At the intersection of Mt. Aukum Road (E-16), Grizzly Flat Road and Buck’s Bar Road is the small town of Somerset. It was first settled in 1856 by some former residents of Somerset, Ohio, who probably searched for gold in the nearby North and Middle Forks of the Cosumnes River, along with local streams and ravines.
Within a few years, there were several permanent residences in the area and a hotel named the Somerset, Sommerset or Summerset House, depending upon which historian’s work or maps one reads.
During its early history, the town was little more than a trading stop for people going to and from Grizzly Flat, Fair Play and Indian Diggings. However, In 1864, when the Somerset Hotel was owned by the Reynolds family, this small Gold Rush town became the centerpiece of an important and oft told part of the history of El Dorado County.
It was between 9 and 10 p.m. on the night of June 30, 1864 a dozen miles east of Placerville near a place called Bullion Bend that six men leveled guns at the drivers of two coaches of the Pioneer Stage Line, Ned Blair and Charlie Watson. They were carrying silver bullion from the mines of Virginia City and the robbers wanted it.
First Ned’s coach was halted and he was asked to throw down the Wells Fargo & Co.’s strong box. It wasn’t on his stage the robbers found out, but, in searching the coach they did find six bags of silver bullion.
When Charlie, who was not far behind Ned, stopped, thinking Ned was having problems with his team, the highwaymen gave him the same order and found he had the strong box and an additional two more bags of silver bullion.
They helped themselves to the bullion and the strong box and then presented the drivers with a receipt for everything that stated that the money was for “out-fitting recruits enlisted in California for the Confederate Army”. The receipt was signed “R. Henry Ingrim, Captain Commanding Company C.S.A.”
The robbers, who were believed to be members of Quantrell’s Raiders, a much feared band of guerrillas, rode only a short distance where they cached the bullion. They then struck out in a southeasterly direction, ending up at the Somerset House. Shortly thereafter, all but a few coins and a silver bar were recovered by officers of the law, although for years people would ignore that fact and search the area hoping to find the “hidden bullion.”
Between one and two a.m. the following morning, El Dorado County Sheriff William Rogers dispatched Constable George C. Ranney, acting as a special deputy sheriff, along with Deputies John Van Eaton and Joseph Staples, to follow the robbers trail, while the Sheriff himself led a posse towards the robbery site at Bullion Bend.
Ranney arrived first at the Somerset House, and suspecting he had found the robbers, sent Van Eaton for reinforcements. Ranney then entered the hotel. Walking into one room he saw men with guns and, acting lost, casually asked for directions to Grizzly Flat. Being told to ask the proprietor, he then left the room.
On his way out he met Deputy Staples coming in to the hotel and tried to persuade him to wait for Van Eaton and the reinforcements. Staples refused, cocked his gun and ran into the room where the robbers were located, demanding their surrender.
Ranney, realizing that Staples was seriously outnumbered by the robbers, pulled his gun and followed Staples. There the two were met by a fusillade of bullets from the robbers revolvers.
One of the robbers name Poole was seriously injured by Staples, but the robber’s bullets had found their mark and Staples fell dying at the feet of Ranney.
Now outnumbered five to one (Poole being out of the fight), Ranney turned and ran towards his and Staple’s horses, hoping to ride for help. On the way he was shot at least three times and, badly injured, dropped to the ground behind some rocks.
At that point, Mrs. Reynolds, one of the proprietors of the hotel, appeared and convinced the robbers that Ranney was dying and that they should be ashamed to shoot a dying man. They left him alone, but took his and Staple’s revolvers, money and horses and even Poole’s revolver. They then rode off to the south towards Mt. Aukum.
Less than two months later, on August 21, Under-sheriff Hume, a close friend of Staples, in the company of Deputy Van Eaton, arrested the following men in Santa Clara: Henry Jarbes, George Cross, J. A. Robertson, Wallace Clendenin, Joseph Gamble, John Ingren, H. Gatley and Preston Hodges.
These men, along with Thomas Poole, were returned to Placerville and indited by a Grand Jury after being charged with complicity in the hold-up by Allen P. Glasby, one of the robbers who had turned state’s evidence.
On November 22, 1864, the trial commenced and Hodges was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced by Judge Brockway to twenty years of hard labor. Thomas Poole was sentenced to hang for his part in the crime, and at noon on September 29, 1865 the sentence was carried out on the gallows in Placerville. The remainder of the men were successful in getting a change of venue to Santa Clara county were they were tried and acquitted.
Deputy Staples, the first El Dorado County deputy sheriff killed in the line of duty, is buried in Placerville’s Union Cemetery (Bee Street) in James B. Hume’s plot, under a plain marble tombstone on which is inscribed: “Joseph M. Staples, Deputy Sheriff of El Dorado County; killed in attempting to arrest the Placerville Stage Robbers, July 1, 1864; aged 38 years”. George C. Ranney, the man who was injured attempting to save Staples’ life, lies buried in Placerville’s Uppertown Cemetery, in an unmarked grave.
In spite of all of this excitement, Somerset continued to grow and in 1878 the River School District was formed and a school was built on property deeded by Charles and Ida Mentz. This school, which was on Buck’s Bar Road, would close eighty years later when the District became part of the Pioneer School District.
Acccording to the U.S. Post Office Department, but questioned by some local residents, the first post office in the area was established on March 7, 1924 (1914?) at Young’s, a vacation resort on the North Fork of the Cosumnes River, about one mile north of Somerset, with Morgan Young as the first Postmaster.
On August 1, 1950, the Young’s Post Office, which at some point had been moved to the Somerset Hotel, would have its name officially changed to the Somerset Post Office.
Although the Somerset Hotel is no longer in existence, today’s Somerset consists of several commercial buildings, restaurants, a wine tasting room and the post office. These provide needed services and supplies for the nearby residences and the travelers along the roads, many of whom are visiting the area’s many premium wineries.
Sources for this story were many and include an article written by Will O. Upton in the December 29, 1937 Placerville Times; “Cosumnes River Country,” by Steve Ginsburg (1979, 1995); “History of California Post Offices, 1849-1976,” researched by H. E. Salley; the “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 good folks at the reference desk of the El Dorado County library.