When red-headed Dan Gelwicks put his premier edition of the Mountain Democrat out on the streets of Placerville on Saturday, Feb. 24, 1854, he and his newspapers probably got splattered with mud.
Muddy streets were an issue then, in the early stages of Placerville’s metamorphosis. It had been a rowdy mining camp in ’49; now it was trying to gain social graces.
Men who had survived those first five, hard years were moving their families into town. Some were building brick houses. In a few years, when the mines would slow down and many men would drift to other strikes in other regions, many others would already have put down roots in Placerville.
“It is true that the miner cannot now, as in ’49, take out with his butcher knife and pan two or three ounces per day…but he can generally look for a fair return for his labor,” wrote Gelwicks in the first issue.
1854 was boom time in old Hangtown.
The Democrat’s first page 1 carried an ad for William Cary’s Placer Hotel and bar at the corner of Main and Sacramento streets, “one of the most comfortable houses in the mines.” Cary competed with the Philadelphia Hotel, Iowa House and the What Cheer House on Sacramento Street. The Union Hotel was thriving, and it was solemnly announced that Main Street’s Eagle Hotel was now Temperance House under control of Mrs. McKenstry. It was surrounded by saloons.
The Placerville Water Co.’s “arrangements are now complete, and henceforth they will have an ample supply of water,” at $1.50 a week for domestic use, the Democrat reported. The water company’s board president was a lawyer named Alex Hunter.
The paper was sprinkled with a healthy supply of advertisement, accounts taken over from the El Dorado Republican when Gelwicks & Co. bought them. In addition to the business ads, many were personal, seeking information on men who had set out for the gold fields from Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Ohio and not been heard from since.
Miners could sell gold dust at several exchange offices in town, making Placerville a destination when a fellow was ready to cash in this poke. There was Adams’ and Co. Exchange, or Wells Fargo or Alex Hunter and Co. Exchange. Good ol’ Alex Hunter.
The Seligman brothers were building a store of brick on muddy Main Street “at the Plaza.” Dry goods and supplies were available there or at the Round Tent, and a number of other merchants were coming and going. But you had to pay a hefty price to buy most anything: white shirts were $20 a piece, socks $3 a pair, candles were $3, salt pork $1 a pound, ham $2 a pound, flour $1 a pound. There was plenty of gold and high wages, but the cost of living was high too.
The Democrat’s first issue hit well and the second was enlarged, gorged with new ads and letters. They established a style kept by the paper for decades: page 1 would carry ads and miscellaneous feature stories of no particular local interest. (Over the next few years Placerville readers would read the works of Edgar Allen Poe, Washington Irving and other prominent authors on page 1 all “borrowed” from whatever journals Gelwick and his junior partner William January could get their hands on. “Borrowing” was a common practice then and helped many a Mark Twain and Brett Harte quickly gain national reputations if not immediate fortunes.)
Page 2 would carry columns of editorials lots of editorials, all faithfully promoting the Democratic party’s views and whatever local news could be gathered. Page 3 carried a fascinating assortment of ads, many from San Francisco, and page 4 would carry more ads and feature stories.
When a large steamer would arrive in San Francisco after the trip around Cape Horn, the Democrat would carry “telegraphic” reports of the latest world news usually about six months old. But it was new news in the mines.
The local news reporting style was generally sparse and to the point. Murders were common, robberies a dime a dozen, mining accident deaths happened all the time and hangings seldom earned more than a paragraph. An example from March 4, 1854:
DUEL: Rumour says that Dr. Dickson of San Francisco and Mr. Thomas of Placer County have gone out to fight a duel.
(Then in a column on the next page:) Dr. Dickson was killed.
There wasn’t much news in the first issue. It was reported that the Neptune Hose company had presented their foreman with a silver trumpet. Their foreman? a local attorney Alex. Hunter, Esq.
The miners were lonely and the papers tried to help them feel somehow closer to their loved ones back east, while at the same time promoting a sense of home and community here in Placerville.
