Monthly Archives: January 2015

Happy Birthday Placerville Bell Tower

Original Wooden Bell Tower with Snow

This story was written in 1998.

It is February of 1898, one hundred years ago, and the firemen in Placerville are concerned about the tower that holds the fire bell in the plaza on Main Street. For twenty years this wooden bell tower has served its purpose well, holding the bell that often called all of the City’s volunteer firemen, day or night. But, the wood in the 25 foot high tower is rotting and the whole thing, bell and all, is in serious danger of falling down.

This wouldn’t be the first time there has been concern about Placerville’s famous Bell tower and, as we will see, far from the last.

The first bell tower at this location was erected in 1865, to hold a bell that had been cast in England, some five years previously. On July 16 of that year, the City had agreed to allow a tower for a fire alarm bell to be constructed in the plaza and appointed a committee to look into the matter. The committee must have done its job well, because only one month later they were discharged, having accomplished their duties. On September 4, 1865 a report to the City’s Council states that the tower is painted, erected, the bell installed and a horse watering trough placed at the base. Total cost, $391.12.

Thirteen years later, on August 31, 1878, a contract was made with Rider & Young to tear down the old tower, clean up the site, build a new wooden tower 25 feet in height, give it three coats of paint and hang in it the bell. On September 16, the citizens were called upon to contribute proportionally to help pay the contract price of $149.50. As mentioned before, twenty years later the firemen would be concerned that this tower might have become more of a danger to the citizens of Placerville than a benefit.

On February 26, 1898, the Fire Department’s chief engineer, John Wonderly, was told to estimate the cost of a new, 50 foot steel tower to replace the existing wooden one.

Around August 6 of that year, the Fire Department contracted with the El Dorado Foundry for a steel tower, the height to the bottom of the bell frame to be 35 feet, putting the bell 15 feet higher than before – tall enough to overcome the muffling effect of the surrounding buildings. The base for the tower was to be 11 feet square, with angled posts and cast iron ornaments, and placed on a concrete foundation.

4th of July celebration at the Bell Tower

Celebration at the Bell Tower

The Mountain Democrat of September 3, 1898 reported that the new steel tower was complete and being “tastily” painted. It was also noted that during the construction, half the population of the town turned out to “boss the job and give advice free of charge.” The article went on to say that Morton & Sons are placing a concrete drinking fountain in the center of the base (the water cooled by a coil suspended in the cistern under the tower) capped with a miniature bronze fireman holding aloft a red globe containing an electric light. Atop the Bell Tower is to be a large weathervane and at its base, the usual wooden horse watering trough. The cost of this fine structure was $300, half of which was contributed by the League of Progress.

At noon on Thursday, September 8, 1898, as a part of a three-day California Admission Day ceremony, the bell in the tower was rung three times, announcing to the world that the task was complete and the Bell Tower was being turned over to the citizens of the City.

During the next century several changes were made to the Bell Tower. Around 1911, it was even disassembled and moved to Cannon Hill, where electrical difficulties in ringing the bell developed. So, it was soon moved back to its original location. Unfortunately, sometime during the move the bell was damaged and many of the ornamental supports were lost. It was probably during this period in the Bell Tower’s history, that a new, electrically activated bell was installed, the 1865 bell being removed and placed to rest proudly in the park on Bedford Street across from the Court House.

Drinking fountain 1865

Drinking fountain, horse trough and hydrant. After 1898

By the 1930s, the drinking fountain, horse watering trough and even an added bandstand had disappeared, and the space under the Bell Tower had become a shady parking place for a City Police patrol car. Added to one of the supports was a police telephone that, when called, lit a red light on the tower and at each end of the block to summon the police. Soon, all of this would be removed and the Bell Tower would become just another part of the downtown landscape.

Over the next few decades, the Bell Tower began falling into disrepair and becoming a “tawdry billboard”, according to the late historian Claire Freeman. It became just a place to hang various signs and announcements, along with miscellaneous decorations. Then, in April of 1965, something happened that again focused attention on this historical landmark – a car ran into it and nearly tipped it over. All at once the Bell Tower became the center of discussion among the citizens of Placerville. It was in very bad shape and the question of the day became: “Should it be renovated or torn down and replaced with something else?”.

