the slate. By 1898, slate was being carried by an overhead cable tramway to the Placerville to Coloma Road (Highway 49) from where it was sent by wagon to the new Placerville Depot and loaded on railroad cars. From 1898 to 1905 the local economy gained $450,000 from this mining operation.

Any story of Kelsey would be incomplete without a mention of James Wilson Marshall, the man who discovered gold in at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma. He made several trips to Kelsey and spent his last days there.

His first visit was to escape a group who threatened him with hanging when he attempted to prevent the massacre of peaceful Indians at the mill by some drunken miners who blamed them for the killing of white men at Murderer’s Bar. Later, Marshall moved from his Coloma vineyard to the Kelsey area, living various places, including the Union Hotel. In the 1860s he purchased interests in two quartz mines to the east of Kelsey, but as in Coloma, he did not profit from the venture and on August 10, 1885, poor and broken, he died in his Kelsey cabin.

Today Kelsey is just a quiet, but quite historical, rural town on Highway 193 between Placerville and Georgetown.

Much of this information on Kelsey came from two sources: a story in The Placerville Times’ special edition “1938 The Big Year” written by Miss Margaret Kelly, a long time resident of Kelsey, (printed December 29, 1937) and Paolo Sioli’s “History of El Dorado County” (1883) which has been recently reprinted by the Friends of the El Dorado County Library and is available at the Main Library in Placerville.

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