American River Canyon, Part 3 – Placerville to Junction House

Sportsman's Hall, 1866

Sportsman’s Hall, 1866

Up until the late 1880s much of the road from Pollock Pines to Johnson’s (Echo) Summit was a privately owned toll road. Thus, entrepreneurs took advantage of this and often created new bypasses or realigned sections in order to collect the tolls for themselves.

Because of this, the toll houses, stables, way stations and roadhouses that existed at approximately mile intervals sprung up and died over night as the alignment of the road changed.

The inns, which were located about ten to fifteen miles apart, were more long lasting, since they were usually operated by families, and provided the best food and lodging.

Many of these stations were known as “mile houses”, a measurement of their distance from Placerville.

In the mid 1900s, Placerville distance markers were hand hewn from granite slabs by Folsom Prison’s convict labor and then placed each mile along the road, helping to identify the general location of those no longer in existence.

Over the years, some of the stations have grown into communities and others are only old buildings or the remains of foundations. Unfortunately, most of the stations have disappeared completely from our maps and even our memories.

Our starting point, Placerville, had many hotels, among which were the El Dorado Hotel, on the site of today’s Cary House and the Placer Hotel (also known as the Jackass Saloon) on the site of the Herrick Building.

The first stop east of Placerville was the Three Mile House, better known today as the Smith Flat House. It was built in Smith Flat in 1853 over the Blue Lead Mining Channel. It originally consisted of a general store, post office, living room, bedroom, dining room, dance hall, rooms for rent, and a full attic and basement. There was also a separate toll house and a barn large enough for 40 horses.

In the 1890s, wings were added to the original building to accommodate a kitchen, pantry, saloon, card room and additional rooms to rent.

The Four and Five Mile houses are only hints in the record and the next station of note was called the Eight Mile House. It was near the location of the Moose Hall, across the freeway from the town of Camino. Very little seems to have been written about it.

The Nine Mile House seems to also but forgotten, but the 12 Mile House, also known as 11 Mile House, Sportsman’s Hall and perhaps Fyffe, isn’t. It was originally owned by a D. C. Deady, who in 1853 claimed one hundred and sixty acres at this location along the Placerville-Carson Valley Road where he established a ranch.

The following year, he sold his land and Sportsman’s Hall to John Blair, one of four brothers that had immigrated to America from Scotland.

John’s brother, James Blair, came west to join him in the 1860s, about the time that silver was discovered in the Comstock Lode of Nevada. This discovery resulted in the road becoming crowded with freight and passenger traffic to and from the mines.

The Blair brothers took advantage of the rapidly increasing need for accommodations and enlarged Sportsman’s Hall to hold 150 travelers, also adding stables for 500 horses and corrals that would hold even more.

It became a relay station of the Central Overland Pony Express, when on April 4, 1860, pony rider William (Sam) Hamilton riding in from Sacramento, handed the express mail to Warren Upson, who, two minutes later, sped on his way eastward.

In 1868 Sportsman’s Hall burned down and was immediately rebuilt to handle the traffic along the road.

With the completion of the railroad over the Sierra through Auburn and Truckee in 1869, traffic on the road became only a trickle of what it had been and the Blair brothers leased out the hall and returned to lumbering.

For the next 140 plus years the ownership of Sportsman’s Hall passed through many hands. Open or closed, it still remains as one of the oldest restaurants in the Mother Lode.

The first station east of Sportsman’s Hall is a place very little is known about: the Illinois House. Some historians believe the Illinois House was not even at this location but four miles west of Sportsman’s Hall. The only reference to it is in “The History of El Dorado County” by Paolo Sioli (1883) which mentions that it sold groceries and served meals all day and night.

A short distance further east was Duncan McLean’s Thirteen Mile House, which was located at the site of the present Pollock Pines School. It burned down in 1867.

The Fourteen Mile House, sometimes called Mountain Cottage, is the next station. Its location at the western terminus of Ogilsby Grade (a bypass for a portion of Johnson’s Cut-off) made it an important stage and mail stop. In the early part of the 20th century, this station would become known as the George Holcomb House. The former location of the Fourteen Mile House is now the Pollock Pine’s Safeway parking lot.

At this point one could continue along the main road to Junction House (Strong’s Ranch), or take Ogilsby Grade to Whitehall, passing stations known as Pennsylvania House, owned by one John F. Wonderlich, Goodwin Mountain House, Bayley’s Exchange and Esmeralda House.

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); “The Wrights Lake Story” by the Historical Committee of the Wrights Lake Summer Home Association (revised 1994); “The Saga of Lake Tahoe”, Volumes I and II, by E. B. Scott (1973); “I Remember…, Stories and pictures of El Dorado County pioneer families”, researched and written by Betty Yohalem (1977); “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.

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