On leaving Yosemite National Park, we headed for Gold Country. We made our base in Placerville (pronounced PLASS-er-ville; formerly Old Dry Diggings, Dry Diggings, and Hangtown), California. Its current name comes from the placer gold deposits, found in its river beds in the late 1840s. We picked up a self-guided walking tour of the Main Street and surroundings from our hotel and set out to explore the small but picturesque town.
Nearly every building has a colourful story behind it. Commelback’s clothing store opened in 1888 and continues to be owned and operated by the same family. The Fountain and Tallman Soda Works building dates back to 1852 to supply local miners with with fresh spring water, survived the 1856 fire and is now the Placerville Museum. The town is full of reminders of its storied past.
Yes, John Studebaker actually came to Placerville to find gold and quickly discovered that he could earn more money constructing and selling well-made wheelbarrows to the miners. Blacksmith Hugh Hinds hired Studebaker in 1853 and he stayed in Placerville until 1858, when he moved to South Bend, Indiana with his fortune which he invested in the family wagon business which later became the Studebaker Automobile Company. In 1912, when he returned to Placerville for a visit, he was honoured by the entire town.
We were particularly intrigued by Placerville Hardware (above, top right), the oldest continuously operating hardware store west of the Mississippi and established in 1852. Walking through the door is like stepping back in time and they sell everything you could possibly imagine!
Only a hardware store in a former gold rush town would sell gold pans!!
Neil and I discovered some local wine from Synapse and just *had* to taste them all! These were good! We bought a couple of bottles and drank them along the way on the trip.
Had we stayed for more than just a tasting flight, we might have been convinced to join in the fun at the IOOF Hall down the street!
The following day, we headed down historic Highway 49 (The Mother Lode) to Jamestown, home to Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, where you can view one of America’s last intact, still-operating railroad roundhouses.
Railtown 1897, its historic locomotives and cars have starred in hundreds of film and TV productions, including High Noon, Back to the Future 3, and Petticoat Junction. Then since it was so hot, he headed back to the town centre to the historic National Hotel:
Established in 1859 by Heinrich and Hannah Neilson, the bar and restaurant of The National Hotel were two simple wooden building, amongst the first permanent structures in early (1848) gold-rush town. Earlier establishments, were mostly tent and non-permanent wooden structures. The National Hotel has been in continuous operation from this date having survived two damaging fires in 1901 and 1927 which caused severe damage, leading to extensive remodeling. Today’s restoration work was begun in 1974 by the present owners and is ongoing.
The inside of the building is as gorgeous and well-preserved as the outside:
It’s full of amusing reminders of what it was like in the good old days!
(we were laughing so hard at this!!!)
Of course, what’s a visit to gold country with out a little panning for gold? We headed to Columbia State Historic Park to try our luck. According to the Park’s website, the town’s old Gold Rush-era business district has been preserved with shops, restaurants and two hotels. Visitors have the chance to time-travel to the 1850s, imagining life when gold miners rubbed shoulders with businessmen and the other residents in Columbia. Visitors can experience a bygone era watching proprietors in period clothing conduct business in the style of yesterday. There are opportunities to ride a 100 year-old stagecoach, pan for gold, and explore the real working businesses of Columbia.
Me? I was just interested in the shiny stuff!
Let me just say here that this is TOTALLY corny and cheesy but you gotta love it! $12 will guarantee you “strike it rich” with some gold and garnets. In fact the little girl next to me (I was actually pretty much the only adult doing this!) was picking her garnets out of her dish as Prospector Pete (actually his name was Sam) was giving his spiel! And then, apparently, Sam did not trust that I had understood what to do (I hadn’t really), so he just did my pan for me and let me pick the gold and garnets out. Uh huh. I would have been a loser prospector in the 1850s!
Leaving the Park, we couldn’t but help stop by this, that we had spotted on the way there:
If you don’t believe me, all you have to do is look at your feet. On the footpath there are plaques commemorating each year’s winner with the stats:
The carnival is apparently inspired by a Mark Twain short story, published in 1865 called “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” According to Wikipedia, this was his first great success as a writer, bringing him national attention. In it, the narrator retells a story he heard from a bartender, Simon Wheeler, at the Angels Hotel in Angels Camp, California, about the gambler Jim Smiley. Twain describes him: “If he even seen a straddle bug start to go anywheres, he would bet you how long it would take him to get to—to wherever he going to, and if you took him up, he would foller that straddle bug to Mexico but what he would find out where he was bound for and how long he was on the road.”
I wonder what Mark Twain would think about the modern day jubilee?
We had a wonderful meal in Placerville at the Hey Day Café. A small, family owned and operated restaurant, the Hey Day does a pretty varied menu, in a friendly, relaxed atmosphere. When we were there, the clientele ranged from young families out for a quick pizza to older couples out on “date night”.
We were very pleased with our starters:
Left to right:
Crab tower – Dungeness crab, avocado, mango and sautéed prawns topped with cilantro and mango chile sauce ($12)
Bruschetta – Garlic rubbed crostini served with fresh tomatoes and basil ($7)
Spinach salad with bacon, toasted walnuts, mushrooms, tomatoes and red onions drizzled with tart cherry dressing (9)
The crab cake was really meaty and flavourful with lovely bites of chile and citrus. The bruschetta was fresh and tasty and the salad was actually nearly enough for a main course. Great flavours there too, especially the tart cherry dressing.
For our mains, we had (left to right):
Vegetable lasagna with caramelized onions, spinach, mushrooms and creamy goat cheese layered in ribbon pasta, served with garlic bread ($17)
A special of the day salad with salmon, goat cheese and intriguingly, salami. My mum who ordered this said it worked well, despite her reservations about pairing meat and seafood like that.
Basil ravioli (Neil and I split this dish) with grilled bell peppers, roasted onions, mushrooms and asparagus with asiago and garlic bread crumbs ($18)
We all enjoyed our meals – though the lasagna was a very large serving and the basil ravioli a little on the small side (even if we hadn’t split the dish). The food was fresh and well seasoned with flavours that really worked. We were extremely impressed with the food – I guess since we had not perhaps expected to eat this well in in the “wild west” LOL!
For dessert, Neil *insisted* we split the vanilla gelato ($4.50) which was perfect in its simplicity.
The service was friendly and very professional and it was a lovely respite from burgers, wings and pizzas With a fairly extensive wine list including, obviously, a lot of local and California wines, the Hey Day Café is definitely a place to seek out should you find yourself hungry in Placerville.
325 Main St
Placerville, CA 95667
Stay tuned – because if you think we hadn’t eaten enough in this first week of our trip, wait until you see what we got up to in Napa, Yountville, St Helena, San Francisco, Monterey, and Big Sur. Coming up soon on ELTW!