Community Profiles – Gold Hill

Okei's Grave

Okei’s Grave

Gold Hill is one of the more common names for early Gold Rush towns in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

Towns with this name are found in Amador County, Calaveras County (several towns), Mariposa County, Placer County, Nevada County (two towns), El Dorado County and perhaps even more counties. In fact, there were so many, that the San Francisco’s “Alta California” newspaper of December 17, 1855 states that the citizens of El Dorado County’s Gold Hill had changed the name from Gold Hill to Granite Hill in order to avoid the enormous confusion that had resulted from this proliferation of towns with the same name. In spite of this confusion, the name would soon change back to Gold Hill.

The actual town of Gold Hill was located near the intersection of Gold Hill Road and Cold Springs Road. However, today the name Gold Hill is generally associated with that portion of El Dorado County between Coloma and Gold Hill Road on the north and south and Highway 49 and Lotus Road on the east and west.

During its heyday Gold Hill was one of the county’s larger mining towns. With more than 1000 residents – albeit temporary – it boasted banking and telegraph facilities, hotels, bars, stores and even a daily stage coach to and from Sacramento.

The miners that lived around Gold Hill found gold most everywhere they looked. They were on top of an ancient river bed, that ran in a north-south direction, and the many ravines, creeks and even open fields, often gave up riches to those willing to work for it.

Although it wasn’t fully developed until much later in the 20th century, one of the larger gold mines in the area was the Funny Bug (Pendelco) mine, which was located south of Gold Hill Road, just north of Weber Creek. It was an underground mine, developed by crosscuts from a 200 foot deep shaft.

What the area around Gold Hill had, that was missing from many other early mining towns, was fairly level, fertile soil and a “banana belt” climate which made it an excellent place for the growing and raising the tons of food needed to feed the hungry population in the many mining camps of California and Nevada. This is one of the major reasons that brought many families to Gold Hill.

As the population grew, the town needed a school, so on February 4, 1858, the Gold Hill School was organized. In 1897 it was destroyed by a tornado that carried parts of the building and its contents as far away as Pleasant Valley, miles on the other side of Placerville. For some unexplained reason, the school’s piano was spared and stood as a monument to the missing building. The school building was rebuilt and used until 1956 when the Cold Springs, Coloma, Springvale and Gold Hill schools became part of the Gold Trail Union School District.

On June 11, 1874, the Cold Springs Post Office was closed and moved to Granite Hill, with William P. Vernon serving as the first postmaster. On February 29, 1908, it was closed and then moved to Coloma.

No story of Gold Hill would be complete without at least a mention of the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm of Gold Hill and a young lady named Okei San.

John Henry (Edward?) Schnell, a Dutch soldier of fortune, had been a longtime confident and adviser to the Lord Katamori Matsudaira of Aizu Wakamatsu, an area in the mountains of northern Japan. Lord Matsudaira choose the losing side in a civil war and believing the honorable thing would be to flee (falling on his own sword – seppuku – was the alternative), sent Schnell to California to make plans for the first organized emigration of Japanese to the United States. Schnell, accompanied by about ten farmers, tradesmen and a few Samurai, arrived in Gold Hill in June of 1869, followed shortly by sixteen more Japanese, including a seventeen year old girl named Okei San, who had been a nursemaid for Schnell and his Japanese wife.

With them they brought thousands of three-year-old mulberry trees for silk farming, tea plants and seeds, large quantities of bamboo roots, wax tree stocks and grape cuttings.
The group settled on 160 acres of land that Schnell had purchased from Charles M. Graner, adjacent to the Veerkamp farm. For a while, everything looked like it was going well, but then the lack of adequate irrigation water and the failure of promised financial assistance from Japan, brought doom within two years. Schnell, accompanied by his Japanese wife and two children, sailed back to Japan, promising to get funds and return. He never returned.

Soon most of the original Japanese settlers returned to Japan or went elsewhere to find work. Finally, only Okei San and Matsunosuke Sakurai were all that remained. The Veerkamp family hired Matsunosuke to work on the farm and Okei as a housemaid. It is said that Okei often went to the top of the hill in the evening to watch the sunset and gaze in the direction of her homeland, patiently waiting for Schnell’s return. In 1871, at the age of nineteen, Okei died, perhaps from malaria contracted on the trip from her homeland or, as many say, from a broken heart.

The land, including her burial site, was recently acquired by the American River Conservancy and is under restoration and preservation. There is a monument to her and the colony on Cold Springs Road, near Gold Trail School.

Once a booming mining town, then a noted agricultural area, Gold Hill soon faded into being just another rural part of the county. However, in recent times it is being reborn as an expanding and very important agricultural area in El Dorado County, where premium wine vineyards flourish alongside acres of fruit orchards – including those bearing oranges and avocados.

Sources for this story include: “History of California Post Offices, 1849-1976”, researched by H. E. Salley (1976); “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); and the “History of El Dorado County, by Paolo Sioli (1883), reprinted and indexed by the El Dorado Friends of the Library (1998).

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