Picture Windows into the Past
By Debi Drake-Maurer
El Dorado County first beckoned with its promise of gold along the South Fork of the American River in 1848. However, it wasn’t long before people were drawn to a different kind of wealththe beauty of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They came to fish and hike, to laze around bucolic resorts, and to poke about the remains of Gold Rush history. And, of course, visitors wrote the folks back home, telling them what a wonderful time they were having. Today, these postcards, pulled from attics and dresser drawers, pack a powerful message that goes beyond “Wish you were here.”
“Postcards are extremely significant because they are windows to the past,” proclaims Denis Witcher, former director, El Dorado County Historical Museum. “Often they are the only photo record of a building or the look of an area.”
The character of eastern El Dorado County changed dramatically as “families discovered the lure of the automobile,” says Witcher. “People could access rural areas easier, so they brought the whole family to enjoy the mountains.”
In the early 1900s, the southern and western shores of Lake Tahoe harbored no less than a dozen summer resorts like the Lakeside Lodge, shown here circa 1931.
Even as late as 1931, the Lakeside Lodge at Stateline, California still possessed pioneer charm. Surrounded by trees, horseback riders pose near the campground and family-oriented lodge in the postcard photo.
“The lodge’s original log structure was built on the site of an earlier roadhouse around 1859-1860,” says Witcher. “The log building was later incorporated into the lodge you see in this postcard. Although the lodge was torn down about 1934, the location is still called the Lakeside area. However, there are now modern motels and homes on the property.
The scenic drive between Lake Tahoe and Placerville also offered many roadside resets for the travel- and town-weary vacationers.
“Meyer’s Station, first known as Yank’s Station, was originally a large remount station for the Pony Express, built in the early 1860s,” notes Witcher.” The Celio family purchased Meyer’s Station in 1903. At its peak, the property included a campground, hotel, store, blacksmith shop, cooperage that made butter kegs, dairy, and a steam-powered sawmill.” Many summer homes built at Lake Tahoe during the early part of the century were constructed of wood from the Celio Mill.
The photo, which sprung to life with Witcher’s telling of its story, now dwindles back into a tiny vacation memento. Still holding the postcard, Witcher gives a wide sweep of his freehand. “This is all gone now, too. All of it. Meyer’s Station burned in the late 1930s and in the 1950s the ranch was sold and subdivided.
Meyer's Station pulled double duty as a summer resort and family ranch. As late as the 1920s, the Celio family wagons delivered dairy products to Placerville.
The Kyburz Hotel sprang from a cabin built around 1858 in an area known as Slippery Ford. Dick Yarnold expanded the original cabin, added the large fireplace and called the place Sugarloaf Hotel.
“In the mid-1870s, Dennis Johnson, one of the wealthiest landowners in California, built Sugarloaf strictly as a resort. It definitely wasn’t a roadhouse then,” says Witcher.
The beloved hotel passed to two more owners before it fell into the care of Albert B. Kyburz in 1901.
Kyburz was the son of Samuel Kyburz, Captain Sutter’s assistant who owned the store at Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento. Witcher describes Samuel as “a man overlooked by history. Although Samuel was involved with Sutter’s and James Marshall’s activities surrounding the discovery of gold at Coloma, his participation was never, in his son’s eyes, afforded the recognition he deserved. So, Albert changed the name of the town and hotel to Kyburz to honor his father’s contributions to early California.
By the time Witcher’s parents, Charlie and Dorothy, went into a partnership at the Kyburz Hotel in 1944, there was a well-maintained campground and some 64 buildings, including 40 rental cabins.
Just before the Witchers purchased their partners’ share in 1951, a devastating fire swept the Kyburz Hotel. The surrounding buildings survived and the Witchers continued to rent the cabins until 1958. For the following 30 years, Ed Nafus owned the cabins and campground.
“If you stand in the parking lot of the present-day Kyburz Lodge and look across the highway, that’s where the original lodge stood.” Witcher’s voice stills sounds sad and wistful after all these years. “The area’s been subdivided, except for the barren piece of land where the hotel actually was located.”
The Kyburz Hotel offered its guests fresh mountain air, tennis courts and riding stables.
An empty corner lot across from the post office in the town of El Dorado is all that remains of another hotel, the Oriental. Built in 1857, the hotel was a popular lodging and watering hole for people traveling south of Placerville. Although the Hill Hotel and Tavern appears as one large building on the postcard, “it really was three buildings,” explains Betty Laarveld, local history buff.
“The middle building was the hotel. When Seymour Hill, who owned the grocery store on the right side of the Oriental, acquired the hotel and tavern, which sat to the left, on the corner of Oriental and Main streets, he put up a false front. It made all three look like one huge building.”
Laarveld, who moved to El Dorado in 1957, became “acquainted” with Seymour Hill as she sifted through the town’s old deeds.
