‘Growlersburg’ offers Gold Country history
August 14, 2014
While other Northern California Gold Country towns are perhaps more well-known, the quaint village of Georgetown shouldn’t be overlooked by anyone interested in exploring this historic region.
Located 15 miles off Highway 49—the road that leads through the heart of California Mother Lode country—Georgetown is often bypassed by travelers.
The Georgetown area was first explored in the summer of 1849 by a group of prospectors from Oregon attracted by the news that gold had been discovered in the region.
According to some accounts, a young man named Hudson made the initial discovery of gold and was said to have recovered some $20,000 in gold in a six-week period.
Not surprisingly, news of the discovery spread and a short time later another group of would-be prospectors (said to former sailors) led by George Phipps arrived and began placer mining a stream below the present site of the town.
A camp of tents and wooden shacks quickly developed, which was nicknamed “Growlersburg,” because the miners said the nuggets were so large they “growled” in the pan.
Interestingly, no one is quite sure whether Georgetown was named after George Phipps or another George (George Ehrenhaft), who was also mining in the area.
A disastrous fire in 1852 swept through the crude community, which was moved up the canyon to its present site. The town was rebuilt with unusually wide streets—Main Street is 100 feet across and the side streets are 60-feet wide—designed as firebreaks against future conflagrations.
The new Georgetown thrived for several years. From 1854-56, the town swelled to more than 3,000 residents and was the hub for the region’s rich gold mines.
The ore, as it always does, eventually ran out and Georgetown began to fade. What remains, however, is a picturesque town of about 2,300 people that has managed to hang on to a significant number of its historic buildings.
Some early writers described Georgetown as looking somewhat like an old New England town with its wide, tree-shaded streets and wood-frame buildings and houses.
The downtown has maintained its frontier mining town ambience. For example, on the corner of Main Street and Highway 193 is the I.O.O.F. Hall, a three-story brick and wood structure built in 1859 by a local butcher. The hall began life as the Balzar Hotel and was remodeled into an opera house in 1870. The Odd Fellow purchased the building in the late 1880s.
The town also has several other historic buildings, many with brief, descriptive plaques. A stone building across the street from the I.O.O.F., now an office, was built in 1862 as a Civil War armory while the brick Corner Kitchen coffee shop, constructed in 1852, was once a Wells Fargo office and stage stop.
Of course, one of the most impressive historic buildings in town is the Georgetown Hotel & Bar on Main Street. This large, wood, two-story hotel, with second-floor balcony, was built in the 1850s.
Inside, it boasts a classic Gold Rush bar of flocked wallpaper, huge, rough stone fireplace, and imported wood trimmings, with the usual collection of strange mining town clutter (mounted deer heads, boots hanging from the ceiling, assorted farming tools, etc.) frequently found in funky mining town saloons.
At the end of town is the American River Inn (Main and Orleans streets), an elegant two-story, wooden home that was built in 1863 as a boarding house for miners. The hotel partially burned in 1897 and was rebuilt two years later.
Today, it’s an attractive bed and breakfast-style operation with a pool, spa, beautiful gardens and an aviary.
Part of the charm of visiting Georgetown is getting there. To reach it, travel west on U.S. 50 to Placerville, then head north of Highway 49. About five miles from Placerville, turn north on Highway 193.
The drive is beautiful, passing through the gorgeous, rolling heavily-wooded hills of the Sierra foothills. Along the way, you rumble through the tiny hamlet of Kelsey. An historic marker notes this was the home of James Marshall, the man who first discovered gold in the area and sparked the California Gold Rush of 1849.
Marshall lived and operated a blacksmith shop in Kelsey from 1848 until his death in 1870. While many made fortunes as a result of his discovery, Marshall died penniless (he is buried in nearby Coloma, site of his gold discovery). A crumbling replica of his blacksmith shop stands on the site.
For more information about Georgetown, go to the El Dorado County Historical Museum’s web site, http://museum.edcgov.us/county
Rich Moreno covers the places that are special to Nevadans.