Much of what was considered good literary style 136 years ago is now obsolete sadly so. The Democrat Gelwicks and January were a couple sentimental cusses evidently considered the following love letter lovely enough or funny enough to reprint on page 1, March 18, 1854. It was penned by a thirsty, hungry and lonesome fellow who apparently couldn’t decide which he missed more his woman or her cooking:
CALIFORNIA LOVE LETTER I would that my pen ere dipped in the dyes of the rainbow, plucked from the wing of an angel, that I might expect to paint the burning brightness of that flame which thy thrilling eloquence hath enkindled. Thy voice is as gentle as the first stirring of an infant’s dream, as melodious in mine ears as the braying of a mule; they step as light as the sylvan footed zephyr that fanned with the wing of perfume the gable end of paradise… Oh! Sweet spirit of camphor double distilled essence of hartshorn! Sourkraut of all my hopes, applesauce of my thoughts, buttermilk catsup of my fancy … Thou art the gin and fancy of my dreams, the brandy mash of my waking visions and Santa Claus of my recollections… Oh! Onion of my soul, pickled pumpkin of my affections, preserved crab of the garden of Smith’s Island, where desperate love dwells…
Sometimes Placerville and its neighboring communities would be visited by touring circus and hippodrome shows. When the Placer Theater was built, touring theater groups often brought the works of Shakespeare to town. Theater reviews were frequently Gelwicks’ choice as the paper’s lead story.
Most of his editorials blasted newspapers or politicians of opposing viewpoints particularly those suspected of favoring the abolition of slavery but other subjects were addressed, too. Gelwicks and Co. complained of muddy streets, threw their support to establishing a boarding school in town, blasted those who preyed on Chinese laborers and those who were responsible for drunken Indians.
He sympathized with the Indians, blaming “those evil persons” providing fire water. “We Yankees… are pretty sure to demoralize the objects of our philanthropy while we are civilizing them,” he observed. But later, when someone wrote to accuse him of being a “Native Americanist” he vehemently denied the charge.
“BIG CRY” On Tuesday last large numbers of Indians convened on Quartz Hill for the purposes of celebrating the obsequies of one of their tribe, who died, by a “big cry.” The ceremonies were impressive, if noise could make them so. The affair wound up at night with a fight, in which one Indian was wounded by an arrow-shot in the thigh. (Dec. 23, 1854.)
Here’s Gelwicks’ opinion on women’s rights in 1854: “A good looking husband, eight children and a happy home… This will pay better than holding office or sitting on a jury.” He carried a story on three women who had been arrested in San Francisco for public drunkenness. “They were strong advocates of women’s rights and were merely showing the `lords of creation’ the ease with which they could raise a muss!” Gelwicks warned.
Construction had begun on the South Fork Canal in 1853 and everyone in town wrung their hands in anticipation of its completion. For when it was done, there would be water for mining year-round in the Placerville region, and the town’s economy would be assured so long as the mines held out. “But without water, nothing of any consequence can be accomplished,” Gelwicks prophesized. The 25-mile canal was completed by the end of summer 1854, at a cost of $700,000.
An act to incorporate Placerville as a city was passed by the state Legislature in May 1854, when the new town’s muddy winter streets were being forgotten for a new problem: dusty streets.
A petition was already being circulated to move El Dorado County’s seat from Coloma to Placerville when the city’s first elections were held. And lo~! Alex Hunter, Esq. was elected the first mayor!
Public lashings were common punishment, and hangings occasionally drew big crowds.
On July 24, 1854 the Democrat carried an account of a brutal murder and subsequent lynching in Greenwood. It seems an old man named William Shay was tending his garden when one Samuel Allen came along, knocked him down and “pounded Shay’s head with stones until it was literally crushed to a jelly.” Allen was arrested and an officer started with him toward Coloma, “but had proceeded but a short distance when he was overtaken by a large and excited crowd.” That was curtains for Allen. An hour later his body dangled from Greenwood’s hanging tree, “a solemn warning to malefactors,” Gelwicks wrote.