The Placerville Business and Professional Council immediately started things moving by suggesting to the City Council that the Bell Tower was a landmark and should be retained and fully renovated. Unlike the committee of 1865 who were able to make immediate decisions, the town pondered the issue for some three or more years with numerous pro and con discussions about whether the Tower should be retained or “replaced with a meaningless but pretty Hollywood type decoration”.

Bell Tower with police car

Bell Tower with police car

Most of the oldtimers continually pointed out that fire had was still the scourge of the Mother Lode and that Placerville had literally burned to the ground as the result of two fires in 1856. They believed the Bell Tower was still needed to call the fire department’s volunteers and, by all means, should be retained for that purpose.

Even though the Bell Tower openly continued to deteriorate, interest in what to do with it waned. Fortunately, the Mountain Democrat, in several editorials, urged the citizens to get on with a decision one way or another, before the Tower fell down by itself – perhaps on someone.

Under pressure from various groups and organizations that wanted to preserve the Bell Tower, in 1968 the City Council took action – of a sort – and passed the problem onto the Hangtown Chamber of Commerce. Under the chairmanship of Barbara Luther, a committee began to explore the problem and things finally began to happen. The Chamber of Commerce’s recommendation was a new plaza with a modified version of the Bell Tower and other accessory items.However, according to the July 10, 1969 Mountain Democrat, local historical groups, the Placerville Volunteer Fireman’s Association and downtown merchants, such as Florence Sweeney and George Duffy, inundated the City Council with requests to renovate and keep the Bell Tower. Mr. Duffy, whose front door is just a few feet away from the Bell Tower, bluntly told the Council that he objected to replacing it with any “Mickey Mouse fountains and other such incidentals.”

After listening to all sides, the City Council voted 3-0 to retain and renovate the Bell Tower, clearly stating that it would no longer be permitted to serve as a fixture on which to attach signs promoting various community and commercial activities.

Things were finally moving forward and the City’s Mayor, Forrest Van Vleck, appointed a committee to report on the renovation activities. With much help from the community in general (including a large amount of voluntary supervision as in 1898) and the firemen in particular, the present design with protective rock planters around the base, iron railings and an internal wooden roof, was accepted in late 1969 and the project was completed the next year. In late 1970 the siren was installed above the bell and the magnificent Bell Tower was again complete.

Bell Tower today

Bell Tower today

On September 8, 1998, our metal Bell Tower will be celebrating its 100th birthday – its centennial. In spite of being moved back and forth, damaged by cars, and several times a controversial subject, it has survived in its magnificence.

Let me be the first to wish you a happy 100th birthday, Bell Tower. May you not be forgotten on this wonderful occasion during this sesquicentennial celebration of our founding. May the citizens of Placerville all take the time to pause from their busy schedules and thank you for the hundreds, if not thousands, of times that you have called them to help each other in times of danger. May you forever stand magnificently in the City’s plaza.

Much of the information contained in this story came from the Heritage Association and a 1976 article by the late historian Claire Freeman. This article, along with numerous historical clippings, were graciously loaned to me by another Placerville historian, Marilyn Ferguson. Most of the photographs were courtesy of Steve Crandell, Hisorical Prints in Placerville.

El Dorado County – Its Changing Boundaries

From its creation in February 18, 1850, as one of California’s original twenty-seven counties, El Dorado County has seen its boundaries change nearly a dozen times – often drastically. Originally bounded on the north by Yuba County, the south by Calaveras County, the west by Sacramento and San Joaquin counties and the east by Utah Territory (Nevada), over the years El Dorado County has contributed about one quarter of its original area to the creation and modification of three of the state’s newer counties: Amador, Alpine and Placer.

What was the reason for these changes in boundaries and the creation of additional counties? It was usually because an area was difficult to govern (collect taxes from) because it could not be easily reached due to river canyons or remoteness. Also, in some cases, the residents of an area of an original county believed they were not receiving the services they were being taxed for and demanded local rule. Thus, the 27 original counties became 58.

