It was only a couple of years after James Marshall picked up the first flakes of gold at the sawmill in Coloma, that “Buck” Ramsey and some other men went prospecting for gold in the area between the North and Middle forks of the Cosumnes river, in the eastern part of El Dorado County. After a long hard day, they at last picked a place near one of the many springs that dotted the area to camp for the night.
After laying out their camp, they set to preparing the usual miner’s feast for those times: bread, bacon and coffee. All at once they were surprised by an unexpected guest who had smelled their dinner and came crashing through the brush towards their camp. At first they thought it might be another prospector, tired and hungry. But, to the surprise of the men, it turned out to be a very large specimen of one of California’s most noble beasts, the now extinct California Grizzly Bear.
Immediately, Ramsey grabbed his rifle and fired a single shot at the bear. The bear turned and ran back through the brush, across the flat and down into a steep canyon, where he was found dead by the surprised prospector. The word rapidly spread and from this incident, the town was named Grizzly Flat.
Soon after Ramsey’s adventure with the bear, hundreds of other miners arrived in Grizzly Flat and worked the beds of the rivers and canyons, along with the hillside gravel deposits, taking out much of the precious gold. As these areas became more and more crowded, some prospectors set out to look for and ultimately found riches in the numerous veins of quartz that crossed the area in a north-south direction. By the mid 1850’s the amount of gold taken from the hard rock mines exceeded that taken by placer or river mining, but only by a little bit.
Victor J. W. Steely was one of the earliest operators of a quartz mine in the area, having made his gold discovery in 1852. He erected two mills at different points along the branch of the Cosumnes river that still bears his name (Steely Fork) and, leading away from these he added a wooden railroad nearly a mile in length that terminated at his mines southwest of the town. A man of great energy of character and perseverance, and obviously full of hope, he invested all of his money, along with that of his friends and employees, in the venture. However, in spite of all of their work, like many similar mining ventures, this one also ended in failure, leaving only the ruins of his mills, the cut on Mt. Pleasant where the railroad once ran and his name on a fork of the river.
Shortly after Steely opened his mine, a Dr. Clark, and others, opened the Eagle Quartz Mine, which proved to be a better financial investment than Steely’s. In 1855 a Mr. Roberts opened a mine with his name which proved rich for one season and then closed for lack of funding. Sometime in the late 1860’s, the Steely mine was reopened for a few years as the Mt. Pleasant and then closed again in 1872. Gabe Wentz and Dave Brandover worked for years south of the town at Henry’s Diggings, where their perseverance ultimately paid off when they located a quartz ledge rich in gold. In June of 1874, F. W. Earl arrived in the area and started prospecting near the Mt. Pleasant and Irish lodes. There he struck a quartz ledge that soon proved its worth to be half a million dollars. Among other mines in the area were the Driesbach, Spencer and Morey, Eagle King, Bullard, Melton Bros., Ohio extreme of the Mt. Pleasant and the Arctic.
Grizzly Flat’s first store was built in 1852 by “Chris” Nelson, a man of German descent. Soon the store was joined by two hotels and two blacksmith shops, which divided their time between shoeing work animals and keeping the miner’s picks well sharpened. In time, ranchers and farmers with names like Leoni, Cole, Martin, Springer, Zollers, Finley, O’Lean, Slook, Smith, McAfee, Niebur, Webster, Myers, Behrens, Haas and Plunker arrived to work the land and provide food for the many miners.
In 1866 the town itself was ravaged by fire with only a few houses remaining. Because the mines were at the height of their productiveness, the town was soon rebuilt even larger than before. In 1869 the town burned again but, this time because it was larger and had contained a greater amount of personal property, the loss was disastrous. Only two stone, fire-proof buildings remained and the town was never rebuilt to the same extent.
Things remained fairly calm for about one hundred years and then, in the late 1960’s, Grizzly Flat was again discovered, not because of its golden riches but because of its natural beauty and cool summer climate, which made it an excellent, and highly desirable area for residential development.
Grizzly Flat is about 23 miles east and a little south of Placerville, between the North and Middle forks of the Cosumnes river. In 1852, the ridge leading down from Leak springs and between the Forks of the Cosumnes became one of the principal roads used by the emigrants of that year. Hardly a trace of this once heavily traveled route remains even though for years dairymen and sheep herders used the same road to move their livestock to and from the summer grazing lands within the forest.
As a tribute to the part they played in the early history of El Dorado County, the Grizzly Flat area still retains places named after Steely, Leoni, Cole and many others, the pioneering miners, ranchers and farmers that ventured there nearly one hundred and fifty years ago in search of their dreams.
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).