In December 1854, citizens of Placerville were excited by the latest phenomenon: “Mr. Wheeler, the celebrated pedestrian.” He had just “concluded the astonishing feat of walking 100 consecutive hours.” Soon his feat was eclipsed by a “competitor in the walking line,” Mr. Peeler of Angel’s Camp, who walked for 102 hours. Soon, along came the amazing “female pedestrian,” Mrs. Dillon, who walked 70 hours verified by a committee with only 10 minutes rest each 24 hours.
Gambling on the decline There are but two saloons at present in Nevada devoted to gambling. In most of the small and many of the large mining camps in our county this pernicious habit is rapidly disappearing and we… hope that the day is not far distant when it will be entirely unknown in our county. (April 7, 1855.)
In April ’55, when an election was held to fill the county’s three supervisorial seats, “never did we see so much apathy,” wrote the Democrat. “No one seems to care anything about it.” Some things never change.
The Know Nothing political party, which sprang up nationwide in 1855 and soon died, was a big hit in Placerville much to Gelwicks’ chagrin. They swept the county’s 1855 elections. In 1856, the party dissipated, replaced by a new party Gelwicks referred to as the “Black Republicans” for their abolitionist views.
Thousands of people journeyed from Placerville to Coloma in November 1855 to watch the hanging of Mickey Free and Jeremiah Crane for the murder of a Miss Newnham. The night before his hanging, Crane described in the papers as a “victim of Spiritualism” composed a poem, “The Gallows,” which he and Free intended to sing on the gallows to the tune of a popular song called “Indian Hunter.” It was sort of a perverse and smart alecky hymn. One of the verses was printed Nov. 3, 1855:
“The body no longer my spirit can chain / This day I am going from sorrow and pain / The necklace and gallows will soon set me free / Then joyous and happy my spirit will be.”
Crane and Free didn’t get the reviews they hoped for on the debut of their short-lived stage careers, for Free got stage fright on the gallows and couldn’t find his voice.
Maybe they should have tried some of “Dr. Jacob Webber’s Invigorating cordial,” often advertised in the Democrat in 1856. Webber boasted it cured “dyspepsia, indigestion, languor, nervousness, trembling, debility, neuralgic, rheumatic and all pains … loss of appetite, sleep or memory and,… removes all longing for taste of liquor,” by causing, during sleep ” a free and natural perspiration.”
Then again, maybe Free and Crane wouldn’t have wound up in such a mess had they patronized from an early age another of the Democrat’s advertisers, Dr. L.J. Czapkay, who said he could cure “aversion to society, love of solitude, timidity, self distrust, dizziness, headache, involuntary discharges, pains in the side, pimples on the face, sexual and other infirmities in men… gonarrhoea (sic) and syphilitic diseases.” How did he effect such a cure? “Dr. Czapkay’s prophilactictum.”
Placerville lost the vote in ’55 to move the county seat here, largely due to southern county towns like Diamond and Mud Springs being in the running. In ’56 the move was on again, in earnest. The issue was put on the May ballot of 1856.
There was nearly nothing to move the county seat to.
On April 15 “a terrible calamity visited our city.” Fire broke out in the Iowa House. In an almost incredibly brief period they were swept away the flames arising from them brilliantly illuminating the heavans.”
Firemen were at the scene on Sacramento Street quickly, “but owing to some defect in the fireplug at Main and Coloma Streets were unable to obtain water,” because the plug didn’t work, “one sheet of flame” quickly raced up the street, destroying every building on the block, and when Stevens’ livery stable caught, the flames swept onto Main Street, where they were checked by firefighters who tore down several wooden buildings in the fire’s path.
People in Coloma could see the fire’s reflection. “It was a miracle” nobody was injured. A breeze blew the flames out of town and “to this breeze we owe our safety,” the Democrat wrote. Losses were estimated at $60,000.
