In 1850, newly-appointed Postmaster T. Carr Nugent received a letter from the U.S. Postmaster General Nathan Hall, requesting the selection of a new name for Nugent’s community. It seems there were too many places called “Hangtown.”
The name alluded, of course, to the fate of convicted claim-jumpers, horse thieves and murderers. Nugent agreed such a negative brand hardly fit this growing frontier town, a somewhat peaceable if not respectable place of justice.
“Dry Diggins,” the original name given in 1848 (dry dirt had to be carried to the stream), was followed by “Hangtown,” (after the quick-trial and gallows execution of three men in 1849). Now, Nugent had the chance to rechristen the place for all time. New name ideas were considered. A nearby “placer” mine fit the bill, and in 1854, Placerville hit the maps.
Nugent’s original post office probably operated from the rear of the Round Tent Store, a clothing retailer opposite the Belltower. (It remained a tent until replaced by a masonry building in 1856.) The U.S. Mail Service played a key role in the development of the city formerly known as Hangtown. The community thrived, and in 1855, Postmaster A.M. Thatcher arranged the purchase of a fireproof brick building on the corner of Main and Sacramento streets.
Weekly mail service from Placerville to the Carson Valley in the Nevada territory was handled by a private contractor. But winter delivery across the snowy Sierra Range halted in 1855 when the contractor’s mules froze to death and he and his brother disappeared. Letters piled up at the Placerville Post Office as officials fretted.
Enter local rancher John A. “Snowshoe” Thompson. This 28-year-old, impressive in size, strength and character, was born Jon Torsteinson-Rue in Norway. As a boy, skis were long shoes, and served as winter transportation. Now seeing an opportunity, Thompson fashioned a pair of 10-foot skis from a valley oak and announced he was ready to carry the mail across the mountains.
Snowshoe Thompson made his first trip in January 1856, covering the 100 miles from Placerville to the largely Mormon community of Genoa in three days, with two days return. He thus carried the mail for 20 winters, renowned for keeping a regular schedule, never delaying his departure because of storms. When white-outs made travel impossible, the survivalist would find a flat rock and stay warm by dancing till daybreak. He became legendary for saving lives, and carrying medicines and supplies to snowbound travelers.
The downhill speedster rocketed through wolf packs, and once flew through a surprised band of hostile Paiute Indians. Thompson pioneered the use of a single ski pole for balance and propulsion, now a popular style of cross-country skiing. For all his sacrifice, he was never paid. His request for compensation was denied by a cash-strapped Congress in 1869, although he continued his valuable labor another seven years. In 2001 the town of Genoa, Nev.,, dedicated a statue to the letter-carrying hero.
The Pony Express arrived on April 4, 1860. At the corner of Sacramento and Main streets, the first eastbound pony rider William (Sam) Hamilton charged in from Sacramento, changed horses, added an express letter to his mochila (saddlebag), and sped away for Sportsman’s Hall in Pollock Pines, where an historical marker memorializes the event. Warren “Boston” Upson rode the next leg to the shores of Lake Tahoe and beyond. The route would take 10 days and terminate in St. Joseph, Mo., 1,800 long miles from Placerville.
Not always just a relay station, the Placerville Post Office became the western terminus of the Pony Express from July 1, 1861, until the unit’s discontinuance in October 1861. The railroad and telegraph had taken over. A marker near Mel’s Restaurant on Main Street describes the historic details of the beginning and end of America’s first high-speed mail system.
Although Placerville expanded and contracted with local mineral strikes and national political dramas, the Placerville Post Office always had long lines of customers, many of whom picked at the bricks and mortar to recover bits of gold. Ultimately the postmaster had to stucco the walls to stop customers from prospecting while they waited. The brick building survived three major fires in 1856, 1864 and again in 1865.
The next 70 years saw technology progressively impact mail delivery. The railroad became the lifeline for U.S. Mail, then trucks and airplanes. Parcel deliveries sky-rocketed. An article from the Mountain Democrat quotes Postmaster Joseph Scherer as having receipts of $28,928 for 1936 — an increase of more than a thousand dollars. “This continuing increase is a good argument for a new post office building,” the newspaper proclaimed. By 1940 the cornerstone laying ceremony for the new two-story steel and concrete Federal Building was held at 515 Main St., with Postmaster Anna Scherer officiating.
In addition to the post office, which occupied the entire first floor, the new building housed the IRS, Department of Agriculture and office of Plant Quarantine. In keeping with Federal Works Agency policy to decorate public buildings, San Francisco artist Tom Lewis was commissioned to execute a mural. The 4-by-14-foot oil painting depicting a forestry conservation theme, is listed in the National Fine Arts Inventory in Washington, D.C., and is still on display in what is now the District Attorney’s Office.
In 1969, plans for the current building were approved, and the new post office was built on the street corner of Sacramento and Pacific. The Postmaster is Paulette Mahoney, the 24th since Nugent.
“Our team of 65 professionals drive and walk 13 city routes, 16 rural routes and three highway contract routes, no matter the weather or conditions,” she said. “We go up Highway 49, including Kelsey, parts of Apple Hill and out Mt. Aukum Road.”
She reflected on the biggest change over the years. “Automation, no question. These days all our mail comes pre-sorted from Sacramento, packaged for each carrier, and in address delivery sequence.”
“People are curious about consolidation of post offices,” said Ralph Petty, customer relations coordinator in the USPS Sacramento District. “In a time of resource reassessment, I’m happy to say the Placerville Post Office appears in no danger of closing or combining elsewhere.”
After 162 years of continuous operation, “the local mail service looks forward to combining technology with contact to get the job done.”
Petty reflected on the possibilities. “We’ll always be there for people.”