It began as a network of spring-fed watering holes, perfect for the cattle drives between Sacramento and Hangtown.
Emigrant miners pitched tents around the springs, while cowboys came and went, swelling the 1850 census to 462 names. But herds of transient livestock soon turned the pristine ponds into meandering muck. In 1851, the Post Office required a permanent name for the wallowed wet spot along the Carson Trail and Mud Springs became official.
By 1854 the town had 2,100 inhabitants prompting the establishment of a community newspaper run by T. A. Springer, the former editor of the Placerville El Dorado Republican.
In September of 1854, Mud Springs formed a county seat committee and entered a contest to designate itself “the permanent location” of the county seat.
But there was something about that name. The town boosters determined that no matter what other advantages the community offered, the name Mud Springs was likely to deter growth and invite ridicule.
The new name received its inspiration from the surrounding county, already named El Dorado, meaning the Golden or Gilded One.
The Coloma newspaper, the Empire County Argus, April 21, 1855 edition, announced the incorporation and name change from Mud Springs to El Dorado. The historic township is registered as California Historical landmark No. 486.
Municipal name changes weren’t uncommon then. Colfax was once known as Alders Grove, Lake Tahoe was Lake Bigler and Hangtown changed its name to Placerville.
The incorporated city of El Dorado was short lived, and it became unincorporated in 1857, remaining so today.
Sitting astride Highway 49 four miles south of Placerville and directly west of Diamond Springs, the community plays out along Pleasant Valley Road.
The township of El Dorado is 54 square miles of rural, green, meadowy and hilly countryside. Its town center is built around the elbow of Highway 49 as the famous trail turns south toward Shenandoah and Jackson.
This is not a contrived “old town” or yet another commercial pitch for gold rush glory. This is an authentic time capsule.
Odd little streets and alleys carved into its knolls are dotted with charming if ramshackle structures which betray a time before “city planning” arrived. The uneven pattern of streets and structures makes the community all the more inviting for some residents.
“The organic business here is people, not shopping malls,” volunteered 17 year resident Robin Smithson. “It’s close-in country, perfect for our family’s needs.”
A bedroom community with cattle, it’s off the beaten track (Highway 50), and at 1,300 feet of elevation is strategically nestled between Sacramento and Tahoe. Good for commuters and good for some businesses, too.
Names such as Poor Red’s, Bennett Gallery, Hartwick House and Gallery El Dorado are well known to locals and tourists.
Few can resist the chocolate emporium of Annabelle Fifield’s Annabelle’s Lounge, 6240 Pleasant Valley Road, 530-295-9390, or pass up the cavernous showroom/warehouse called Restore, part of Habitat for Humanity, 6168 Pleasant Valley Road.
The nearby pet grooming studio Dirty Dog, 6198 Pleasant Valley Road, 530-621-1432, has won regional awards for its compassionate and creative service.
Chicago Pizza and Indian Cuisine at 6244 Pleasant Valley Road, 530-621-3317, is meticulously operated by Boby and Rani Matharu, while El Dorado Grocery and Deli at 6203 Pleasant Valley Road is enthusiastically run by another Bobby, 530-626-1015, who offers nearly everything edible or drinkable, including fine hand rolled cigars maintained in a humidor. His store operates from a building constructed in 1857.
El Dorado is a virtual museum of historical structures. Ruins of barns and ancient commercial edifices are everywhere, making this borderless village a magnet for history buffs and art lovers.
Two major galleries feature the work of local painters and sculptors. Bennett Gallery, 6200 Pleasant Valley Road, 530-621-1164, is built on the heritage of El Dorado County’s world-famous Bennett Sculpture.
Bennett Gallery features a rich, broad tapestry of artwork that spans many mediums — paintings, prints, sculpture, glasswork, ceramic art and jewelry.
A defining element of Bennett Gallery’s collection is the artists whose lives and work are connected in special ways, including many family members. The studio also specializes in unique sculpture recognition awards and monument commissions.
Gallery El Dorado, 6180 Pleasant Valley Road, 530-622-3593, is located in a 3,000 square foot historic rock building constructed in the early 1850s.
Gallery El Dorado showcases architectural garden sculpture from Gladding McBean, metal sculpture by resident artist David Chan, and photography by Nelson Passas.
The space was renovated in 1994 to accommodate three-dimensional art as well as a small café, music studios and an outdoor garden patio. An open gallery, created by the 160-year- old rock walls, exudes a unique ambiance for the art, music and food.
Habitat for Humanity, 530-621-3317, runs a 5,000 square foot warehouse showroom called ReStore, to display its donated building materials, working appliances, flooring, doors, windows, cabinets, sinks/toilets, lighting, home furnishings, electrical, hardware and plumbing supplies, all for sale at dramatic price reductions from retail.
The charity builds homes for those in need, and through their Brush with Kindness program, partners up with low income homeowners struggling to maintain or rehab the outside of their residences.