The Buchanan Theater Troupe was putting on Shakespeare in the Placer Theater when the cry of fire~! went out. The cast and its audience rushed out to fight the flames. The cast fought the fire in their costumes, “much to the astonishment and no little amusement of the crowd.” Hero of the day was 14-year-old Jackson L. Ober, who rushed into Iowa House to rescue a small child who had been left behind in a burning hotel room.
Restoration was quickly begun, and many new “fireproof” buildings were erected. People began concentrating on the county seat issue.
“The very existence of Coloma proud, energetic, gallant Coloma, we admire your spirit but not your locality depends upon her retaining the county seat,” noted Gelwicks but Placerville badly wanted the county seat. Placerville’s location was more central among the county’s towns and mines, the Placervillians argued. They weren’t too worried: Diamond and Mud Springs weren’t running this year, and Placerville looked like a shoo-in.
But by the time the votes were officially counted, it’s doubtful Gelwicks any longer admired Coloma’s “spirit.” The “official” returns showed Coloma winning, 7,413 votes to 5,895 for Placerville.
“The election was a farce,” cried Gelwicks. “Through the rascality of the agents of Coloma, the will of the people has been thwarted… A few men, in whose leprous hearts honesty never found even a temporary resting place, are the guilty parties.”
Gelwicks, it turned out, was right.
Placerville people held an “Indignation Meeting” at the town Plaza after they looked at the voting results and were interested by the fact that 872 people in the “Dry Creek” precinct had voted for Coloma. They weren’t even sure where the Dry Creek precinct was, but they knew that in the lastmajor election in 1855, there had been no such thing as a “Dry Creek” precinct. The returns also showed Coloma’s voting populace had somehow swelled dramatically over the last year, as had Uniontown and McDowelsville each of which had balloted heavily for Coloma. Most of the nearly 3,000 resulting votes for Coloma were “base forgeries,” according to Gelwicks.
Judging from the elections returns, the county in the immediate vicinity of Coloma must be densely populated. The poll tax collector might make a good thing out of it by calling there instantly,” wrote Gelwicks.
The county Grand Jury soon indicted five men for ballot stuffing and election fraud, and eventually, in January 1857, the state Legislature just went ahead and moved the county seat to Placerville. ~”We are willing to forgive and forget,” wrote Gelwicks.
But people were bitter in Placerville on July 4, 1856. It was in this bitter atmosphere outrage over fraud on everyone’s lips that the town burned down.
When the Democrat went to press on July 4, 1856, Gelwicks and January didn’t know it would be four weeks before they would put out another issue the only real pause in the Democrat’s entire publishing history.
For on the night of July 6, fire broke out and swept the town a fire so devastating it dwarfed the blaze of April 15. Nearly every building in town was destroyed, even some of the “fireproof” ones.
Ironically, the Democrat never had a news account of the biggest local news story in Placerville’s entire history. Later the suspicion that the fire was caused by an arsonist was hinted at in the paper.
“The disastrous fire which reduced our proud and pleasant city to ashes in a few hours, which left many of our citizens houseless and penniless, did not spare the Democrat office,” announced the next edition on Aug. 2, 1856. Gelwicks and January lost everything, but through donations form the community, they got back on their feet and set about rebuilding their Coloma Street office.
“In every direction on the burnt district, the banging of hammers and the rattling of the pane are heard from morning till night,” they reported. Brick was being used by many to rebuild, “In less than a year, Placerville will be larger, safer, richer than she was before the fire,” wrote Gelwicks, noting with a relieved tone that Kline’s New York Store did not lose its stock of good liquor.
Gelwicks’ prediction of a prosperous future never really came true. The town rebuilt, but the mines were slowly losing their momentum. Many weremoving on. Soon, the silver booming Virginia City, Nev. would draw still more miners away but Placerville would continue to exist, partly because of its location on the route between the silver mines and San Francisco.
