Although the townsite of El Dorado was one of the first mining camps in El Dorado county, it was not always known by this very appropriate name. Up until late 1855, some six years after the first miners coaxed golden nuggets from the streambeds in this area, the town was known simply as Mud Springs.
No, the area did not have natural mud springs, the name was chosen because the thousands of immigrants traveling through on their way westward and southward watered their livestock at the once clear springs that flowed here, muddying the surrounding land and the water itself.
To distinguish these springs from those much clearer, two miles further up the immigrant trail at Diamond Springs, the location was called Mud Springs and the name stuck. Although quite picturesque and descriptive, as were many of California’s early town names, the name of Mud Springs soon fell before the sweep of “civilization” and was changed to the Spanish word for “The Gilded One” – El Dorado.
The word of the rich rewards that were being taken from the ground nearby soon spread, and in just a couple of years mining had expanded from simply working the rich placer claims to digging for gold often found hiding in quite shallow veins of quartz.
By the year 1851 there were some 500 laborers employed in the mines and mills near Mud Springs and we’re told that all night and day you could not help but hear the continuous clatter of the seven steam mills located on Matheney’s and Logtown creeks, noisily freeing gold from quartz.
It is believed that the first resident in the area was one James Thomas who settled there in 1849 and erected a trading post and hotel that he called the Old Mud Springs House. Soon his hotel was surrounded by a great many stores, hotels, boarding houses and other business places, erected to provide for the needs of the miners and also the thousands and thousands of newcomers that continued to travel along the immigrant trail that soon became known as the Sacramento and Placerville Stage Road.
The Mud Springs Post Office was established prior to Nov. 6, 1851, the date it was approved in Washington, D.C. Darwin Chase was the first postmaster. On Dec. 15, 1855, the name of the post office was changed to El Dorado with George W. Critchfield serving as its postmaster. The El Dorado Post Office has continuously operated since it was first established.
On April 16, 1855 the citizens of El Dorado had the town incorporated. On April 1, 1857, for an unstated reason, although at the same time it lost to Placerville in the competition to be the county seat, the act incorporating it was repealed by the State of California.
The El Dorado School District was organized on February 4, 1858. On July 1, 1954 the school became part of the Mother Lode Union School District.
According to “Mother Lode of Learning,” the El Dorado School, which is located atop a hill north of Main Street and is now a community hall, “includes the lower floor of a building constructed in 1857 to serve as a livery stable, and for hay and grain storage. It was later a jail for obstreperous gold miners, and still later a butcher shop.”
Nearby, to the southeast along Martinez Creek, almost simultaneously with the growth of the town of El Dorado, there was established an unnamed town of two or three thousand white and Mexican miners who worked the rich streambeds and hillsides. Soon this would be the location of the Church and Union mines where, towards the end of the 1800s, a forty stamp, water powered mill would be erected – a mill that was reported to have been not only heard but felt a great distance away. (The name Union Mine was changed to Springfield Mine and then the mine was consolidated with the Church Mine. Sometime after mining ceased in the mid-1900s, it became a landfill for the County under it’s old name, Union Mine).
For many decades, El Dorado continued to be a supply point for local miners and travelers along the east-west highway that replaced the old stage road and a north-south road that would ultimately become State Highway 49.
When the railroad was being built from Shingle Springs to Placerville, where it would arrive in 1888, a station was established at El Dorado near the schoolhouse to supply the mines and businesses.
When the location of what is now Highway 50 was moved to the west along Mother Lode Drive, in the mid-1900s and the tracks were abandoned in the late 1900s, El Dorado became just another sleepy foothill community, retaining its Gold Rush street names of Main, North, South, Cemetery and Church.
Although only a few of El Dorado’s original buildings remain in whole or part, the town of El Dorado is an important historic community along Highway 49 and the original immigrant trail. It is one of El Dorado County’s many delightful secrets that is often missed by visitors to the area.
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); “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.