The original, 1850 description of El Dorado County read as follows:

“Beginning at the junction of the north and south forks of the American River, and running thence up the middle of the north fork to the mouth of the middle fork; then up the middle of said fork to its source; thence in a due easterly direction to the boundary of the state; thence in a southeasterly direction, following the boundary of the state, to the northeast corner of Calaveras County; thence in a westerly direction along the northern boundary of said county to the southeast corner of Sacramento County; thence in a northerly direction along with boundary of said county to the south fork; and thence down the middle of said fork to this mouth, which was the place of beginning.”

The northern boundary of Calaveras County, which formed the southern boundary of El Dorado County, started at the corner of Sacramento and San Joaquin counties and then:
“up the middle of Dry Creek to its source; thence following the summit of the dividing ridge between Moquelumne and Cosumne rivers; thence due east to the state boundary line;”

During several sessions in the very early 1850’s, the state legislature considered the creation of a new county named “Washington” from a portion of both Calaveras and El Dorado counties. This met with substantial opposition and protests and even petitions from residents of both counties. In 1854, after much deliberation, their final action was to allow the citizens of Calaveras County to vote on the division of their county into two counties. Later that year they did so, and the northern portion of that county was detached, creating Amador County and making Jackson, which had been the county seat for Calaveras County from 1850 to 1852, the county seat of the new county.

The next year, without even asking for a vote from the citizens of El Dorado County, the state legislature added to the County of Amador a significant portion of southern El Dorado County lying between the south fork of the Cosumnes River and Dry Creek. This action did not include all of the land to the west of the confluence of the three forks of the Cosumnes, so, in 1857 this line was again modified to make the Cosumnes River the common boundary all the way to the Sacramento County line. With these acts, the towns of Fiddletown, Plymouth, Saratoga and many more, along with the rich Shenandoah Valley grape growing region, passed from El Dorado to Amador County.

In 1863, the legislature took a third action in regards to the El Dorado – Amador line, moving it to the north of Silver Lake and making the Amador and Nevada wagon road the common boundary. The new line between the two counties then ran as follows:

“Beginning in the centre of the Cosumnes River at the point where said river enters Sacramento County; thence up the middle of the channel of said river to the south fork of said river; thence up the centre of the channel of said south fork to the south fork of the south fork of said river; thence up said south fork of the south fork to its source; thence due east to the Amador and Nevada wagon road; thence along the line of said road to its junction with the Big Tree and Carson Valley road, in Hope Valley; thence, from said junction, along the line of the road leading down said valley, through Carson Canon, to the eastern boundary of this state. Said roads, when marking the boundary line of said counties as provided in this act, shall be included within the boundaries of Amador County.”

All of what they had set out to do in 1854, amid serious objections and controversy, had been quietly accomplished by the state legislature in only ten years.

In 1864, the southeastern line of El Dorado County was again modified to create the County of Alpine. This same act removed from Amador County a portion of the land it had received from El Dorado County the previous year.

There were no modifications to the northern boundary of El Dorado County until 1863, when there was a change in the line brought about by an ambiguity in the 1850 description. The line was moved northward to add portions of the Sierra Nevada and Lake Bigler (Lake Tahoe) basin to El Dorado County. Fifty years later, in 1913, this line was again moved – this time to the south – to give Placer County a small portion of land south of the south fork of the middle fork of the American River.

Except for some technical changes in the description, the legal boundaries of El Dorado County remained fixed from 1913 until 1990, when, at the request of the Lake Kirkwood Summer Cabin owners, the boundary was again modified to move this tract of land, along with Lake Kirkwood, from El Dorado County to Amador County. This request was based on the fact that they received all of their services from Amador County, which they felt should receive their tax money.

Origin of the names California and El Dorado

1650 Map showing California as an island.

1650 map by Nicolas Sanson showing California as an island.