The annual Open Aire Market runs from June through mid-October, filling the town’s historic district with vegetables, fruits and herbs from local farmers and ranchers, all of whom are certified, some of whom are certified organic.
Foothill artisans offer specialty products including olives, cheeses, pastries and breads, sweets, as well as condiments and handmade crafts.
The Hartwick House, 6237 Pleasant Valley Road, 530-622-2840, was originally built in 1853 as sleeping quarters for stage passengers. It was one of two buildings to survive the 1926 fire that leveled the town.
Today, the attractive cottage and its outbuildings are home to timeless antique furniture pieces, vintage patio furniture, yard art, and unique accents for home and garden. The courtyard, shaded and cool in summer, features locally made arbors, trellises and plant holders.
This historic house has always been the hub for community activities. An El Dorado native, owner Gail Hartwick advocates for children, standards and preservation of community. She works tirelessly for establishment of the El Dorado Western Railway, an original steam locomotive train proposed to run between Shingle Road and Missouri Flat Road.
Sitting at the intersection of Highway 49 and Pleasant Valley Road, occupying an 1857 Wells Fargo building, Poor Red’s, 530-622-2901, has been a barbecue restaurant since 1948.
It dispenses ribs, chicken and a world-famous house concoction called the Golden Cadillac, a very cold, white creation made with Galliano liqueur, ice, heavy cream and white crème de cacao. It is said Poor Red’s pours more Galliano than any other place on Earth.
“But don’t confuse it with high-end San Francisco,” laughed Jason Towley, a Newport Beach advertising manager who devours Red’s ribs when he visits his brother in Folsom. “There’s no snob appeal here. It’s a redneck dive with a rockin’ juke box. Better than a Hollywood set. It’s cramped, rough and fun. You have to have a GC (Golden Cadillac) and those super-meaty ribs. Huge, man. You can barely polish off half a rack.”
“A visit to El Dorado has to include Morgan White’s Sugar Lillie Bakery,” reminded Hartwick. “Everything she makes is awesome!”
The little bakery is tucked in the rear of the courtyard behind Books ‘n’ Bears book store, at 6211 Pleasant Valley Road, 530-626-1900. This discreet indoor and outdoor shop sits in a garden with its own playhouse. Inside White pours coffee and makes Danish. She also bakes pies, cakes (including wedding masterpieces) and breads.
Down the road a bit at 6111 Pleasant Valley Road, 530-295-9486, Renee Hargrove delights in running a sprawling store called The Barn.
This rambling land of surprises features antiques, home and cabin decor, “ranch rust,” yard art, outdoor furniture, architectural finds, saddles/tack and more. Plan on spending some time.
The Big Horn Gunshop is located at 6271 Pleasant Valley Road, 530-642-1892. This is a full service shop sporting the largest selection of shotguns, rifles and handguns in Amador and El Dorado counties. They buy, sell, trade and consign. Big Horn Gunshop also offers new and renewal Carry Concealed Weapon classes.
The Sierra Wildlife Rescue. 6236 C Pleasant Valley Road, 530-621-2650, is an all-volunteer organization, licensed since 1992 by the California Department of Fish and Game to rescue and rehabilitate orphaned or injured wild birds and mammals and return them to the wild.
SWR is non-profit and totally funded by memberships and donations. Trained rehabbers care for a wide variety of mammals, including fawns, rabbits, squirrels, opossums, raccoons and other species, and songbirds, raptors, waterfowl and other types of birds, in their homes.
All proceeds from memberships, donations and fundraising activities go directly to the care of the animals.
According to Larry Kinnings of the El Dorado County Planning Office, commercial and residential building applications and permits for the area wobbled for a while, but have increased steadily in recent years.
Currently 10 major proposed projects within El Dorado and its immediate neighbor Diamond Springs, are in various stages of processing and approval.
The future of El Dorado looks good. Connie Mega of Coldwell Banker in Placerville keeps her eyes open for listings.
“Everybody wants that area. There’s no inventory.” She pointed to a current real estate activity report. “Here’s why. Affordable homes and land, nearness to Highway 50 it’s all incredibly attractive,” she said.
She noted the arterial Pleasant Valley Road connects Cameron Park to Pollock Pines where it becomes Sly Park Road.
“You can get anywhere fast. Bottom line,” Mega said, “the sleepy rural ambiance continues to attract foothill newcomers. And new faces produce growth, jobs and a stronger local economy.”
El Dorado already boasts a large and sophisticated high school. Union Mine High School on Koki Lane off Pleasant Valley Road is a modern campus featuring its own performing arts theater and a vaunted academic and sports reputation. The associated chartered Shenandoah High School enjoys a growing reputation as a center of customized learning programs.
Mike Spiegel is a long time resident of El Dorado and a proud supporter of the community. “Ghost towns happen when the big economic force disappears. El Dorado lost its pristine watering holes 160 years ago but notice we just keep on keepin’ on,” he nodded. “Because we know what we’ve got, and we love it.” He smiled. “And we want to share it with others.”