“Hill, a local grocer, was well known for grubstaking many of the miners. During the Depression years of 1930-1940, Hill followed the common practice of allowing families to run tabs at his store. Times were hard and he helped many people put food on their tables,” explains Laarveld. “Hill held the deed of trust to his customers’ property as security. As the Depression wore on, a lot of the families moved away, turning their deeds over to Hill.”
Having acquired numerous pieces of property through this “lending practice,” Hill was often at the center of controversy in the town.
But those differences were laid to rest when fire ripped through El Dorado in September 1923.The Hill Hotel and Tavern survived the flames that devoured over half the town. “They say the townsfolk hosed that building down and saved it. I think that action speaks louder than any of the tales criticizing Hill,” Laarveld says. Fire finally caught up wit the Hill Hotel and Tavern in 1952, completely destroying it.
The father of outlaw Jesse James was rumored to have been buried in a cemetery located behind the old Federated Church. Both the church and the cemeteries disappearedto make way for an auto parts store in 1960.
Laarveld’s efforts to piece together El Dorado County’s colorful history are often hindered when resources literally disappear before her eyes. A postcard depicting the original Federated Church in Placerville evokes strong words from Laarveld.
“Not only did we lose the church, but we lost two cemeteries when the building was torn down in the 1960s to make way for an auto parts store.”
Laarveld mourns the loss of the City Pioneer and the Methodist/Episcopal cemeteries that were located on the hill behind the church. Headstones provide an invaluable starting point for her research.
“You can’t do historical research without genealogy and vice versa. There are so many leads to follow once you have a person’s name, date of birth and date of death. Learning how people lived, who they were, brings a place, a building, to life.”
Built in 1861, the Federated Church at the corner of Cedar Ravine and Main streets was a classic example of Victorian Gothic architecture. In the 30 years since the church was razed, the cemeteries have “disappeared into the hillside. A little farther up Cedar Ravine, you can still catch a glimpse of the remnants, but they’re basically lost,” claims Laarveld.
At the opposite end of town from the old Federated Church sat “one of the finest hotels in the Mother Lodethe Ohio House. It filled the entire block,” claims George McKee, a member of the El Dorado County Historical Society, “and had hot and cold running water in the rooms. After a fire in 1891, a power plant was installed to run electric lights. A three story annex was also added.”
Details of the Ohio House are vivid for McKee, who was born in 1908. “I remember my father telling the tale of how he took me into the hotel’s bar as a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, He sat me on the bar and they gave me a hankie filled with sugar to keep me happy.”
For almost ten years, the Ohio House was a part of the McKee family. McKee’s grandfather, George W. McKee, owned and operated the hotel from 1889 to 1898. During the younger McKee’s childhood, he recalls seeing the poplar trees shown in the worn postcard of the Ohio House.
“Those trees ran right along Main Street. I also remember that on the west end of the building, there was a garden with cast iron furniture, manicured lawns and shrubs. The Ohio House had a beautiful, large ballroom and dining room, too,” he recalls.
Placerville's Ohio House was one of the finest hotels to grace the Mother Lode at the turn of the century.
The glory days of the Ohio House ended when fire struck for the third time in June 1921. “Not only was the hotel lost, but the editor of the Georgetown Gazette, John C. Horn, died in the fire,” says Shirley Pont.
Pont, a member of the Heritage Association of El Dorado County, pulls out a news clipping from 1921 to corroborate the facts. Horn’s body was found on the third floor of the Ohio House. Apparently Horn was running from room, making sure that everyone escaped the fire, when he was overcome by smoke.
Although the corner of Sacramento and Main streets had “hosted first the Miner’s Hotel and then the Ohio House, the hotel was not rebuilt,” notes Marilyn Ferguson, another member of the Heritage Association. “The whole block is now a parking lot and a restaurant.”
Ferguson and Pont both murmur approving comments as they pour over the last postcard. Placerville’s Main Street, captured in a photograph taken between 1900 and 1910, has held up fairly well under the test of time. “Here’s Shafsky’s Department Store. You can see the words engraved on the front of the building,” Ferguson announces, pointing to a large building on the left. “Later, it became the Santa Rita Hotel. Now it’s an antique store.”
Catching sight of a familiar row of rooftops in the picture, Ferguson is pleased that so much of the town has survived. However, she worries that more needs to be done.
Museum Director Witcher echoes her concern. “Note how many of the buildings are gone,” he says as he flips through the museum’s albums of postcards. “This underscores the importance of people actively getting together to preserve what remains. Otherwise, all we’ll be left with is a museum, rather than the actual buildings were history was made.”
Although fires and progress have taken many of the county's historic sites, you can still catch a glimpse of downtown Placerville's historic beginnings along Main Street.