The names that are given to states, counties, communities and even the streets on which we live, come from many sources. Some have complicated mythical origins (with numerous variations), others reflect the location from which the first settlers came, while even others are given out as respect for a local citizen or famous person. In the State of California we find all of these.
The origin of the name California itself goes back many centuries to the early exploration of the New World. Then as now, people believed that just over the horizon were unexplored lands of untold wealth and beautiful people. As a result of this, in the Fifteenth Century, Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo, a Spanish writer, created an island called California lying on the right-hand side of the Indies and very close to the Garden of Eden.

As explorers returned to their ports, they told great tales of places such as California, pointing out that had they more ships and men they could have conquered the natives and brought back even more treasure in an attempt to encourage the financing of a new trip. Needless to say, the story about this mystical place grew way beyond the truth.

The Island of California itself, it was believed, was inhabited by a group of fierce, Amazon like and very beautiful black women. Their ruler was the most beautiful of them all, a queen named Calafia.

They were magnificent in their armor and weaponry of pure gold, the only metal found on the island.

They often sailed off in mighty ships to raid other lands, where they gathered treasure and captured men. Some men they kept, albeit temporarily, to insure that their race would not die out. Any male children born as a result of these unions were immediately killed as were most of the men they captured, other than the very few they felt they needed.

Although earlier maps of the New World showed California as a portion of a larger continent, in 1525 one Henry Briggs produced a map that included Queen Calafia’s land, depicting it as the Isle of California. Almost immediately there were new, more accurate maps disagreeing with Briggs’ work, but for a century or more other cartographers continued to copy his map. Myths are often more powerful than the truth.

It is sometimes said that the armor clad lady on the Seal of the Great State of California represents Queen Calafia. However, the lady is actually Minerva (Athena), the goddess of wisdom.


The name El Dorado, which was given to our County by the first California Legislature on February 18, 1850, also has its roots in myth.

Again it was the early explorers who brought back the tales of a place of untold riches – especially gold – in the tableland of Bogota.

This time the land was ruled by an Indian chief who, during special religious rites, had his body covered with oil and then rubbed with gold dust, thereby “gilding” him.

The search for this wondrous land of gold named El Dorado – “The Gilded One” – was the driving force behind many of the early explorations of northern South America, and later, Mexico. The story was so widely believed that in 1537 it was reported that the location of El Dorado had been found.

When gold was discovered in California, it was nothing more than a continuation of the search for “El Dorado” that brought the thousands of gold miners to that location.

The actual words “El Dorado” did not appear on a map of California until 1848 when the legend “El Dorado or Gold Region” was lettered along the Plumas River and the South Fork of the American River by Charles Preuss, the cartographer for the explorer John C. Fremont. Immediately the word became firmly attached to the gold bearing region of California.

There is a wonderful, flowery description of El Dorado County in the April 30, 1850 issue of the Alta California, a pioneer San Francisco newspaper. As a service to its readers, the newspaper published a list of the newly created twenty-seven California counties and the derivation their names. The derivations are believed to have been written by Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, perhaps the most powerful man in Mexican California and a member of California’s first senate. The work was then translated into English for publication. It is apparent that Vallejo liked El Dorado County.

“EL DORADO – The far-famed fabulous region of genial clime and never-failing verdure, where gold and precious stones are as common as rocks and pebbles, where wines gently flow from fountains, where wheat spontaneously grows overtopped with tiny loaves of bread, and pigeons fly already roasted, where nature has converted the rudest things into harmony of shape and appearance and where, in fine, a creature of the genus malieris, full of symmetry and grace, trips about in natural loveliness the most beautiful of God’s creations. Francis Orreliana, a companion of Pizarro, first spread the account of the supposed existence of this province in South America.

“It is so universally known how and when the discovery was made that has caused the star of the west to spring up as if by magic, giving it the appropriate epithet of “golden” and will eventually revolutionize the world, that more than the passing remark that gold was discovered in this county as Sutter’s mill, is here deemed unnecessary. The county derives its name from this circumstance.”

Originally the State Legislature had considered naming the county Coloma, after the discovery site itself. Perhaps is was Vallejo’s words that caused them to change their minds and call it El Dorado.

