Community Profiles

American River Canyon, Part 4 – Junction House to Riverton

Pacific House

Pacific House

Staying on the main route, the next station east of Junction House, so named because it is also near the junction of Johnson’s Cut-off, Ogilsby Grade and other roads, is Bob Blair’s House.

Bob Blair was one of four Blair brothers who emigrated to California from Scotland. The family owned and operated several lumber mills and lumber sales yards throughout the county. The first brother to leave Scotland for California, John Blair, was an early owner of Sportsman’s Hall.

Next along the road is Fresh Pond, or Fresh Pond House, a place where the Blair family had a mill and mill pond in 1911.

There is not a lot of early information about Fresh Pond. It is believed by some to be the “Fish Pond” that shows up in early emigrant journals. It is also believed that there was a natural pond at this location, before the Blair’s built one there around 1911.

The Fresh Pond school, originally built by the Blairs for the children of their mill workers, was here from 1911 through 1945.  In 1919, the building was torn down and replaced with the Sly Park School building that was moved here. Because the building came with its sign, after that it was called the Sly Park School.

A business of one sort or another has been at Fresh Pond since the 1860s, with a few voids due to fires.

In the 1930s Fresh Pond was known as Mealy’s Fresh Pond Tavern, featuring steak and chicken dinners and very popular dances on weekends.

The next station to the east of Fresh Pond is Pacific House.

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.

American River Canyon, Part 2 – Early Improvements to the Road

Feeding the Teams Along the Road c: 1865

Feeding the Teams Along the Road c: 1865

Due to its extreme steepness, the eastern portion of Johnson’s Cut-off from Echo Summit to lower Lake Valley was not suitable for most uses. Asa H. Hawley solved this problem in 1855 by constructing a new road – Hawley’s Grade – from Echo Summit to upper Lake Valley, which then continued south along the same route taken by Charpenning and Woodward.

On June 11, 1857, J. B. Crandall climbed aboard a stage coach owned by the Pioneer Stage Line and hauled seven passengers from John Blair’s Sportsman’s Hall over the Brockless Grade. There, two additional passengers were picked up: William D. Keyser and Theodore F. Tracy. The coach then continued to Genoa by way of Johnson’s Cut-off Grade and Luther Pass, then through Hope Valley and Hawley’s Grade.

Thus was established the first passenger service over the summit of the Sierra Nevada, which caused the citizens of Placerville to celebrate loudly with a one-hundred gun salute.

One month later a connection was established at Genoa with a stage line to and from Salt Lake City. What this trip did show that due to its extreme steepness the eastern portion of Johnson’s Cut-off from Johnson’s Summit to lower Lake Valley was not suitable for most uses.

In 1857, using money allocated by Sacramento, Yolo and El Dorado Counties, a new “two mile road not to exceed five percent grade” was constructed from Johnson’s Cut-off into Lake Valley. Because Asa H. Hawley had a roadhouse nearby, this bypass of Johnson’s Grade became known as Hawley’s Grade.

American River Canyon, Part 1, The Road

Georgetown Junction

Georgetown Junction

In the early days of California, there were more than forty stations or travelers stops located along the portion of what would ultimately become Highway 50 between Placerville and Echo Summit. Some were large structures and some as small as one roadhouse, toll house, blacksmith shop or simply a cabin or shack with meals and a room to rent.

Many of these were originally established to provide badly needed supplies and services to the exhausted emigrants arriving in California during the early years of the Gold Rush.

Even more were added a few years later when the road became crowded with the endless line of coaches and wagons hauling freight and passengers over the summit to the mines at Virginia City. In fact, it is reported that within days of the discovery of silver in Nevada, there was a shack, tent or bench at every wide place in the road, from which people were selling all kinds of goods.

Over the years most of these places, and even their locations, have disappeared from maps and memories, leaving only a few with names like Fresh Pond, Pacific House, Whitehall, Kyburz, Strawberry and Phillips.

To understand the history behind the rapid appearance and disappearance of these stations along this historic road, one must first take the time to look at the complex history of the road itself. A road which, in a relatively short period of time, went from being not much more than a trail to the major highway it is today, connecting Sacramento to the southern end of Lake Tahoe and points east.