Originally called Centerville, the name of this early Gold Rush town was officially changed to Pilot Hill on April 18,1854, when the post office was established with Silas Hayes as its postmaster.
There were three nearby villages: Pilot Hill, a town named Pittsfield that had been started in the Spring of 1851 by some immigrants from Pittsfield, Illinois and Centerville, all collectively known as Centerville. But in time, probably because of the post office designation, the other names would disappear and the whole area would ultimately become known as Pilot Hill.
The town of Pilot Hill was originally located further north of its present location on Highway 49, closer to the base of Pilot Hill, the namesake for the town.
A miner from New York named John Woods was one of the first to arrive in the area some time in the fall of 1849. He had been mining at Salmon Falls before arriving here and he was soon followed by other miners and several businessmen, including a James H. Rose, who opened the first store in a rapidly constructed log cabin.
The miners located very rich deposits of placer gold, but there was neither nearby water available to wash the gravel nor nearby creeks from which they could easily divert water to this location. Thus, serious mining had to be delayed until the winter rains came.
When the rain finally arrived, miners that had been working both south and north, along the forks of the American River moved to the Pilot Hill area to mine and business boomed.
In a short time Mr. Rose’s store was joined by one kept by Henry Stevens and Conrad Thompson, a boarding house opened by John Brown and a gentleman named Wilson, a second boarding house owned by Charles Tudsberry, A. J. Bayley’s hotel known as the Oak Valley House and a blacksmith’s shop operated by John Bowman.
Among the other early residents of Pilot Hill were F. B. Peacock, Gense Kirchan, Samuel Stevens (who had built the first house in the town), David Ferguson, Thomas Ferguson, C. S. Rogers, P. D. Brown and the “state’s best walker,” Robert E. Draper.
Draper was the pioneer mail carrier for the town, sometimes leaving Pilot Hill for Sacramento at 6 a.m. and returning at 7:30 p.m., having walked some 40 miles in that time. Letters he carried for one dollar each and papers for fifty cents each.
One of the most well known of Pilot Hill’s citizens, Alcander John (A.J.) Bayley had resigned his position as manager of the Winter’s Hotel in Coloma, and arrived here in 1850 to construct a hotel of his own. His hotel, the Oak Valley House, was the site of many well attended, annual balls which continued through October of 1860.
On May 16, 1861, not unlike many other Gold Rush structures, the Oak Valley House, and all of its contents, was completely destroyed by fire. Almost immediately Bayley, believing that the Transcontinental Railroad would be routed through Pilot Hill, started construction on an even larger hotel, made of some 300,000 brick that he had manufactured.
This palatial, three story building would serve as the home for he, his wife and their four children and still exists to this day as the Bayley House.
In 1871 Bayley would serve a term in the California Assembly and his son, Alonzo A. Bayley, born April 24, 1851, would be the first person born in El Dorado county to serve as a county supervisor (1881-1882).
Mrs. Alice Galloway was the first teacher for the Pilot Hill School District. The school, which was privately financed by Bayley and others, was located near the Bayley House.
Although an early resident of the town, Mrs. Galloway was not the first white women to arrive here. That honor goes to a Mrs. Avery, who had also been the first white woman at a mining location on the Middle Fork of the American River known as Oregon Bar.
The first Grange Lodge on he Pacific coast was organized in Pilot Hill in 1870. A. J. Bayley’s son, Alonzo, had read an article on the Patrons of Husbandry and, favorably impressed, contacted the National Secretary at Itasca, Minnesota. Shortly he received the sanction of the National Executive Committee and, on August 17, 1870 the Pioneer Grange of California was organized with twenty-nine charter members.
By the early 1880s, mining had given way to general farming, with stock raising being the principal farming business, although serious attention was being given to fruit farming and the cultivation of vines. This does not mean that the miners had left completely.
When the winter rains began to fall, familiar faces were often seen working in the ravines, still hopeful of finding a previously undiscovered deposit that would make them rich.
Other miners sometimes prospected for gold still held tightly in the many quartz deposits in the area. But, because Pilot Hill was in an isolated location and there was no machinery around to crush the ore, most of them continued to spend the major part of their time looking for more immediate riches in the placer deposits.
Today, Pilot Hill, which lies along Highway 49, between the communities of Coloma and Cool, is a mixed area of large ranches, smaller “ranchettes” and residential properties, with a central business district on the highway. The historic Bayley House, now owned by the Georgetown Divide Recreation District, is the community’s central landmark, reminding all of the part this community played in the early history of California.
For information on how you can help preserve the historic Bayley House, contact the G.D.R.D. at (530) 823-9090 or e-mail them at [email protected].
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.