Sources for this story include: “Atlas of California”, by Donley, Allan, Caro and Patton (1979); “California Place Names”, by Erwin Gudde, 3rd Edition (1974); “Gold Rush – A literary Exploration” edited by Michael Kowalewski (1997); “History of El Dorado County”, by Paolo Sioli (1883), reprinted and indexed by the El Dorado Friends of the Library (1998); and the Alta California, 1-4-1849 through 12-31-1850.

Happy Birthday California

31 star "California" flag.

31 star “California” flag.

The County of El Dorado played several important roles in the creation of the 31st State in the Union, California.

The most obvious one, of course, is the discovery of gold at Coloma, which started the great Gold Rush of 1849, and increased the population of California from a few thousand to around a quarter million in just a few short years.

That many ungoverned people on American soil, that was neither a territory or a state, was a problem to president Zachary Taylor, and later Millard Fillmore, both of whom favored statehood. But, that was not enough to generate congressional action granting California statehood or even the status of a territory, for that matter.It was the ongoing debate over free and slave states that was the major factor holding up the admission of California as either a territory or state.

It would take serious pressure from the residents of California to force any action by congress. The source of this needed pressure may have originated right on the streets of what is now Placerville, through first the pen and then the actions of a young news reporter.

In 1846 Edward Gould Buffum was a young man of twenty working as a correspondent for the “New York Herald.” He was the youngest son of a Quaker family in Rhode Island who were well known abolitionists and a major part of the Underground Railroad, which helped escaped slaves reach Canada and freedom. When the Herald carried the announcement of the formation of the New York Battalion to serve in the war with Mexico, young Edward immediately joined the unit. He, like many others, was probably not there for the fight, but for the adventure since they would be taken to California and, if they wished, be paid and discharged there. When the New York Battalion arrived in California the war with Mexico was all but over and in the fall of 1848 now Lieutenant Buffum was discharged at Santa Barbara.

Still working for the Herald as a correspondent, albeit long distance, Buffum easily obtained similar employment with San Francisco’s biggest newspaper, the “Alta California.”

Mining and writing, he worked his way into the foothills of central California, stopping for some time in a town known as Weberville, which was located on Weber Creek, between Placerville (then Dry Diggings) and Diamond Springs.

According to his book, “Six Months in the Gold Mines,” but questioned by the Alta California, he was in the town of Dry Diggings on a Sunday morning in late January of 1849 when something unexpected happened. There he witnessed the first reported executions for murder in California, the hangings which gave the town its notorious name of Hangtown.

In his book he gives a lengthy account of the event and mentions that he “mounted a stump” and protested the proceedings, but, fearing for his own life, ceased voicing his objections.

It is obvious that the lack of an organized government which allowed these hangings to occur, seriously offended his very moral values since his correspondence to the two newspapers immediately took on a different tone.

In addition to his reports of the news from the mines, he now constantly pushed the need for civil law, local government and statehood for California. He also often voiced his disfavor with General Bennett Riley, the military governor of California, since he believed that a military governor had no constitutional power outside of wartime and, there being no war, civil law was non-existent.

Within just a couple of months after the hangings in “Hangtown,” Buffum and several others had organized a mass meeting of the citizens of San Francisco in favor of a convention for forming a state government.

An advertisement was placed in the Alta California announcing the meeting and on June 12, 1849, a large group of citizens gathered in San Francisco’s Portsmouth Square.
A committee was appointed, consisting of Peter H. Burnett, Esq., who would become California’s first American governor, William D. M. Howard, Myron Norton, Edward Gilbert and E. Gould Buffum “to correspond with the other districts and fix an early day for the election of delegates and the meeting of the convention…”

When General Riley, who now claimed to be not only the military governor of California but also the civil governor, received word of the proposed mass meeting he immediately reacted and called for the same thing – a constitutional convention to form a state government for California. This was his attempt to squelch what he believed was outside of the law.

Riley’s early reaction to the meeting called by the citizens defeated their further action. As General Riley had given no hint of his desire to turn over California to its citizens before this time, the a chain of events starting in a little mining town in the foothills may well have forced him to set in motion the wheels of statehood.