On Aug. 9, 1856, another disastrous fire struck, this time destroying most of Diamond Springs. It too was believed to be the work of an arsonist.
On Oct. 11, fire consumed “the flourishing village of Upper Placerville,” the Democrat reported. “The circle is complete.” This fire was believed caused by a drunk staying at the Pittsburg House, who died in the blaze.
“An eminent German astronomer has declared his opinion that the world will come to an end on the 30th of June! He says that a comet whose center is solid fire is approaching and that it will… turn the surface of the earth into a sea of fiery lava. The principle French astronomers agree that the comet must take place at that time, but think that it won’t hurt as much. Let her rip.” (May 2, 1857.)
In 1857 work was finally begun to improve a wagon road from Carson Valley to Placerville, in order to compete with a road recently built through Calaveras County to Stockton. People in Sacramento and Placerville combined their resources to build the road.
Gelwicks and January announced in November 1857 that they supported the early candidacy for President of Stephen A. Douglass, “the little giant.” They hoped he would be able to silence the “wailing abolitionists.” They later lambasted his 1858 opponent for Congress in Illinois, Abe Lincoln, as an “unadulterated nigger worshipper.”
The two Placerville journalists set a dangerous precedent early on in the Democrat’s career by running a little thank-you notice every time a neighbor or a local restaurateur brought them a cobbler, ice cream, homemade wine or good liquor. It was a sure way to get your name in the paper just send Gelwicks and January a brandy cobbler. By 1858, they must have been putting on weight at an incredible rate, since nearly every issue carried four or five thank-yous. A case of bourbon from a friend in Kentucky once merited a feature-length editorial.
Their gratitude was understandable, because for a time they were so poor that they slept on the floor of the Democrat offices.
On June 19, 1858 the first overland stage’s arrival in Placerville was cause for a huge celebration. A grand jubilee was held in the Plaza. Speakers spoke, a brass band played and “to complete the celebration, Dr. Petit sent into the ethereal regions a beautiful balloon.”
In September 1858 work on the Carson Valley Wagon Road came to a standstill when laborers, angry over not having been paid, took the contractor’s equipment and placed it all “on a keg of powder and (blew) them into the river.” Within a month a new contractor was on the job and by the end of summer 1859, the road was complete.
TENACIOUS CELESTIAL Yesterday in this city an undertaker was called upon to make a coffin for a defunct Chinaman. He proceeded to the house of the dead and was in the act of measuring the corpse, when to his astonishment it commenced a vigorous kicking. Of course, the funeral proceedings were instantly stayed. In about an hour he was sent for again, and the messenger stated with much earnestness, “me heap shabbe, Chinaman dead this time good.” (Oct. 2, 1858.)
On Oct. 30, the Democrat reported two attacks by grizzly bears in the last week, both near Sly Park. First, a man named Mead shot one but didn’t kill it. He was “most shockingly mangled” but lived. Two days later, another man was “completely severed into three pieces” by a grizzly. He died, as you might expect.
By the end of 1859, things had calmed down in Placerville. There weren’t as many hotels being advertised in the Democrat The Cary House, a “three story fireproof hotel” was considered the town’s finest. Instead of hotels to house passersby, ads reflected a mercantile and agricultural economy signs of permanence.
On Main Street there were a variety of dry goods stores, drug stores, hardware stores, jewelers, saloons, bookstores, newsstands and even a photo gallery. There was also a good assortment of restaurants, with the latest rage being the new Lafayette Restaurant’s French cook. Ads ran for eight attorneys and five doctors. There were nurseries, dairies, orchards, and the town had an iron foundry. Stage lines now linked Placerville with just about everywhere else in the county.
The times had changed in Placerville. It was no longer a boom town; it was genuine. Local police were quick to arrest rowdies who fired their guns and raced their horses downtown, scaring the ladies and children.
Politically, of course, the issue of slavery was on everybody’s lips. It filled the Democrat’s columns.