Located on the banks of the South Fork of the American River at the mouth of Sweetwater Creek, this town derived its name from the falls on the American River to where the Indians came down from the mountains to catch the abundant salmon. The town, the falls and the salmon are no longer there as a result of the construction of Folsom Dam, but the town’s name remains a part of our history as a road, a bridge and a residential community.
Early in 1849, according to the “History of El Dorado County” by Paolo Sioli (1883), very rich diggings were discovered by Mormons at Higgins’ Point, about a quarter of a mile below the town. Mr. Higgins and his family were the first people to settle here, arriving from Australia sometime in 1848 and it was Higgins who opened the first store in the area.
In September of 1849 Ruben K. Berry, from New York, arrive here in company with H. Passmore, Thomas Brown, H. Williams L. Benham and a Mr. Barlow. They were soon joined by a Mr. Haskell and O. Smith, who afterwards would keep the first store in Uniontown (Lotus), near Coloma.
In early 1850 Mr. Berry claimed the land and laid out the town which was surveyed and platted by P. N. Madegan in May of that year
The streets running parallel with the river were named: Water, State, Government and Washington streets. Across Sweetwater Creek ran Sacramento Street and those streets running up from the river were called High, Polk, Taylor, Clay, Brower and El Dorado.
As miners began to arrive in large numbers, the population of Salmon Falls rapidly grew and by the summer of 1850 a number of town lots had been sold.
Sensing this growing population, in the spring of 1850 Berry had opened the second store in the town on the banks of Sweetwater Creek. Soon he had himself appointed as the first alcalde (mayor – judge) of the district. In the fall of 1852 he was joined by his wife, Amanda, and her sister.
The first hotel in the town was build by a Mr. Crug, who later sold out to Berry and went east. Like many gold rush hotels, it had been built on the East Coast, disassembled and shipped around Cape Horn.
As the town continued to grow, it was soon large enough to support two physicians, a Dr. McMeans and a Dr. Hook.
In 1851 a Post Office was established in Salmon Falls with T. R. Brown as postmaster. The same year a regular stage line to and from Sacramento began operation.
In 1850 a John W. Gaines (also often spelled Gains) had arrived in the area, but rather than stay chose to build a hotel in Sacramento called the Rialto. When cholera struck the area, he moved to San Francisco and then back to Salmon Falls.
He and his wife Mary built or bought a hotel and purchased a mercantile business from a Mr. Campbell in 1869, which by 1883 was the only store in town. He also served as the Justice of the Peace, school trustee and water agent, while raising a family of three daughters.
The first bridge across the American River at this location was constructed in 1853 by Mr. Edward T. Raun of San Francisco and later Coloma, who owned the bridges at Coloma, Spanish Bar and Kelsey. Although Mr. Raun lived in Coloma, his ties to this town were strong since his wife was the former Miss Charlotte A. Phelps, Salmon Falls’ first school teacher.
The bridge soon washed away, but immediately another one was put up since the bridge was very profitable to Mr. Raun. After all It was the main road from Sacramento to all the mining camps in the northern part of El Dorado County, along with the river bars on the Middle and North Forks of the American River and all the mines beyond in the new County of Placer.
In 1856, Mr. Raun sold his interest in all his bridges to Richards & Pearish and Mr. Richards ultimately ended up as sole owner of this bridge.
With the construction of railroads leading from the Sacramento Valley into the foothills, which took away travel from the road, and the playing out of the river bars, the profitability of the bridge waned. Soon it again washed out and for many decades was not rebuilt.
Salmon Falls Road resident and history buff, Bernie G. Ryan, who probably knows more about Salmon Falls that anyone in the area, gathered, among other things, Salmon Falls census records from 1850 through 1930. He gives us a different perspective on early Salmon Falls and its residents.
From the 1850 census data he calculated that of the total population of 252, 143, or 57 percent, were miners. Of this population, a large majority, 77 percent, were from the United States. But this would rapidly change.
By 1860 the population had increased to 1360 people, with 862 (65 percent) listed as miners. The next largest category was housewives (81), followed by laborers (40), farmers (36), grocers (29) and cooks (13). Also among the list of nearly 40 different occupations, there were 10 carpenters, 9 butchers, 4 physicians, 3 barbers, 2 wagon makers, a bridge owner, a shoemaker and only one saloon keeper. He also calculated that in 1860, 929 (68 percent) of the residents in Salmon Falls were from foreign countries. The largest single group, 661, almost half of the total population, came there from China.
According to the 1870 census, the population had dropped to 428 with only 40 percent listed as miners. New occupations that showed up on the 1870 census included a vintner, eight vineyard workers, a vineyard superintendent and a cooper, or barrel maker. The population was about half people of foreign origin, with 20 percent of those being from China.
In its heyday Salmon Falls had grown from just a few huts built by the Mormon miners to a community of some 3000. As the mining waned, the town soon became only a ghost of its once greatness.
With the construction of Folsom Dam and reservoir, the historic township of Salmon Falls was inundated. The cemetery was moved to a site near Green Valley Road and the Sacramento County line.
Few relics of Salmon Falls remain today other than the name which is carried on by the nearby residential community of Salmon Falls, Salmon Falls Road and the bridge which again spans the South Fork of the American River.
Thanks to Bernie Ryan for his wealth of information on Salmon Falls and hundreds of hours of calculations which added much to this story and corrected many “facts” which were found in other publications. Copies of his papers are on file at both the Main and El Dorado Hills libraries.