Under General Riley’s direction, elections were held around the state in districts delineated by him. The Sacramento district included what would become El Dorado County and the following delegates were elected from that district: John A. Sutter, Jacob R. Snyder (an attorney from Sacramento), Winfield Scott Sherwood (an attorney from Mormon Island) and W. E. Shannon (an attorney from Coloma).

On September 1, 1849, the 15 delegates elected to the Constitutional Convention, along with numerous supernumeraries, met at Colton Hall in Monterey. It was a difficult task, but they were obviously up to it since, in little more than two months they had produced a constitution for California and had it printed and distributed in both in English and Spanish. In addition, they produced a list of candidates for state offices.

On November 13, 1849, everything they had done was put to a vote of the people and the California Constitution was adopted with 12,065 votes for it and only 811 against.
Sixteen senators and thirty-seven assemblymen were elected to the State Legislature and Peter H. Burnett, an attorney and former real estate agent for John Sutter, Jr., was elected Governor. John McDougal was elected Lieutenant-Governor; William Van Voorhies, Secretary of State; Richard Roman, Treasurer; J. S. Houston, Comptroller; Edward J. C. Kewen, Attorney General; Charles J. Whiting, Surveyor-General; S. C. Hastings, Chief-Justice; A. Lyon and Nathaniel Bennett, Assistant-Justices and Edward Gilbert and George W. Wright to represent California in the House of Representatives.

On December 15, 1849, California’s legislature met and, after a few days of debate, elected two United States senators, Dr. William M. Gwinn and Lieutenant-Colonel John C. Fremont.

Realizing the people had spoken, although he openly disagreed with their legal right to do so, on December 20, 1849 General Riley declared the renunciation of the administration of civil affairs and California assumed the character of a State, skipping entirely the preparatory condition of a territory.

At the opening of the 31st U. S. Congress on December 3, 1849, the issue of statehood for California immediately came up. It was obvious to everyone there that tired of waiting for action from congress, California had itself decided statehood. But congress still balked.

The Constitution of California forbid slavery, which did not set well with southerners such as Calhoun, Foote and Jefferson Davis. That issue, was not up to the citizens of California, they argued. Senator Douglas, the “Little Giant” of Illinois, who had previously brought the issue of California statehood before congress, stood in favor of statehood with Webster, Clay, Benton and William H. Seward.

There, before the Senate, Seward gave California a welcome with these glowing words: “Let California come in! California, that comes from the clime where the west dies away into the rising east; California, that bounds at once the empire and the continent; California, the youthful queen of the Pacific, in the robes of freedom, gorgeously inlaid with gold, is doubly welcome. She stands justified for the irregularities in the method of her coming.”

The fight was long and hard and, for some time it looked like this session of congress would not take any action. However, the bill allowing statehood for California did pass the U.S. Senate on August 13, notwithstanding the senators from the south almost unanimously opposing it, and the lower house on September 7.

On September 9, 1850, President Millard Fillmore, who had replaced Zachary Taylor upon his death, signed the bill and California became the 31st State in the Union.
Official news of the passage of the California Admissions Act did not arrive in California until October 18, 1850, when General John Bidwell stepped off of the steamer Oregon in San Francisco, with a packet of documents from Washington D.C.

At once the people of San Francisco took to the streets to celebrate California’s statehood and flags of all types flew from everywhere. A holiday was declared for a parade and a ball, which were both well attended.

What a few determined men had set out to do in Portsmouth Square, less than eighteen months before, had been finally accomplished.

The man who may have set much of this in motion, Edward Gould Buffum, was left out of Riley’s convention process and soon went east to publish his book, “Six Months in the Gold Mines.” He would return to represent San Francisco for one term in the State Assembly in 1855. His popularity with the other assemblymen was such that many believe he could have been the Speaker of the Assembly, had he wished to be such.

buffum Obit Jan 5, 1868In 1857 he left for Paris, France, where continued to write while still serving as a correspondent for both the Alta California and the New York Herald. On Christmas Eve of 1867, he would die from an apparent suicide.